“Maybe the truest difference between people is exactly this: how they see why they are hear.” David Mitchell, number9dream
The career tasks of early adulthood are well documented and recognised, even if they have become increasingly protracted and challenging. Most of us want to establish ourselves in a profession or trade, earn enough money to make a home and often support a family, and then begin to progress along the well worn tracks of career progression and increased material possessions. Key moments – leaving home, graduation, marriage, childbirth, property ownership, promotions – are well recognised and celebrated. All of these tasks contribute to the formation of a stable, adult identity and a sense of purpose.
But the tasks of mid-life are less well defined. Donald Super described mid-life as “maintenance”, a term that suggests we simply tread water in the place at which we have arrived. This may seem to be true for some people, but it is certainly not the whole story.
The developmental tasks of mid-life (for those who choose to engage rather than tread water) are often more creative or spiritual in nature. Whilst the mid-life crisis can manifest as a middle aged man on a motorbike, it is just as likely to show up as as a period of stress-related sickness or burnout from work, caused by the realisation that we can no longer bear to do work that takes us so far from our true selves. This period of introspection may be needed to give space to re-evaluate priorities.
Carl Jung describes how, by mid-life, we outgrow the persona that we created in early adulthood. This persona can most easily be observed through looking at out material possessions, career, achievements, family roles and relationships. He believed that this persona no longer serves us in mid and later life, and we need to return to whatever lies beneath the persona we have created. This may be a more authentic self that is less concerned with pleasing others or fitting into society.
Whitemore and Einzig describe a “yearning ingrained in the human psyche for something beyond the personal, beyond the material and everyday” in their essay on transpersonal coaching and it may be this yearning that comes to the fore in midlife. We inevitably more aware of our own mortality as we start to go to more funerals, watch our parents decline, and experience our own age related health issues. Perimenopause and menopause are a clear sign for women that they are passing into a new stage of life and may need to prioritise self-care. This changing of the seasons often prompts reflection over how best to use the time that is left.
With this awareness that life is short and finite, we may realise that we no longer want to spend it on the “shoulds”, rushing around to meet other people’s needs or jumping to some organisation’s tune. Material possessions, achievements and promotions may feel hollow as they do not generate the happiness we were promised (and besides, they may be increasingly hard to come by).
We may find ourselves craving the time and space to just be ourselves, please ourselves and express our selves. We sense that under all the layers of conditioning, created by meeting the expectations of others, and all the the learned habitual ways of responding, there is another more authentic self just waiting to be discovered.
There may be a gradual change, as we start to let go of our egos and learn to simply enjoy the present. Perhaps we let go of competitiveness and embrace cooperation with our colleagues or take pleasure in mentoring the next generation. Maybe we find ways to be more creative at work, and get less bogged down in administration. Perhaps we learn to be grateful for what we do have rather than striving for things we don’t have. Maybe we learn to tap into our intuitive wisdom, honed through years of experience, instead of analysing every decision. Same job, different approach.
For many people though, there is a more significant crisis point which leads to a wholesale reevaluation of values and priorities. The old job no longer feels tenable, once we become aware of our own values and needs. This may result in a complete change in direction, a move towards self-employment, or downsizing into part-time or lower stress work. The moment of crisis may be painful and frightening, as we cling to the known and fear stepping out of our comfort zones. We are attached to the things we know, even as we experience aversion to many aspects of the work.
This dark night of the soul is portrayed in the Bhagavad Gita, with Arjuna having a crisis of purpose just as he is about to go into battle. Krishna counsels him to let go of his ego-based fears and attachments and to follow his dharma, or the path that is his, without attachment to the results of his labour. His life’s purpose is to win the battle, even if it is unpleasant, to ensure a better future for his country. Of course, our life purpose may not be so dramatic, but it can feel like an internal battle for meaning.
However the changing priorities of mid-life manifest, we are often looking for opportunities to get in touch with our authentic selves, to speak our own truth, to connect with others in a new way, and to create something meaningful, whether that is a garden, a friendship, a book, a craft, a social change or a charity fund raiser.
Anodea Judith, in Eastern Body Western Mind discusses the link between the chakras of the throat and third eye, associated with communication and wisdom, and the need in middle age to speak our authentic truth and get in touch with our intuitive wisdom. In order to find balance, we also need to be firmly grounded in the present, with a strong sense of our roots.
To find the authentic self, we need to create enough quiet space in our lives to listen to ourselves and still the chatter thaT fills our minds. Quiet space can come from yoga, meditation, prayer, gardening, running, dog walking, crafting, writing, fishing, painting or many other of the pursuits that often become popular in middle age. The tasks are to find ways to follow our intuition, express our truths and let go of ego. We spent the early part of our lives shoring up or sense of self with achievements and possessions, but now it is time to let go of this ego self and embrace our connection to the universe.
Maybe it is time to recognise and celebrate the these more introspective tasks, rather than righting off middle age as a time of stagnation, and to encourage those in midlife to find new ways of being rather than maintaining the status quo.