The first rule of a healthy mid-life crisis is “Don’t do anything stupid.”
There are few things more unbecoming than mid-life crisis stupidity. We’ve all seen it or know somebody who’s done one (or more!) of the following:
- Wearing the wardrobe and accessories of a much younger person. Like, say, your teenager.
- Getting a tattoo across the small of their back. Which, honestly, isn’t quite as small as it used to be.
- Buying a sports car or a designer truck with all the latest options. Somebody’s compensating!
- Filing for divorce in the confidence they’ll be able to land a more enjoyable partner…who will put up with the crap that their current spouse has had to tolerate over the past twenty-five years.
The stereotypical “mid-life crisis” has been created by the almost predictable behavior of middle-aged men and women. The world is full of fifty-somethings startled by the fear their life is passing them by like a bus rolling right past its scheduled stop. The outbound bus to their future is leaving the station without them, and they are stuck sitting there in the malaise of being half a century old.
While it is not very pretty, it is pretty common.
There’s a reason why so many stereotypical images of a mid-life crisis exist. It has become a part of our social vocabulary because it is such a frequent occurrence in our experience. We know a lot of middle-aged adults who start jettisoning their otherwise responsible lifestyle for something a bit more…um, let’s say, adventurous.
But that’s the point!
The longing for adventure is what often drives the angst behind most mid-life crises. Adventure is not a bad thing. It’s the way one goes about it that can become a problem.
I have come to the conclusion that the frequency of mid-life crisis behavior simply points to the fact it is a pretty normal experience for middle aged adults. Unfortunately, we have stigmatized it as some kind of negative, shameful conduct.
But is it really?
Let me ask you: what is so shameful about waking up one day and wanting to make some long, overdue changes at a critical juncture in our one and only life?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with it…until otherwise responsible individuals start making irresponsible choices, blowing up other people’s lives in an attempt to remodel their own.
What makes mid-life corrections shameful is when people start behaving in a way that is very uncharacteristic of somebody with the maturity and intelligence to be more responsible with their life. A mid-life crisis - the angst of ambition - is completely normal. Where it all goes wrong is at irresponsibility, immaturity and stupidity.
As a Life Coach, it has been my observation that the angst and panic of a mid-life crisis presents itself in four typical expressions.
One of the first mid-life crisis shakeups is the overhaul of one’s image. This can include anything from contact lenses and a new hairstyle to a different automobile and a gym membership; from replacing one’s entire wardrobe to moving to a high-rise condo in the big city. Whatever the change, it almost always has to do with remaking how one looks. Or more accurately, how they appear to others.
Busting out of the predictable, boring, and suffocating routines of the past twenty-five years of career, marriage and parenting drives so many people to desire a significant change in the look of their life.
I’ve seen it all; the makeover from upstanding gentleman to irrepressible playboy; the miracle from chunky soccer mom to sultry businesswoman. People in the throes of a mid-life crisis go on diets, start working out, have enhancement surgery, buy sporty cars, acquire fresh wardrobes, find other friends, and embark on different hobbies. Some even take on a whole new persona.
Another classic mid-life crisis symptom is a renewed interest in romance. The fifty-something panic catalyzes long since neglected longings for connection, passion, and intimacy.
Unfortunately, if one finds their current spouse to be uninterested in a fresh wave of passion, they often go searching for it elsewhere. This is when many affairs occur and divorces happen. If moral or social mores along with a lack of self-confidence are an issue, then a growing interest in online dating, flirting with work associates and even the bar scene becomes an option to test the waters of one’s sagging sex appeal.
This is perhaps the most painful thing to watch in the life of a good friend. Your best words of caution often fall on deaf ears. It always turns out to be one of the most destructive expressions of mid-life crisis. Hearts get hurt and families become scattered in the aftermath of a lot of lousy choices in the search for romantic intimacy.
After years of assisting couples with navigating the demise of their marriage, I have learned that the secret to a great marriage is a different pattern rather than a different partner. Very rarely does changing spouses solve the relational discontentment that brews in a restless soul. Oh, it may seem to improve for a few months, but eventually it proves to be every bit as disappointing as our previous relationship when the broader responsibilities of commitment start demanding our attention. Eventually, the affair starts to look, feel and sound a lot like our marriage with its expectations and boundaries.
Most human beings crave a certain level of excitement in their lives. For many people, somewhere along the mid-point of our lives, the apprehension of growing old and the panic of running out of time to do some of the things we have always wanted to do stirs a lot of anxiety in the human spirit.
This panic creates a crisis of urgency. Suddenly, we find ourselves looking online for the quickest way to do something we have been putting off for the past thirty years.
Skydiving almost always tops the list.
Exotic vacation destinations are a close second.
Then there’s climbing Mount Everest, backpacking the Appalachian trail, rafting the Grand Canyon, opening a restaurant, buying a winery, running a marathon, owning a Corvette (or other bright red sports car), sailing around the world, and a whole host of sexual fantasies that seems to make our “something I want to do before I die” list.
In their panic, many fifty year olds rush off to do things they’ve always wanted before marriage, family and career hijacked the time and energy to do any of it.
All of this is about the craving to feel alive again. Unfortunately, the rush of adrenaline is often mistaken for what it means to live.
For many people, the onset of our middle years ushers in the craving to feel again. Mid-lifers succumbed to the suffocating effects of routine and ritual, allowing their lives to become a tiresome pattern of the same old thing year after year.
After all, work comes first. Kids come first. Others come first. Family comes first. Church comes first. Community comes first. After trying to keep up with all the firsts demanding the priority of your time and energy, you have lived the last quarter century putting your personal interests and ambitions last.
Somewhere around the age of fifty, those dormant ambitions rise from their slumber and ask if they are ever going to get the opportunity to be fulfilled.
They usually sound like, “I’ve always wanted to….”
Everybody fills in the blank differently. The problem is finding the time, the energy, the money, the ability, or the freedom to do it. In the end, feelings of resentment and disappointment often drive the mid-life stupidity.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to travel to exotic places, accomplish challenging ambitions or overcome difficult obstacles. Nothing wrong at all…until you do a lot of irresponsible things that hurt other people just to scratch something off your Bucket List.
Typical to most every mid-life crisis story is some kind of resentment about responsibility.
Many a mid-life crisis is stirred by a person’s decision to jettison the weight of responsibility they have grown to resent through the years. Responsibility at work. Responsibility at home. Responsibility in the community. Responsibility to whatever moral code has locked them into the predictable, lifeless routines of commitment and obligation to all the people around them.
Standing there at the half-century mark, the thought of another twenty-five years of the same old, same old is suffocating.
With responsibilities come expectations. Reasonable or unreasonable, twenty-five years of expectations starts to wear thin when there appears to be no end in sight. The burden and expectation of responsibility for others becomes so overwhelming that we start daydreaming of being free from it all.
Why do you think so many fifty-somethings start acting like twenty-somethings when they head off into their prototypical mid-life crisis? It’s an attempt – albeit an unbecoming one – to return to days when there was a lot less responsibility and a lot more freedom to do as one pleases.
Or, at least, that’s how we remember it.
Stay out as late as we want. Sleep in as late as we want. Eat and drink whatever we want. Do whatever we want…as often as we want.
The key words here are “we want.” Longing. Desire. Ambition.
Many a mid-life crisis is precipitated by the declaration of, “I’m sick and tired of all of this. I want do whatever I want, when I want, for a change!”
And there it is! Did you catch it? It’s the underlying cause of every mid-life crisis. “For a change” is the great giveaway of what is really behind fifty-something angst.
We want change.
The great threat to an energizing and satisfying life is the absence of change. If we are not careful, life can get pretty boring. Monotonous. Predictable. Routine. Same old, same old.
Few people aspire to a boring life. It’s not their idea of a life’s dream.
The early years of marriage, family and career hold out the hope that the future will be exciting and adventurous. Why? Because it is usually defined by a lot of dramatic changes. New jobs. New cities. New cars. New houses. New furniture. New children. New friends. New freedoms.
Unfortunately, the passing of the years brings fewer and fewer changes in a life that turns predictable and routine – year after year. Eventually, the life drains out of life while a dormant soul aches.
In one last ditch effort to be heard, the soul stirs, and with its restless cry comes the ache of ambition. The desire to pursue long forgotten dreams awakens. When this happens in our late forties or early fifties, a full-blown mid-life crisis is birthed.
We can either abort it, or we can embrace it.
A "mid-life crisis" doesn't have to be a bad thing! If we are careful, it can be one of the most pivotal circumstances of our life for good. In fact, it doesn’t need to be a crisis at all if we carefully listen to our heart, wisely discern our longings, and pursue them properly.
Do you want to know how to have a healthy mid-life crisis?
Decide the middle of your life is not too late to start doing what you’ve always dreamed. Grant yourself the permission to go after some of your dreams with a calculated plan of attack that doesn’t jeopardize all the years of hard work you put into building your life up to this point.
Quit thinking the pursuit of long abandoned ambitions has to be the stuff of a younger you from yesteryear. It’s okay to start your dreams at fifty! The crisis is created when we attempt to go backwards in life in order to be something you haven’t been in years. That’s when people end up making a mess of their future.
If your "mid-life crisis" motivates you to develop the plans and honor the disciplines to finally pursue your dream, it's a very good thing. What if we were to honor it as very healthy response to the longings of the human spirit?
In his book Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance, author Bob Buford, recommends “low-cost probes” as a wise approach to making pivotal transitions in one’s life. Low-cost probes are practical explorations of experiences that are of interest to you before you completely sell the farm and abandon what got you this far.
A low-cost probe is an experiment; a try-out. It’s a chance to take an up close and personal look at an opportunity of interest. Before running away to join the circus, volunteer to work as a trouper for a week or two. See how you like it.
Unless you have some extraordinary talent like turning yourself inside out or leaping to your death and living to tell about, you may find yourself cleaning up after a lot of elephants. It…just…might….not be quite as romantic as all the books make it sound.
After the reality of life on the road with the circus settles in, you may find yourself longing for the “good ol’ days” when you had a real job surrounded by familiar friends and family. The truth is - depending on you and your attitude - circus life sucks about as many days a year as your current one.
Blowing up the bridges to your current life in the rush to run off and join the circus could be more costly than you ever imagined. Dreams have a way of leaving out a lot of important details. Oh say, like income, health, disappointment, and heartache.
The same is true with the romanticized illusions you have about a different partner or a different lifestyle. There always comes the day when you wake up from your mid-life overdose and discover she’s a lot like your ex-wife, lugging groceries up to a high-rise condo is a hassle, and the regret you feel about what you did to your kids when you blew up your family doesn’t seem to go away when you lay your head on your pillow at night…regardless of how great the sexual fireworks may have been.
Competitive athletes use the phrase “embrace the suck.” It is anticipating and accepting that miserable experience when everything in your body is screaming for you to stop because it hurts so badly. Your lungs are burning. Your legs feel like lead. You have a sharp pain in your side and it feels like your heart is going to explode from overexertion.
Hard work hurts! Great athletes prepare for it and discipline themselves to work past it. It’s the price of progress on the path to victory.
Life is a lot like that. Over the course of nurturing a marriage, raising a family and cultivating a career, it gets difficult, disappointing, and discouraging. Hard work hurts, no matter what you’re doing. Wise people work their way through it rather than run away from it.
I recently stumbled across a great quote by Robert Holden, Director of the Happiness Project.
“BEWARE OF DESTINATION ADDICTION:
A PREOCCUPATION WITH THE IDEA THAT HAPPINESS IS
IN THE NEXT PLACE, THE NEXT JOB, AND WITH THE NEXT PARTNER.
UNTIL YOU GIVE UP THE IDEA THAT
HAPPINESS IS SOMEWHERE ELSE,
IT WILL NEVER BE WHERE YOU ARE.”
So, what can an otherwise healthy and responsible person do to address the angst their fiftieth birthday ignited?
Well, here’s a suggestion. Name one ambition in your life you've always wanted to pursue. Answer the question, “What would it take to ‘go for it’ at this point in my life?”
Think through a plan for how you could pursue it in a wise and responsible fashion. Set some goals about when you are going to follow through with the important steps of your plan. Try a few low-cost probes into the experience and educate yourself about what it would take to enjoy it more often.
But whatever you do, please….
At your age, it just looks so much better on you than skinny jeans.