How To Turn A Midlife Crisis Into A Learning Opportunity
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante
The cliché of the male midlife crisis is as familiar as it is cringeworthy. But many years before unfulfilled men first started buying themselves Harley-Davidsons, or conducting ill-advised affairs via Tinder, wise minds understood that adulthood often reaches a crossroads halfway through. (Dante’s Divine Comedy, which can be read as a memoir of midlife meltdown, dates from the 14th century.) The good news is that whether it takes the form of a full-blown breakdown, or just the creeping sense that life has lost its vitality, this sort of crisis is also an opportunity to, in the words of psychotherapist Dr James Hollis, “finally, really grow up”. And to equip yourself for the next, potentially much more enriching, chapter of life. Here are some guidelines for navigating the journey.
01. Know the signs
If severe depression strikes, you won’t be able to ignore it. But a midlife crisis is often more a matter of gradually losing enthusiasm – and not necessarily because life didn’t work out as you’d planned, but maybe because it did. “I felt trapped by what I’d achieved,” says Professor Kieran Setiya, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who rose fast through academia. “I’d been driven by ambition, to the point of getting this career I’d really wanted and I’d been incredibly lucky to have succeeded. But now the idea of just doing this, over and over again for the rest of my life, seemed completely futile.” It’s tempting at this point to try to distract yourself, perhaps by pushing yourself even harder doing work you no longer enjoy. But if you can, get curious instead. Uncomfortable emotions always contain a message. Your task is to work out what they’re telling you, and the best way to do that is to face it head-on.
02. No sudden moves
Whatever needs to change, it probably isn’t whatever big life adjustment first pops into your mind. Rash responses to a psychological crisis are usually just a hurried attempt to get rid of unpleasant feelings. The affair or the high-end motorbike might feel like bold gestures of independence, but they’re generally motivated by the desire to avoid looking at what’s going on inside you. When writer and artist Mr John-Paul Flintoff had a midlife breakdown, his first step to recovery came from slowing down and letting himself feel things he’d previously suppressed. “Anger and sadness just hadn’t been part of my repertoire, which, looking back, makes no sense at all, because as a human, of course I’m going to be angry or sad about things,” he says. “So, first I had to acknowledge that while it certainly wouldn’t be OK to go around smashing things, I was allowed to feel anger.”
03. Don’t go it alone
Men aren’t exactly renowned for their proficiency at heart-to-heart conversations, but now’s the time to reach out to friends, especially if they’ve experienced something similar. “Along the way someone said to me, ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets,’” Mr Flintoff says. “And I realised that if there’s something I’m uncomfortable saying, I probably need to find a way to say it to someone.” Therapy can help. Mr Flintoff’s collapse was so severe that he admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital, where he was placed on suicide watch. “Even though I’d admitted myself, they weren’t saying I didn’t need to be there, so that’s when I thought, ‘Oh, I really am a mess.” But what counted was that he’d reached out.
04. Rethink what matters
If you’re at least fairly successful in work or life, you’re probably an expert in what Professor Setiya, in his book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, calls “telic” activities: things you do because they lead to some positive outcome. Getting a degree or a promotion, saving enough for a house, launching your kids into adulthood – these are all worth doing because of how they’ll change your life in future. But when that’s your sole focus, you end up living entirely for the future, postponing the meaningfulness of your existence to a time that never arrives. One antidote is to do more things that are valuable only in themselves, such as hobbies and sports. (“What did you do as a child that made the hours pass like minutes?” the Swiss psychologist Mr Carl Jung recommended asking yourself.) But it also means looking for joy in the present-moment experience of work, parenting, and so on: what can you find that’s pleasurable about such activities right now, in the actual doing of them?
05. Go bigger
One key to fulfilment is finding what the author Mr David Brooks calls your “second mountain” – the life purpose that comes after you’ve established yourself in a career, a family, a community and the rest. “I was unplanted, lonely, humiliated, scattered,” Mr Brooks recalls of his own midlife crisis. “I remember walking through that period in a state that resembled permanent drunkenness… My playlists were all Irish heartbreak songs by Sinéad O’Connor and Snow Patrol.” The answer was to shift his focus from his own security and happiness to something less self-absorbed. That might entail quitting your finance job for life as a humanitarian aid worker, but it’s more likely to mean staying where you are and asking yourself how you might mentor younger people, volunteer your time or use the knowledge and experience you’ve accumulated to help others.
06. Embrace the inevitable
The core point to grasp here is that a midlife crisis is rarely a sign that your life has “gone wrong”. What you’re really confronting is the universal truth that human life is finite, which means that even if you spend yours brilliantly, you’ll inevitably be forced to give up on most of the alternative lives you’d dreamed of living. “I felt the inevitable frustration that whatever I might have chosen to do with my life, I’d still have ended up not living all the other lives,” Professor Setiya says. Yet when you fully internalise this message, it’s not depressing. It’s liberating. You can stop beating yourself up about everything you haven’t done because doing all of it was never on the cards to begin with. Instead, and perhaps for the first time ever, you get to make the most of the one life that’s in front of you. “Gradually, I began to understand that I had so much to be grateful for,” says Mr Flintoff. “It was incredibly strengthening to realise that I’d been that low, yet I’d survived. I wouldn’t take that experience away for all the money in the world.”