I’ve recently had occasion to talk with several different people about “mid-life” and the dreaded “mid-life crisis,” because they’re about twenty years younger than me and happen to be going through it at the moment. I’d like to pass on a few nuggets of wisdom that I’ve picked up in my travels that they seemed to find helpful.
I was talking with my niece on the phone the other day — she’s nowhere near mid-life, but she’s currently taking a psychology class in college — and she brought up something called Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, which I thought were interesting from the standpoint that they seemed to have been developed by a bright but very young man. They are heavy on childhood developmental stages, but once they get to “well-adjusted adulthood,” they trail off into a vague mumble, as though adulthood is a featureless landscape that ends suddenly in the Cliffs of Senility and Death.1
Nothing could be further from the truth. Adults continue to develop, and some of the changes are as dramatic as puberty.
Mid-life is a particularly interesting developmental stage.
One way of talking about this is to use Carl Jung’s concepts of individuation and integration. In very general terms, a person spends the first half of life individuating, and the second half of life integrating, and this is useful language because the changeover corresponds to the mid-life developmental changes. It gives a lot of insight into the “crisis” that often ensues. So let’s talk about these words.
In a sense, the words are inverted. Individuation is actually a process of learning to conform to the herd, while integration is a process of becoming a true individual. But the words work well enough when framed properly.
To reliably conform to the herd, you have to internalize the expectations of the herd. All infants are, as someone once quipped, a system of unregulated orifices. One of the first thing we train infants to do is to control their bladder and bowels. We then train them to speak and be silent according to a rather complex set of social rules. We teach them to use magic phrases of power, like “Please” and “Thank You” and “In Jesus’ Name” and “When Allah Wills.” Further expectations are impressed on children as they grow, until they become “productive, well-adjusted adults,” which means that all of the expectations have become fully internalized, and the new adult can be trusted to function on his or her own as an independent member of the herd, rather than as a dependent under constant supervision. They have become an individual, an autonomous unit of society, a legal adult: they have “individuated.”
Jung’s insight was that all of the impulses they have learned to control, such as screaming when they are hungry, or simply letting the bladder go when the urge strikes, never actually go away: they just “go dark.” They retreat into an unconscious place in the mind that Jung called, appropriately enough, the Shadow.
The Shadow isn’t merely a collection of unregulated impulses. It’s also an entire collection of suppressed and unexplored potentials. Boys don’t play with dolls. Girls don’t fight back. Boys can’t care for sick people. Girls can’t do math. Black people must never show defiance to a white person. The list is huge, and it is augmented by all of the specific family expectations laid down, such as carrying on the proud military tradition, or becoming “successful” as a doctor or lawyer.
If all this stuff is merely suppressed and not obliterated, then it can come back out of hiding. The trigger that seems to open the floodgates most reliably is awareness of one’s own mortality.
Young people know, intellectually, that someday they’ll die, but they don’t feel it: it isn’t real to them. It is right at about mid-life — for the privileged classes within society, at any rate — when marriages are settled, job tasks are mastered, finances are as secure as they’re going to get, careers start to top out, children (if any) are able to feed and dress and care for themselves, parents are aging and ailing and dying, that a person starts to viscerally understand that what they envisioned as their “life” has peaked, and they’re on the downslope toward death. Two thoughts start to run around in their heads: first, Is that all there is? and second, If I’m dying, what do I really have to lose?
These two thoughts, together, tend to unlock the bars placed over the cave entrance into the Shadow. Unlocking those bars is what starts the process of integration.
It’s called “integration” because all of those suppressed and forgotten hopes, dreams, desires, and even impulses get re-integrated into a more balanced and complete person, who is now capable of choosing to break from the herd — even to lead it, if necessary. While this can trigger a psychological crisis for the person who starts integrating, and certainly causes a lot of uncomfortable feelings, it’s generally a very joyous time — for that person. The reason it’s called a crisis is not because the person going through it is in distress, but because it is a crisis for everyone around them.
The person going through mid-life change says, “I am trying to find myself.” They have a strong sense of purpose, and while they may be uncertain about where they are going, they feel in control, perhaps for the first time in their life.
The people around that person say, “I don’t know him (her) any more.” They feel betrayed, distressed, and — most importantly — helpless. They are the ones experiencing a crisis.
Every mid-life change is different, because it depends so much on what got stuffed into the Shadow. A person with a strong sex-drive that got suppressed is not unlikely to have one, or perhaps seventeen, sexual affairs. If it was emotional connection that got suppressed, they may have torrid emotional affairs without the bedroom athletics. If it was artistic sensibilities, they may quit their job and start doing music gigs in bars. If it was spiritual proclivities, they may travel to India with no notice and sit in an ashram for a year.
Some people don’t have a whole lot of Shadow to integrate, and they don’t have much of a visible mid-life change at all. Some people never integrate at all: they remain obedient, individuated, unintegrated members of the herd, and their Shadow remains dark right up until death takes them.
Others of us have a whole travel-trunk full of Shadows to unpack.
Because sex is wrapped with such restrictive taboos in US American culture, sex is one of the powerful things commonly stuffed into the Shadow, and consequently, a lot of mid-life crises lead directly into other people’s beds. Hence: the stereotype of the middle-aged executive running off with his barely-legal-age secretary to Bermuda. Because of the social taboos, this tends to cause a lot of collateral damage to families and friendships. By contrast, someone who stuffed a literary bent into the Shadow to make room for a legal career, and decides at mid-life to take up reading the complete works of Proust, will probably face no worse consequences than a little ribbing from his beer-buddies.
So with that framework in mind, here are a few personal insights about the process, based mostly on my experience of my own mid-life transition, and augmented by some of the experiences I’ve seen others go through.
First, don’t panic. This is a normal process, a lot like puberty. It’s often even called a second adolescence. It has a natural progression, and it ends.
For the person watching (say) a partner go through a mid-life change, understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about your partner, who is working through an internal issue. Don’t try to take the burden of telling yourself that you “failed” in some way. It simply isn’t about you. Your partner is looking for something lost long before you came into the picture.
For the person going through a mid-life change, understand that it is about you. If you’re having an affair, emotional or physical, it isn’t about that wonderful, charming new person you’ve fallen so madly in love with. It isn’t about your unsuitable marriage partner, or your dead-end job, or your worthless kids. No one has failed you. It’s about you. You are searching for something lost long before any of those other things came along.
Like puberty, once a mid-life change starts, you can’t turn back — you have to move through it. Gracefully, awkwardly, or dragged backward by your feet screaming, you are going to go through it.
Don’t cling to any particular outcome. Believe me, I understand how hard this is, especially for the people not going through the change. But the people who come out the other side of a mid-life change are never exactly the same people who went into it. It’s not at all uncommon for a mid-life change to renew and deepen existing relationships, but in many ways, the relationship has to be started over — which is a delightful rediscovery, if it works out that way. It’s also not uncommon for a mid-life change to completely end relationships, and mark the beginning of a new stage of life for everyone. There is no single right outcome.
Don’t cling to a timetable. Some mid-life transitions are quick and slick: a brief fling with a college student, or a crazy weekend in Vegas, and then it’s done. Some mid-life transitions drag on and on, or get stuck in a repeat cycle. Some introduce major life changes that are permanent. It’s worth giving a mid-lifer some clear space and looser boundaries to “find themselves,” but it’s perfectly okay to decide that it isn’t working for you, and move on with your life. No one needs to be a victim in this.
Try to not judge a person going through a mid-life change, if possible. It’s difficult, because the essence of the process is re-integrating things that were suppressed because they didn’t conform to herd expectations, and one of the tools the herd uses to enforce conformity is judgement, and shaming. People always try to shame the mid-lifer back into conformity with expectations, in an attempt to “re-parent” this wayward mid-life adolescent. It simply won’t work: at best, it will merely encourage secrecy and deceit.
Don’t go it alone. Get psychological counseling, if you can. If not, enlist the aid of an older person you consider “wise” in a non-judgmental way.
Don’t approach counseling as fixing a marriage problem. Remember that what probably started the whole thing was the recognition that you are actually going to die, and you’re asking Is that all there is? and What have I got to lose? These are not marriage issues, they are existential, or meaning issues.
Finally, don’t panic. It’s going to be okay.
In fact, it’s going to be wonderful.
 A dear friend and long-time counselor notes that Erikson’s “Childhood and Society” was, in fact, one of his early works, and that Erikson went on to develop a lot of the theory and science behind some of the very mid-life things I’m talking about above, as well as going further into old age and dying.