Coping With a Midlife Crisis
Managing Milestones and Transitions
Middle age is that time of life when we hear two voices calling us. One saying, "Why not?" And the other, "Why bother?"– Sydney J. Harris, American journalist (1917-1986)
A midlife crisis is often dismissed as an inconsequential, almost ridiculous, state of affairs.
It's become a cliché of middle-aged men with badly dyed hair in too-tight jeans driving sports cars – all to impress women half their age.
But many men – and women – do hit a stage of life when they realize that time may have caught up with them, and that they may no longer be in their prime. As a result, they can suffer a crisis of confidence that impacts their lives and careers.
In this article, we explore the signs and symptoms of a midlife crisis, and look at strategies for overcoming it.
What Is a Midlife Crisis?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a midlife crisis as, "A period of emotional turmoil in middle age characterized especially by a strong desire for change."
People respond to a midlife crisis in different ways, but it typically involves a change in the way that they act and feel, and in their attitude to life. It can happen at any time and can last for several years.
The term "midlife crisis" reflects the negative aspects of change. The phenomenon is also known as:
- Midlife transition.
- Quest for identity.
- The change of life.
- Empty nest syndrome.
- Identity review, or identity assessment.
The phrase that you choose to describe it is less important than your strategy for coping with it. But it's worth pausing to think about whether a transition needs to be a "crisis," or if it's simply part of coming to terms with a change in your life.
Psychologists define midlife as the years between 30 and 70, with 40 to 60 at its core. And with almost 105 million people aged between 35 and 59 in the U.S. in 2018, huge numbers of both men and women will likely experience a midlife crisis.
The link between midlife and unhappiness is backed up by research published in January 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The NBER study suggests that "middle age misery" peaks at age 47.2.
What Causes a Midlife Crisis?
A midlife crisis can be triggered by a significant life event, often one that reminds us of our age, and tells us that we're "past our best," or that time is running out. The main causes are linked to, but not exclusively caused by, one or more of these six life changes:
- Awareness of aging and mortality: it could be your first pair of reading glasses, hair loss, the onset of menopause, or the death of a peer.
- A health scare: in December 2016, a U.K. government health agency highlighted the health risks facing England's sandwich generation.
- A feeling of "going nowhere" in your career.
- The end of (or lack of) a meaningful relationship in your life (such as a divorce).
- Children becoming more independent or leaving home.
- Regrets regarding your life goals and achievements.
The jolt of a major event can force us to reflect on what we've achieved in our lives and – more importantly – what we haven't. This can make us feel disappointed and full of regrets, and prompt us to change our lives dramatically, to try to recapture our youth or gain a sense of fulfillment.
A midlife crisis can be confused with a mid-career slump, but the former can be caused by more wide-ranging reasons, often unrelated to employment. If you're managing a team member who is going through a career slump, read our article, here.
Midlife Crisis Symptoms
Because midlife crises can affect people in different ways, there's no simple checklist of behaviors. However, certain signs do seem common, such as dramatic changes in habits or mood swings, feelings of anger or anxiety, emotional outbursts, or impulsive decision making and risk taking.
A previously energetic and happy team member may have stopped enjoying the activities that they used to do. They may have started comparing themselves unfavorably to others, or talking about making major changes in their life or career. This may be accompanied by a loss of confidence or focus.
Other warning signs might include a colleague saying that they want to "get away from it all." They may feel trapped in their role or life, and ask, "Is this it?" They may become obsessed with their appearance or health, talk about their past with regret, or change their spending habits to focus on fun and excitement.
How to Deal With a Midlife Crisis
Getting through a midlife crisis is a challenge, but it is something that you can deal with and overcome. Here, we explore four strategies for coping with this difficult stage of life.
1. Talk to Someone
Don't bottle up your feelings. Confide in someone you trust, such as a friend or partner, your doctor, a trained counselor, a life coach, or a therapist.
Some of the signs of a midlife crisis – losing interest in activities that you used to enjoy, feeling pessimistic or hopeless, and, in extreme cases, having suicidal thoughts – are also symptoms of depression, and ignoring them could have serious implications for your health.
Alternatively, keeping a journal can help you to make sense of your thoughts and feelings, and it can help you to understand any stresses in your life and career.
2. Reframe Your Situation
We tend to look back at our youth as the "good old days," and forget the challenges and difficulties that we faced then.
But there are many positives to getting older, such as wisdom, experience and security. So, rather than saying, "My best days are behind me," ask yourself, "What do I want to change?" Use rational thinking to challenge any negative thoughts, and focus on what you still want out of life, rather than what you've lost. "Count your blessings" and think about things that you are grateful for.
Now that you're feeling stronger, have another look at your unfulfilled ambitions. Is it really too late to achieve them? Consider this time as an awakening, and as your chance to reassess your life and to make changes for the better.
3. Do a Life Audit
You may be feeling painfully dissatisfied right now, and want to make some dramatic changes before it's seemingly too late. But, before you do, it's worth thoroughly brainstorming what's working in your life, as well as what isn't.
Use this time as an opportunity to re-examine your values and sense of purpose. Don't judge your situation on others' expectations or compare it to other people's – they probably have their own doubts and insecurities.
Think about the times when you felt happiest, proudest and most fulfilled in your career and personal life. Are you still living your life in accordance with the values that inspired those experiences? If not, what changes can you make to turn things around?
4. Set New Goals
The goals you once had – to buy a house, to climb the career ladder, or to have a family – may no longer be relevant or as important to you as they once were. If so, it's time to reassess what you want from life, and to align these goals with the values that you've just identified. For example, you may want to learn a new skill or language, or get involved in charity or community work.
You may be tempted to think, "What's the point at my age?" But if not now, then when? Our article, Personal Goal Setting, can help you to identify new goals, and it will show you how to find the motivation to achieve them.
Helping a Team Member Through a Midlife Crisis
As a manager, what can you do if you believe that a team member is experiencing a midlife crisis?
For a start, be supportive. Don't dismiss it as "just a phase" or something to treat lightly. Talk to them privately about the situation, using Empathic Listening to get a deeper understanding.
You can help them to rediscover meaning in their role. Our article, Helping Your People Find Purpose in Their Work, outlines a five-step process for doing this. You can also help them to identify new challenges that might interest them.
However, if their performance is suffering, you should take steps to address that. You can be tactful and understanding, but be clear about what actions or behaviors are unacceptable, and explain what impact they are having on the team. You can then work together to improve the situation.
"Midlife crisis" is an often trivialized term that describes a major transition of identity and self-confidence in middle age. It is often triggered by a significant life event, such as children leaving home or a health scare.
It affects both men and women, and leads to feelings and behaviors that reflect a desire to recapture lost youth, or to realize neglected dreams and ambitions.
You can take four steps to overcome your midlife crisis: talking to someone you trust, reframing your situation, carrying out a life audit, and setting new goals.
If you're managing someone who's showing these signs, try to strike the right balance between being empathic and addressing any negative behavior directly.
Be sure to face up to the situation and handle it well, and you'll soon discover that a midlife crisis needn't be a "crisis" at all. Instead, it can be an opportunity for significant, positive change.
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