“What animal walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening, yet has only one voice?” ~The Riddle of the Sphinx

Up until the last few years, the common wisdom or cultural conversation on aging was that there was this thing called the midlife crisis. It was supposed to be especially common to men as they entered their middle years, between forty to sixty years of age (middle age keeps getting pushed to a higher age group as we live longer). Images of a man leaving his wife, quitting his job, buying a toupee and a red convertible sports car were portrayed in the media.

So, does the notion of midlife crisis really exist?

The Nature of Reality and Existence (simple version)

Reality, up to a point can be defined as what people agree to. In 1491, the reality was that if you sailed far enough, you would fall off the earth. That was the prevailing conversation. People agreed that the world was flat.

Another example is the stock market. The current cultural conversation is that we are in a recession. It is based on agreement. If enough people agree to something it becomes real and may not be true. The same applies to scientific discoveries.

The key point here is that there has been agreement that a midlife crisis is common to men and women in this age group.

Not a Crisis But a Transition

My business partner, Frank and I, have reviewed some of the literature on midlife crisis and the more we read, the more certain we are that a crisis is something that can happen at any age.

Webster’s defines midlife crisis as “a period of emotional turmoil in middle age characterized by a strong desire for change.” Thus we have the terms male midlife crisis and female midlife crisis. Do they really exist? There is a tendency in the serious literature – as opposed to the media – to move away from the use of this term.

Some middle age men and women may experience a crisis. It does not mean that a crisis is a phenomenon unique to this age group nor does it apply to the majority. A more appropriate word to use in this context is transition.

Change and Transition

Midlife transition is a more accurate term to use than midlife crisis. Both include change. Transition is empowering; crisis is disempowering. Change is a constant in life – it doesn’t need to be a crisis. We can develop our capacity to deal with change and transition, so that we are not experiencing a crisis.

William Bridges is probably the most well known expert on transition. He distinguishes change and transition:

Change: An event which occurs when something in our life ends or is replaced by another event or way of doing something. Change is external or situational, like job loss or a divorce. It is episodic and happens to you.

Transition: A gradual psychological re-orientation people experience as they try to adapt to change. It is internal, happening inside you.

My Experience of Dealing with Change and Transition

I went through some “major” midlife transitions – five career transitions, after ten years of practicing dentistry. I’ve felt fear and anxiety, especially in what Bridges refers to as the “neutral zone.” This is the place between “ending” old patterns and ways of being and a “new beginning” – a place where we can recreate ourselves and create a new future for ourselves. I call the in-between place, the gap.

In the gap, It was not okay for me that I could not label myself by the type of work I did or that I was not engaged in some form of work. I lost my sense of identity – who I considered myself to be. In my five career transitions, I felt driven to find something to “do”- something I could wrap my arms around. My experience was like being in front of a “blank canvass” like an artist – “What will I create?”

Through an ongoing practice of personal development, I have come to realize that what I was afraid of was confronting “nothing”; it is from “nothing” that I could create something new. Creation does not happen with something already there or anything incomplete from the past.

Going through a midlife change does not need to be a crisis. It is an opportunity for us to create our lives newly. The middle years and beyond can be the best period of our life.

Suggested Practices for Dealing with Transition

  1. Take on a meditation practice or a body-oriented practice like yoga that will allow you to more readily embrace change and transition.
  2. Use a support structure like coaching or being part of a community of like-minded people dealing with similar issues to your own.
  3. Complete a program like the Hudson Institute’s programs that specialize in transition issues.

Dr. Fred Horowitz is an executive coach who has worked with hundreds of business owners, executives and professionals assisting them in the transition process. He is co-founder, with Dr. Frank Bonkowski, of http://www.happiness-after-midlife.com, an educational website for Third Agers devoted to adult transition and reinvention. He can be reached at dr.fred@happiness-after-midlife.com.

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