Midlife – exploring the road less travelled

Dr. Janetius



The following reflections are based on my readings on Midlife Adult Development, some personal reflections based on my growth experience, feed backs received from seminars I have given on midlife in the Philippines, Australia and India.


 The urge to grow is one of the insatiable quests of human beings. This process will stop only at the point of death. This growth is different from chronological growth. The personality of a person has different dimensions and will be uncovered at different stages of growth by different means. At one stage in life, a reflecting person will know and feel that half of the life is completed and pause for a while. He will look back and forth to wonder, question and evaluate the dimension of the growth and ponder about roads less travelled.  Based on this reawakening of the psychosocial and psychosexual growth, a person will try to redefine the goals and objectives in the light of experience, learning and achievement. This process of adult development that occurs roughly between the ages 35 and 55 is called midlife transition.

Cavanaugh, a clinical psychologist understands, ‘most people have no mid-life crisis who handles things well before this period’ and Holden, that ‘men are more vulnerable at mid-life than women’. Levinson (1978) who made a classical study on adult life understands that, as people enter midlife, they are likely to review the progress and ask what have I done? Where am I now? Of what value is my life to the society, to others and especially to me?  This is a period of re-evaluation where people confront themselves. They pause and reflect, often make changes in their way of living. Levinson’s studies also further reveal that this process is seen in all reflective personalities. VanKaam (1979) understands 'the midlife crisis is marked by a threat to one's familiar form of life' (p.12). It can turn out to be a winter or summer season in our life.

Levinson: Levinson explains the adult development in his classical book ‘The seasons of a man’s life (1978) explains male adult development as follows: When a person enters the adult world at the ages of 22 – 28, he plans out his future and takes initial choices regarding occupation, love relationships, peer relationship, values and life style.  Roughly at 28 - 33, the plans and goals he has taken at the previous stage become more serious that he considers further modifications, exclusions. They will try to do it with the sense of urgency, for they feel the scarcity of time. Some go through this period smoothly while many experience moderate or severe crisis. This is the period of decision-making in a person that shapes the second half of life. The next phase up to 40 is the culmination of early adulthood to realize his aspirations and goals. This is a settling down period, where a man will become ‘One’s Own person’.

The age 40-45 is the period of mid-life transition. Here a person yearns for a better life where the neglected parts of the self can be expressed. It is also a period of series of changes marked by a lot of marker events in any form of change in career, love life, illness, death of parents, move of residence. After this, a person enters middle adulthood, a period (45-60) marked by forming a new life structure caused by the transition and a real creative season in life, and a period of fulfilment.

Erikson: According to Erikson (1963) there are eight stages of psychosocial developments. Each stage has its own developmental tasks and psychological problems with both positive and negative components. In the adult life, intimacy Vs isolation (age 18-35) and generativity Vs self-absorption (age 35-60) are the two developmental tasks.

 Intimacy is a person’s ability to share with and care without fear of losing oneself in the process. If intimacy is not achieved in marriage or friends, a sense of isolation will overpower the person. Generativity is being productive in a broader sense; that is, creative pursuits in career, in leisure time activities, in teaching and caring for others, meaningful volunteer work. This is an important stage on the psychosexual and psychosocial development of a person. Corey explains (1978) adults who fail to achieve productivity at this stage of growth begin to experience a kind of psychological death. They will be self-centred and will give priority to their own personal needs and comfort.

Midlife and Hindu Philosophy of life: In Vedic times, the normal human life was regarded as eighty-four years, consisting of four sections of twenty-one years each. The first twenty-one years is called the "Brahmacharya ashram", the stage of youth or learning, which requires a certain discipline and purity, guidance by a guru or teacher, for its full flowering. The second twenty-one years, from ages twenty-one to forty-two, is called the "Grihastha ashram" or householder phase. This is the main time for having children and raising a family, as well as for working and fulfilling our duties to society. The third section of twenty-one years, from ages forty-two to sixty-three is the "Vanaprastha" or the hermitage phase. This is a time to return to the forest or wilderness in contemplation and for guiding society in the distance. The fourth and last section from sixty-three to eighty-four is the "Sannyasa" or renunciation phase. The person, now an elder full of wisdom, inwardly aims to renounce all the outer goals of life. He also becomes a teacher of the spiritual knowledge working for the wellbeing of the society.

In this Hindu Philosophy, the third stage of life is the period of midlife, which the ancient people considered a period of preparation to come back to the society, well prepared for the fourth period; a transformed person, mature enough to venture into a new way of life.

Carl Jung: In his study on mid-life crisis in man, O’Connor (1988) explains the mid-life transition as seen by Freud and C.G. Jung, characterized by depression, exhaustion, irritability, sleeplessness and headaches. Carl Jung experienced this in his life between 38-42 years of age. This resulted in his break with Freud. This transition is also described as creative illness by some psychologists because of its integration with one’s strengths, purposes and goals in life. According to C.G. Jung (1975) this transition is marked by the awakening of one’s own anima & animus, that is, the personification of all feminine/masculine psychological tendencies in psyche that are ignored and repressed in the first half of life. This task of the unconscious in the mid-life in bringing such an entanglement is ‘to force a man to develop and to bring his own being to maturity’.

Anima & Animus Awakening: Anima is the feminine part of a man’s soul. It causes males to have feminine traits. It provides a framework for males to interact with females. It is the concept of ideal woman in a man. All feminine psychological tendencies in a man’s psyche that are ignored and repressed in the first half of life will come out in the midlife. Man will try to see it in a woman and the urge to see it dominates the adult life of a man.

Animus is the masculine part of woman’s soul. It causes the female to have male traits. It makes the women to have a blue print of ideal man. All masculine psychological tendencies in a woman’s psyche that are ignored and repressed in the first half of life will come out in the midlife. Women try to see it in a man. This unconscious task is ‘to force a person to develop and to bring his own being to maturity’

Individuation and Midlife: For Carl Jung individuation means becoming your own person. Human personality is filled with contrasts and conflicts. A person has good and bad tendencies, masculine and feminine tendencies; introvert and extrovert likes and dislikes, desire to please others and be independent. In midlife, we don’t like to please others but try to realize our real personality and, become one's own self. We could thus translate it as "self-realization" of Maslow. Although Jung calls individuation an "ineluctable psychological necessity" he also says that it is available only to individuals who are predisposed to attain a higher degree of consciousness and reflective personalities. Just as in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, some people who never think beyond basic or survival needs, Jung too sees that many average people are content with limited horizons of life that never think of or imagine about individuation. For such people, midlife or individuation is not at all an issue.

Midlife Transition: As people mature in adulthood, they learn about life, develop goals, values, and philosophies of their own. Sometimes this fit very nicely with the life-style one has chosen; most often, however, they do not. So tension builds up, a sense of urgency mounts and confusion and crisis appears. 

There is no permanency or cent percent compatibility between the road a person travels in life and the ideal life one imagines or desires. Moreover, there is no one right way or direction of life journey. What is right at one stage may be restricting at another or too soft. During the passage from one stage to another, we will be on a crossroads, in a junction seeing many directions in front of us. Sometimes confused, undecided - no doubt, but developing. This is what happens in midlife and a developmental dilemma. According to Sheehy (1983) the time when person stops trying to please others and begin to validate his own self. These slow but steady process and change enables a person to fix the personal identity.

Another aspect of the transition in the mid-life is the urge or craving for life fulfilment or life goal setting. Corey (1986) views this crisis or transition in the mid-life as a process of developing one’s own philosophy of life. The experiences of early adult life surface in the current life creating a chaotic situation and threaten the present life. This helps people to have a clear idea about their own philosophy of life, life goals and purpose.  Murphy (1992) also views it in similar fashion, ‘(in mid-life) both sexes start to re-evaluate the truth of what they learned about life when the old answers no longer work for the new questions’.

Symptoms of midlife transition: Feeling that half of the life is over Questioning the present life situation An urge to critically evaluate the present life and try to do something quickly and urgently for future Changes in career, love life, change of residence etc… Strong desire for a more creative and productive life Look for self (life)-fulfilment New life structure & settlements.

Depending upon the unique experience of individuals, in midlife we may expect some or all of the following conditions.

Dissatisfaction with life present life conditions and orientations: From an active life in the first part of adult life, we may enter into boredom, restlessness, dullness, discontent, meaninglessness, and disillusionment.  This dissatisfaction and confusion lead to crossroads and we look forward for the road less travelled. As we are facing the crossroad, the previous identity and set goals and morals will be shaken and, try to revise our sense of identity and look for new life goals and direction.

Biological changes: Look at the mirror and see grey hairs appearing, wrinkles here and there, youthful attractiveness slowly diminishing; new aches and pains, tiredness and lack of vigour and other signs of aging appear consistently. Someone who drives cars and bikes recklessly now looks at the speedometer to foresee danger… Menopause and andropause/veropause symptoms appear and they give us depression, anxiety and a sense of urgency to do something with life.

Search for spiritual meaning: At midlife some people become more concerned with their spiritual values. People who lead immoral, carefree lives think about disciplined lifestyle; people come back to religion who were less religious at adolescent period; or a person very religious in the early periods of life, may not see any meaning and purpose in religion etc…

Personal Integration: The soul's masculinity and femininity look for an inner integration. The aim of individuation is to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona and the suggestive power of the archetypes and become the real person.

Midlife Transition or Crisis: The midlife transition can be one of the most important and significant events in life or it can be an unmitigated disaster. We used to think of midlife as a crisis, in the sense of a catastrophe. It is a catastrophe for many because they have ignored their real feelings for many years, accepting others' answers about who they are and what they should be doing. Eventually, most people become aware of a disparity between the person they really want to be and the person they feel constrained to be during midlife. When the disparity is large and the effort to keep it hidden is overwhelming, the realization can be sudden and intense. It can lead people to seek sudden and catastrophic answers. It can be a smooth transition to many people who are prepared and, who are ready for easy change and growth. So depending upon the personality, it can either be a crisis or a smooth transition. However, for people who are messed with day to day problems and basic survival issues, hardly any crisis or transition, as their whole life is crisis. Also, people who are less reflective of their life, there may not be any transition.

How to manage midlife: Ultimately, midlife is taking peopel to a new and deeper level of meaning. It is a chance to become generative, creative new person. In the simplest language it means ‘a chance to realize life, bring out potentials, live once-own life, and be of service to others’. Midlife gives people a chance to see the true Self and challenging them to a creative journey of life. So, recognize it as normal, be aware that it is an internal psychological growth task, manage the suffering of letting go, change, and growth and be open to spiritual growth, awakening, and challenges of change.

In conclusion: It is a period of growth & development ¤ It is a period for life fulfilment and life goal setting ¤ It is a time of developing one’s own philosophy of life  ¤ It is a time to stop pleasing others and begin to validate our own self  ¤ It is a time of serious decision making  ¤ It is a beginning of a new life (remember the old saying – life begins at 40)  ¤ It is a time to re-evaluate the present with an eye toward the future  ¤ It is a stepping stone for, what Maslow calls, “self-actualization” or Jung’s    “Individuation”. In short, it is a season of exploring the road less travelled. 

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