A 38-year-old man wakes up to his 5:45 AM alarm with a frown on his face. He puts on his three-piece suit and red business tie the same way he's been doing it for the last ten years and heads off to the job he hates. He repeats, repeats, and repeats, until one day, shortly after his father's passing, he quits his job and buys a shiny new red convertible to drive cross country in search of adventure.
Have you heard this before? This is the stereotypical story that most people think of when they hear the term "midlife crisis." In reality, the experiences people have will manifest in countless different ways (there is no stereotype), but the underlying feelings are usually the same: Fear, confusion, anxiety, and a topsy-turvy feeling as if the world was turned upside down.
Of course, there are some experts who deny that the midlife crisis exists. Others believe that it is a natural and inevitable part of life. For the people who are currently experiencing a "midlife crisis," it does not really matter what "experts" believe. The only thing that is important are the lessons learned from it, which hopefully my personal story can help with.
While I may not have experienced a midlife crisis per say, I certainly felt a strong push towards change. As my husband and I approached 40, we noticed more gray hairs, extra weight, wrinkles, and we needed longer arms to read well. It was a time of disassembling. It was also a time for "seeing the light" and for renewal.
During the course of our early 40's, we reassessed our careers and what we liked to do. We took up Karate and achieved brown belts. We opened up a country store in the Appalachian Mountains where we did more social work than ever before. We followed our dreams.
At 42, I went back to school. Almost everyone in my class was in their 20's and looked like teenagers. They pulled all nighters to study and it seemed like everything came so much easier for them than for me. However, I stuck with it and eventually earned my Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.
Midlife was a time when every unresolved loose end of our lives rose up to the forefront. Every suppressed thought, feeling, or action, confronted us now. Buried parts of our past demanded to be heard. We found ourselves face to face with those traits that, in our youth, we called our faults or darker side. It was initially disconcerting. However, we began to see the value of those long forgotten pieces.
In the search for ourselves, we disassembled the people that we had become in order to please parents, grandparents, and children. We now reassembled ourselves and included all the parts, previously wanted or unwanted. The new, reassembled people were much more than the old ones could ever hope to be, wiser, more stable, more skilled, more humble, and with more to offer. With this acceptance of the good, the bad, and the ugly, the weight of the world was lifted off our shoulders.
From my professional experience (specializing in family trauma) and personal experience, I believe that midlife is often primed for varying levels of chaos and astonishing transitions. Without fail, people refer to you as "sir" or "ma'am" in the checkout line. Your parents are getting older which brings the topic of mortality to a personal level never realized before. Kids "grow up" and leave for college. You witness that life is moving faster every day and that there is only "X" number of years left to reach your dreams. You are forced to see what truly matters.
With all this barreling down on us, the key is to look for the clues that you are being given. Deep down inside, you know what you need, you know who you are, you just have to listen carefully and follow the instructions. Think of midlife as a roller coaster ride: If unwanted or forced on to the ride, it can be extremely scary or chaotic. But if you're willing to get on, strap yourself in, and embrace the twists and turns, the adventurous feelings that result will help you create your greatest self and realize the full potential of who you can be.
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–Dr. Kathy Seifert