So you’re cruising through life, and everything seems to be going well. The career is great, the family is good and then one day you get the distinct feeling that everything and nothing in your life is wrong, all at the same time. You can’t quite name the feeling, but it’s a kind of discontent that throws you off your game leaving you unfocused and unsure about your future. Of course, you feel guilty about having these feelings because you should be grateful that life is as good as it is right now, and you are. It’s just that you can’t shake the restlessness that’s telling you something is off, something’s missing.
Beyond the Cliché
In 1965, Canadian psychologist, Elliott Jacques, started seeing a lot of men in their 50s expressing fears of aging. Many were concerned that they’d missed their true calling in life, while others regretted goals from their younger years that they’d never accomplished. It was very common for the men to pine over lost relationships from their youth, and nearly all of them were convinced it was too late to fix any of it. It was these kinds of feelings happening in middle age that Elliot Jacques first defined as a midlife crisis. No, this has nothing to do with the media-created cliché of a middle-aged man buying a sports car, leaving his wife, shacking up with a woman twenty years younger, and trying to recapture his youth.
Some of the misconceptions about the midlife crisis come from the term itself. The word crisis implies that there is a big emergency happening right now with lots of drama. In fact, the opposite is true. The symptoms of a midlife crisis usually creep up on us so gradually that most of us don’t even notice it until we wake up one day and our lives just seem sort of gray.
It might be more accurate to call it a midlife malaise than a crisis. Although there are lots of factors that create a different experience for each person, the main issues include:
- A general unhappiness with a life that used to satisfy you
- Unexplained feelings of lethargy, boredom or depression, a lack of motivation to pursue your goals, your fire is gone
- Difficulty making decisions about your direction in life
- Lots of reminiscing about the good old days, checking up on long lost friends and old boyfriends or girlfriends on social media
- Questioning past decisions
- An obsession with youthfulness or exercise
- Constantly comparing yourself to your friends
- Thoughts of death and dying
The word crisis comes from the Greek krisis which means judgment or decision and is further derived from krinein which means to separate, to decide. At some point in midlife, our 40s through 50s, most of us will be called upon to make certain decisions about the purpose and direction of our lives that will separate the second half from the first half in distinct ways.
Contentment, Not Crisis
It’s estimated that 10% to 12% of men experience a classic midlife crisis, although these numbers likely account for men with heightened symptoms and who are usually seeing a therapist. Considering how subtle and universal the symptoms can be, I’m inclined to believe the average is higher, and it isn’t traditionally just a man’s problem either. A study from Cornell University showed 34% of men and 36% of women reported a difficult midlife transition. How many of us have gotten up to go to work one morning after being in the same career for 25 years and asked ourselves, “So this is it? This is all there is to life?” You don’t have to be seeing a therapist to be struggling with personal fulfillment issues and the direction your life has taken.
The key to navigating through a midlife crisis is to understand what it really is, a search for more meaning and purpose in your life. It’s not a single event, but a time of transition and growth.
Now that you’re established in your career and the kids are grown and maybe out of the house, your discontent is calling you back into dreams you’ve not yet lived. The focus of your life is shifting from taking care of others to feeding your soul and awakening creative desires you put on hold while you secured a home and raised a family. Those pangs of restlessness are actually pulling you back into alignment with who you really are. This is a time of creating true contentment, not crisis.
The midlife crisis is unique because for the first time we consciously realize that we have the power to redirect our lives and reinvent ourselves with more freedom and possibilities than we enjoyed in our younger years. When that light bulb goes on and the yearning for something more begins, we can make some big mistakes if we don’t understand what a midlife crisis is and how to handle it properly.
The first pitfall is to misinterpret the need for more meaning in life with a need for more pleasure. These are the red sports car lotharios who date women half their age that turn into the midlife crisis cliché. They use lots and lots of pleasure to temporarily mask their discontent, usually ending up feeling just as empty and directionless as when they started.
The second mistake is made by people who know they need to change their lives but do nothing to make that happen. They’re completely immobilized because they don’t know what to do or how to do it. They’re overwhelmed by the fact that they finally have the freedom to choose their own path.
The third mistake people tend to make is to hit the eject button and immediately exit their current lives. They quit everything including their jobs, friends and sometimes their marriages. With no forethought or pre-planning, these people often struggle for years to put their personal, professional and financial lives back together again.
Finding Your New Direction
Once you understand that your midlife crisis is a good thing that’s guiding you into a more fulfilling life, you can take the necessary steps to begin finding that new path. Explore old hobbies and passions. See how they could be incorporated back into your life or how you might make a new career out of them. After living a certain routine for 20 or 30 years, some people think they have no passions anymore. A good way to begin finding a new passionate direction is to ask people close to you in what activities and situations they’ve seen you most alive. When they tell you, trust them and explore more of those things.
Lots of people work for companies that have mission statements. Every decision by the company is made to support that purpose. To move your life in a new direction, it can be helpful to make your own mission statement. When you do this, decision-making becomes easier because you can ask yourself whether a certain choice moves you closer to or further away from your mission. A good mission statement should include what values you want to operate by, what it is that you’ve chosen to do and why you’re doing it. For example, maybe you’ve always loved working with flowers and now feel like you could turn it into a side business. Your new mission statement might sound something like this: With creativity and compassion, I use flowers and plants to bring joy and comfort to others so important moments in their lives can be lived with greater love, deeper peace, and lasting memories.
Midlife can sometimes feel like climbing the ladder to your dreams only to realize once you get to the top, you leaned it against the wrong building. Suddenly, the life you’re living looks nothing like the life you planned. All sorts of regrets can run through your mind. I wish I’d gone to college. Why didn’t I start my own business when I had the chance? If only I’d pursued my passion as my career. I wish I’d worked harder to save my marriage. I let the love of my life slip away.
The purpose of life isn’t to have no regrets. Be thankful you can experience regret; otherwise you’d be a sociopath. The purpose of life is to learn, mostly from our mistakes, and start again with new information in a more intelligent way.
So in reality we could say there are no real mistakes, just more information. Thomas Edison famously said that he didn’t build 1,000 failed inventions on his way to creating the light bulb, but that the process of creating the light bulb had 1,000 steps. Embracing the F-word, failure, helps us recognize our mistakes as gifts and use them to move forward into success without beating ourselves up with regret. We do that by asking ourselves, what have I learned from this experience, how am I a better or wiser person because of it and what will I do differently now?
Peace with the Past
Looking back on our lives, we can be pretty hard on ourselves with all the I could have’s and I should have’s. Part of dissolving the grief that comes with regret is letting go of the false idea that somehow we should have known better. Somehow we should have had a crystal ball, seen all the options with absolute clarity and made the perfect choice. It’s unfair and even absurd to take an event from the distant past and judge your actions from the knowledge you have now. It makes no sense to retro-shame yourself because the person that made those choices is a completely different human being than the one you are today. At least I hope you’re a different person than when you were 25 or 35. I know I am. You would never expect someone in his or her 20s or 30s to be as world-wise and self-aware as someone well over 50. So don’t expect it of yourself, either.
Letting go of regret means making peace with the fact that the past could have been any different based on the amount of knowledge and self-awareness you had at that point in time.
We’re all doing the best we can with the amount of information we have available to us in any given moment. If you could have done better, you would have. It’s that simple, so stop beating yourself up. Whether big or small, everyone has regrets, and the only way to use them to improve your life is to not hate yourself for having them.
It’s Too Late
Besides guilt and grief, the other aspect of regret that makes it so painful in midlife is the idea that it’s too late. Too many years have passed and there isn’t enough time to go after what you really want or opportunities you missed. One of the biggest ways we convince ourselves it’s too late is by believing we’re too old to go after what we want. That’s nonsense.
There’s an old English proverb that says, “A man is not old until his dreams become his regrets.” Aging is unavoidable, but it’s not the same as getting old. People get old when they give up and stop living because they give in to the lie that it’s too late. The best way to escape getting old is to see all your mistakes as information to make another choice. That way, you have no real regrets and can use what you learn to keep dreaming new dreams and going after them.
So in reality, your life experience doesn’t emerge from your physical body or chronological age. It comes largely from your state of mind and the choices you make from that perspective. We fall prey to regret when we let the world define what success means for us. The great thing about midlife is that we finally get the courage to stop caring about what other people think. So take a risk to make a new dream and pursue it. It’s only too late if you think it is. After all, the only way to get the best fruit is to go out on a limb.
Lessons on Living from the Dying
Another great way to neutralize regret and help reset your priorities in midlife is to look at the difference between the regrets of the living and the regrets of the dying. According to Psychology Today, when categorized, the majority of regrets healthy people have are about education. These are followed by regrets about careers, romantic relationships and then parenting choices.
For the dying, regrets are more fundamental and larger in scope. They don’t involve single events or lost opportunities, but instead focus on the way life is lived. Bronnie Ware is a palliative care nurse who treated hundreds of dying patients and wrote a book about her experience, The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing. According to Ware, the most common regrets expressed to her by dying patients were:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish I’d let myself be happier.
With this in mind, it might be a little easier to let go of individual regrets and focus more on the overall quality of our lives from this point forward. When we do that, we find a lot more to be thankful for, not to mention the opportunity to redefine who we are and what we’re about with better choices through hard-won wisdom.
The Point of Power
Always remember to act on what you’ve learned. The past is gone; it has no power over you and never did. The point of power is always in the present moment because that’s the only place you get to make choices. Remember, it’s much easier to reconcile the regret of things you did rather than things you didn’t do. So forgive yourself, make a bold choice and move forward. No regrets.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.