OK, we all know that middle age can be stressful and that left untreated, it can kill you.
But what sorts of things are we stressing about?
And more importantly, what can we do about them?
If we don’t approach this phase of our lives the right way, we can easily descend into a downward spiral and become jaded and sceptical about life.
And that would be a huge mistake, because paradoxically, this period can herald significant life-altering changes for the better.
You see, beneath the struggle and complexity of midlife, there is a deep reservoir of experience, perspective, and knowledge – all of which we can leverage toward a dramatic reinvention.
I’d love to guide you along the trail, out of the forest and up the mountain towards your second act – your personal reinvention.
But to do that, we must first examine the terrain and identify some of the problems you might face.
It’s better to discuss them than allow them to throw you off course an into a gully somewhere.
What is it?
Often the target of jokes and clichés, the male midlife crisis can be a distressing and prolonged experience.
You realise you’ve reached the half way point and it dawns on you – perhaps quite dramatically – that time is running out.
Dreams remain unfulfilled, life isn’t what you’d hoped and pressures have never been higher.
You become super conscious of your mortality.
This can lead to stress, anxiety and often, serious depression.
The popular stereotype sees us frantically trying to regain some elements of our lost youth in ways that that are often embarrassing and foolish.
It typically begins in the early 40s and can last a few years or much more in some cases.
And although the transition doesn’t have to entail misfortune, for some men it develops into a fully-fledged crisis.
It’s often prompted by a specific event, or the sudden sense of loss from a noticeable decline in youthfulness or the loss of past roles and responsibilities.
Grief can trigger it, through the loss of a loved one due to death or divorce.
Other common triggers include physical signs of ageing, loss of libido, unemployment, empty nest syndrome, or the burden of looking after both children and parents.
It’s more appropriate to link the midlife crisis to a psychological event, not simply a chronological one. So here are some relevant points taken from well-known studies:
According to D. Levinson (Season’s of a Man’s Life, 1978), the development of natural midlife in men brings out awareness of past unexpressed needs as well as elements of the self which that might manifest as a sense of something absent or wrong.
Problems frequently exhibited include irritability, impotence, fatigue, loss of sex drive, muscle and joint stiffness, weight gain, dry skin, night sweats, hair loss and a weak immune system. According to two surveys conducted on middle-aged Australian men, erectile dysfunction is a common condition.
Another study in The Lancet, a British medical journal concluded that erectile dysfunction is a common problem that affects at least one in five men above 40 years, rising to about two in every three men over 70.
“Around 30% of the British male respondents revealed a noticeable change in behaviour when coming to terms with ageing, resulting in impulse purchases on motorbikes and sports cars, divorces and embracing atypical hobbies such as bungee jumping and skydiving. Some sought new wives or commissioned plastic surgery in an effort to recapture their youthfulness.” (Sheehy, 1998)
In this air of uncertainty, many of us are concerned about our fading athletic prowess (if we ever had any), physical strength and losing our jobs.
Other than that, we envy our empowered working wives and wish to connect better with our children.
Our preretirement anxieties and the whole subject of potency reappear time and again.
“Linear reasoning is prone to direct men to think they will be happy once they have achieved certain milestones.
However, when titles and material accomplishments fail to give joy and meaning at the midpoint of their lives, men become angry, confused, frustrated, and ashamed.
This trickles down to their performance at work with most engaging in self-destructive behaviours.” (Levinson, 1978)
We feel trapped in a lifestyle that we deem as limiting, which is stimulated by a heightened awareness of time running out.
We find ourselves in a life we consider inauthentic and empty.
“Most males feel pressure to get away and they may frantically grasp at any opportunity for pleasure and vitality. Sometimes their performance or sexual habits change and they become embarrassed to the extent of pulling away from any form of intimacy.” (The Joy, 2010)
The midlife transition can lead to growth or devastation.
A crisis, or an unconscious development that compels change is created when a perceived dead-end is met head on.
Many of us will reassess our accomplishments relative to earlier dreams.
As a result, we’ll often make considerable changes in our career, finances, romantic relationships, work/life balance or physical appearance.
This anxiety over our achievements to date usually causes a period of depression that can be somewhat debilitating.
A survey conducted on 1,500 British men on behalf of socked.co.uk, found that about 10% of the respondents suffered major bouts of depression as they accepted their mortality. (Emslie, 2009)
It’s always important to explore all avenues and ask for help when the need arises instead of suffering in silence. Life is precious, uncertain and problems can begin at any age.
It is also paramount to establish a balance between work and life.
“You shouldn’t succumb to the demands of the ‘always-on’ workplace by compromising your relationships or your personal life because you worry you might lose your job.
For a lot of men, it’s imperative to reduce working hours and spend ample time with family and friends.” (Gerzon, 1996)
I think this statement should go further; that time devoted to something you truly love, something you’re passionate about, is critical.
If your work genuinely satisfies that need, then great. But if it doesn’t, some of your ‘down time’ should be devoted to pursuing something that expresses who you are – something you can grow through and build incrementally over a long period of time.
“Create a distinction between self-identity and both family and societal expectations. For a healthy separation and development of an independent sense of self, adaptive risk-taking, and constrained rebellion should be facilitated.” (Levinson, 1978)
Instead of outward rebellion, life mastery and self-exploration are what’s required.
Self-perceptions internalised over the years need to be reviewed and constraints tested.
Prognosis (the good news!)
Millions of men who have been through this phase can testify that on the other end of the transition, there is a new perspective and intense satisfaction.
Acording to new research findings, happiness is U-shaped and the worst years in males tend be the early 40s.
There is a decrease in happiness towards the early 40s, following by an increase to a peak between ages 55 and 70.
At middle age, the burdens of life tend to be heaviest and are most often linked to work.
“Work/life balance is difficult to achieve because we tend to be working harder than ever. Time is also limited and financial resources stretched.” (Emslie, 2009)
At this point in their lives, you have the best ability to become the masters of your fate.
“Men need only open their mind to knowledge that will help them improve in their roles as fathers, husbands, and to be true to themselves with their own values and expression, be they influential, creative, spiritual or collaborative.” (Emslie, 2009)
The Glorious Upside
First of all, most of the things we worry about have solutions. Some are uncomfortable. Most are simpler than we think.
Indeed, many things that keep us awake at night can be solved by learning and then believing that we needn’t stay on this path.
We can reinvent our lives.
You really can blaze your own trail.
And critically, despite the fact we cannot create a fully formed trail overnight, simply starting on the journey lifts the veil of darkness, removes the weight on our shoulders and reveals a light just ahead that will guide us down this new path.
Knowing you can change your life is everything.
So where do you begin?
Like all great journeys, we begin with the destination – the outcome.
How do you want your life to work?
Given the choice, the means and the power, what would your Tuesdays look like?
What will your time on this planet mean to you when it comes to a close?
You realise that time will come, right?
What burdens, distractions, time-wasting activities and mindless rubbish are you prepared to lose in support of your new life?
Who will you serve?
What knowledge, gifts and passions will you share?
These questions are existential, yes.
They need to be answered, too.
Think about them in an honest and practical way.
All of them have tangible answers that are uniquely yours and will reveal themselves if you invest the time to give them considered thought.
For me, they became crystallised when I finally sat down and gave them an honest appraisal.
Here are some of the ideas I developed for myself.
- Success for me is living authentically, doing work that matters to me, serving my family and having the time, the resources and the freedom to live fully and experience the magic of my brief time on earth.
- When I do what I care about, that equals freedom.
- Success is much more a state of being than an accomplishment.
- Be present wherever I am.
- Work hard but not too much.
- Do just one thing at a time.
- Live more with less and abandon the relentless pursuit of more.
- Always think in terms of outcomes.
- Allow myself to be happy.
- Connect with family as often as possible.
- Treat my body with respect.
- Make a difference in people’s lives.
Your life is created by your thoughts because they form your beliefs and decision matrix, which informs your actions and your habits.
Most of the time we’re too busy to think clearly about these things, but now more than ever, you really should.
Reinventing your life involves deep questions, and they deserve serious contemplation and ultimately, your own set of unique answers.
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