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Getting a handle on midlife crises Print E-mail

Saturday, 01 September 2012 00:00

Written by Elaine Sihera

In real terms, the transition to mid-life is gradual. There are no major landmarks or signals to one's entry into this new and uncharted domain.   

Personal perception becomes more important than actual age at this time of transition because a person's feelings about his/her life are more significant than any chronological timetable. It is a period marked by stress for some, by constraints for others and by freedom for the remainder. For men, health and job concerns may dominate. Near the peak of their careers, men are likely to view the encroachment of age and change with much fear. Perhaps that is why there is the public reassurance that 'life begins at 40', even though nothing of any significance actually happens on one's 40th birthday! However, the start of another decade does provide a visible symbol of a gradual ageing and maturing process with the promise of more excitement to come.

People normally change very slowly so it usually takes a crisis to change them radically. A crisis is a major or drastic unexpected event in our life, such as bereavement, warfare, divorce or a new direction in career or lifestyle. A transition is a minor change like remaining married but changing the nature of the relationship, or the changing culture of work to alter our outlook and attitude to life. However, a minor transition period is likely to be seen as a crisis if there is failure in the personal timetable we have set ourselves, like no promotion, if one was anticipated, a marriage in trouble, or no children, if they were expected. The only certainty here is that any event at this time becomes a milestone that pushes our life into sharp relief, forcing us to face the unpleasant fact that our main dream is not going to be realised.

For example, it may be that a man is the chairman of a very successful company, but still feels a failure because his dream was to get a peerage, to go to the House of Lords. Or someone very athletic, who runs local marathons, may feel unfulfilled because his dream was to represent the US. Or a top saleswoman may feel inadequate because she wanted a family and cannot have kids. Those secret dreams all represent yardsticks of success which act as personal markers to our progress and loom large the moment we feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled.

New Roles and Responsibilities Dealing successfully with this stage of our life really depends on our internal aspirations and sense of fulfilment. Regardless of the achievement, the main concern will relate to which of our personal dreams are likely to remain just that: unfulfilled dreams. Of course, there is no certainty that one is never going to be famous or a millionaire, but, if these things have not yet occurred within the preferred time frame, all seems lost at this stage. Thus the type of choices we make at this time will determine if we are in a mid-life crisis or a mid-life transition.

Mid-life transition involves adapting to new roles and responsibilities, but with less self-confidence, as a direct consequence of this new self-awareness. Learning about the self always carries with it a realisation of the ways in which one is inadequate or immature. This is usually a painful and deeply personal process which involves some form of self-shame and which totally excludes others. Relationships tend to take the brunt of this angst because there is a strong desire to jettison the old life and 'start over' again, especially with new, exciting partners who are often perceived to be more encouraging and understanding. This state immediately changes perceptions, behaviour and the dynamics of any relationship, especially if the other party is unaware of the causes but can clearly see the symptoms reflected in the changed behaviour or a state of denial.


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