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The Richness of Middle Age

Growing up has no expiration date.

Key points

  • Growth and change are not always linear and adult development is ongoing and continuous.
  • Midlife is a pivotal and fertile time of life.
  • How we age is influenced by a dynamic interchange between our biology, personal histories and cultural narratives.
  • Therapy is a future prospect and it's always time to ask "who will I be when I grow-up?"
At 55, Gail started therapy with the question, “Who do I want to be when I grow-up?”
Source: Shutterstock

At 55, Gail started therapy with the question, "Who do I want to be when I grow-up?"

Can we take a moment to think about this?

What does it mean to be a grown-up?

Do we progress on a singular path towards a final destination? Is grown-up an outcome that once accomplished, means we are all set? How long are we set for? Or does midlife mean it’s time to fasten our seat belt for the inevitable decline and descent?

These are questions Gail wanted to figure out.

For decades, developmental psychologists have divided our lives into stages, each with predetermined tasks and goals. Our lifetimes have been chunked into parts: infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, old age. However, there does seem to be a gap starting around 50. It’s as if a veil descends and our destination becomes blurred in the middle years. Yet this is a large passage of life, perhaps even the largest.

For years, the midlife stage rarely caught the interest or attention of researchers or psychotherapists. For others, psychological treatment of middle-aged adults meant processing regrets, mourning loss, and preparing for more loss. Planning for retirement, downsizing, winding down are the usual goals. There isn’t a lot of future making in this scenario.

Actually, Freud believed analysis was useless for a person beyond the age of 40. His conviction was based on the myth that the brain and personality were fixed and unmalleable beyond young adulthood. And as for women, Freud was ruthless. His described the menopausal woman as one who “abandons their genital function.” He used words like deteriorating, petty, miserly and sadistic to describe their personality.

We have evolved since Freud, but some of the reductionist winding down and negative stories continue to serve as subtext to our aging expectations and perceptions. We mindlessly use words like decline, downhill, washed up, invisible, outdated and even retired to indicate a certain direction of our life plot.

Perhaps you may think, “Well, It’s true, isn’t it?” The inevitable slide is a given, so shouldn’t we just embrace it?” Or maybe you go the alternative route and have committed to the aging boycott and joined the anti-aging crowd. “Not me, never.”

What other options are there for us?

This is something Gail wanted to know.

Luckily there is another viewpoint to consider.

Life Span Theory

Life Span Theory offers us an idea of development that is an ongoing and continuous. With life span theory, we are never fixed or set. Instead, we keep developing and becoming. Adulthood is not something that occurs in a linear “one chance to get it right” fashion. And aging isn’t just a descent into oblivion.

Let’s consider this perspective by looking at four intriguing facets of life span thinking:

Growing up is a temporal art form where the past, present and future participate simultaneously.

Every story and every life at any moment has a past, present and future that meet in a temporal, imaginal realm and are reviewed, reformed and created.

The past is malleable and in service of the present and future. The future is in response to the past and reveals our potential as creators, inventors, craftsmen of our lives. Memory’s function is to assist the future, to protect us, remind us and guide us. Memory is malleable, it is not fixed and we are not destined to repeat, but instead gifted with the capacity to learn and evolve. Our lives are stories, novels, fictions being written into real, embodied living.

Gail began a process of imaging her next grown-up self. As she created her future self, she met up with parts of her past selves that she had forgotten or left behind. She began an artful process of revising the past and weaving her new path with goals and dreams. Her sense of herself, past, present and future, began to evolve into rich possibility. “Growing up” had a depth that Gail hadn’t expected.

Middle Age is Dynamic and Ever-Changing

Researcher Ursula Staudinger describes aging as a process that interacts within a three-tiered model that includes our biology, personality and cultural context. At any point in our lives one or more of these systems can be altered by the other, creating new and different pathways for growth.

Growing up is a dynamic experience. New learning impacts the brain and body. Traumatic experiences and healing processes alter the expression of our DNA. Individual personalities impact cultural narratives. Bodies felt and seen differently provide new personal stories. Shared stories emerge into new contextual possibilities.

In this way we are all participants in an ongoing development that makes aging active, not static and never fixed.

Gail became invigorated by the notion of plasticity. She embraced new learning, actually went back to school to study regenerative farming. Like the plants she grew, she saw how her own person could be regenerative. Nature pointed her to the plasticity she now recognized in her own trajectory.

Growing up is not a passive event, but an active and purposeful endeavor.

While we may all meet with loss, disability, decline and eventually death, this does not have to be a one-way, dreaded trip.

Recent research by MIDUS (Midlife in the US) illustrates that midlife presents fertile ground for neurogenesis (growing new brain cells) and renewed well-being. Individuals who were scored high on measurements of physical and mental well-being reported a sense of purpose and overall self-mastery.

While we have some work to do as a society to adjust our expectations and provide opportunities for purposeful participation beyond midlife, it is good to know that if we build a more suitable foundation with meaningful roles and opportunities for generative leadership, we can enliven and enrich our growing up. Perhaps we can even become a resource for society.

Change is the way of life. And the middle is always the most potent.

Like it or not, we are a part of nature. And nature is ever changing, never staying the same. This process can be challenging for most of us. Perhaps this is a reason we hold on to the idea that there is a grown-up peak to achieve, where nothing changes and we get to stay the same. Perhaps the happily ever after narrative is an answer to our fears of uncertainty.

Those of us in middle age are dwelling within the broadest and perhaps deepest stage of our life. Psychologist Margie Lachman calls middle age a “pivotal period” because we are often simultaneously responsible for the young and the old, and find ourselves in a time of great transition, not unlike the adolescent years, when the body, mind, and emotions all transform at once.

But being in the middle is a grand place to be. It’s the best part of a good story. That time of suspense when we don’t know what’s coming next.

With life span theory we are always in the middle. Always becoming.

Maybe growing up isn’t a destination, but a way of being. An active process of letting go and moving on.

So, Gail’s question is a pertinent one.

Midlife is the perfect to ask “Who else am I going to be as I grow up?