Developmental change throughout life makes considerations of a “life cycle” both reasonable and informative. Labeling, however, is fraught with problems since labels add to understanding but, if too rigidly held, constrain further examination.
One model of “life cycle” sees it as three dynamic eras with a pivot point in the middle era. Thus, midlife is preceded by adolescence and followed by older age. The midlife crisis has been a “face value” phenomenon for generations. It has only been formalized in the scholarly literature for the last fifty years.
Two decades ago, however, the actual occurrence of a midlife crisis was questioned. This indecision about traditionally regarded "life crises" played out many years ago when the “adolescent crisis” first recognized as a period of “Sturm und drug” (storm and turmoil) in the nineteenth century was refuted by twentieth century statistical assessments. Thus, when the adolescent crisis was deemed fictional, the midlife crisis was also assumed to have a mythological coloring. Recognition of “older age” as a distinct era, however, is unambiguous.
Adolescent crisis, midlife crisis, and the crisis of older age are fractal dimensions of one another. All have primary genetic continuity with the biomental experiences of infancy through childhood. There are many physiological and anatomical changes in each developmental era accompanied by characteristic psychological and behavioral distinctions.
Midlife crisis refers to the variable midpoint between birth and death for both men and women, spanning ages thirty-five to forty-five. This life transition is defined as a crisis because an array of conflicts peak, linger, and are sensed as emergencies. These problems are characterized by instability, danger, impending disruption, and confusion about effective decision making. This differentiates a crisis from the severe stress of trauma, which is a much more circumscribed event. A trauma by contrast is unexpected, extraordinary, and overwhelming. It is perceived to be and often is, an objectively violent and destructive event. Traumas result in injuries that leave the traumatized individual feeling numb, helpless, and cognitively “out of commission.”
Characteristic experiences associated with a midlife crisis include serious and lingering feelings with regard to acute awareness of one’s own mortality showed by more frequent illness, pain, the signs of aging, and possibly the death of one’s parents, or peers. In addition, hints of imminent frailness are evoked by less strength, vigor, and more fatigue. A diminishment of the enthusiasm so vigorously felt in the earlier years of young adulthood becomes prominent. Often, having one’s own children leave home signals a qualitative shift in one’s daily routine.
The midlife crisis often brings with it a pensive stance. Reflecting on one’s earlier aspirations, life goals, dreams, accomplishments, and unrealized achievements come to the fore. Work, occupation, life roles, and relationships undergo reassessment. The very loss of youth and youthful enthusiasm become a stark awakening as one looks in the mirror or a photo to find someone who appears strikingly unlike the implicit mental image held about the self for years.
When the midlife crisis is significant, a depressive episode, although not necessarily a “clinical” depression, occurs. Such a midlife depressive constellation takes shape based on one’s temperament, defenses, and coping mechanisms. Although anxiety is always present, other emotions may become under- or over-stressed: sadness, grief, sorrow, remorse, guilt, resentment, disbelief, or denial.
This inevitable depressive episode, rather than being a misfortunate development, is, in fact, a natural opportunity for advancement. If the process is thoughtfully considered, reconsidered, and given the executive planning needed—“action-oriented short and longer-term problem solving”—midlife crisis can become a productive opportunity.
Working through the cognitive and emotional components is both reparative and salutary. Anxiety becomes more manageable. Dedicated periods may be needed to organize and reorganize the components of one’s lifecycle. Reworking over time helps refine and further stabilize deeper appreciation, understanding, and merged implementation. Self-reflection and psychotherapy are useful tools.
What is the role of envy in considerations of the midlife crisis?
Envy’s mechanisms always involve an automatic splitting into polar extremes: idealization and devaluation. These evaluations dynamically shift and create confusion.
What had occurred before midlife becomes idealized and mourned; what is about to happen in older age is devalued as a "downhill" journey.
A major split in viewing one’s own lifecycle typically yields a positive “before” and a negative “after.” Even the term “crisis” suggests that in each era stability is challenged and trauma implied.
Attitudes characteristic of envy are “neuroticism,” pessimism, devaluation, lack of motivation, feelings of meaninglessness, resentment, bitterness, and so forth. They are interspersed at all points in attempts at negotiating dynamic reconciliations of the midlife crisis. Envy’s negative evaluations are always self-sabotaging if not recognized and checked.
Midlife Transition as Opportunity for Further Transformation
A healthy perspective in lifecycle considerations is awareness of the reality of change, transition, and opportunities for advancement. Perhaps, the very reframing of the term “midlife crisis” to midlife transition is a first step toward reconfiguring a mindset from harsh splitting toward gradual transformation.
Acting on these realizations with pause, poise, and persistence brings a refinement to one’s emotional, cognitive, and spiritual/existential self. Relationships with others, society, and culture takes on new meaning. Midlife crisis now is experienced as a midlife transition. This becomes an expectant transition to new adventures, new hopes, and new dreams.