Friday, June 17, 2016

Midlife Crisis: Perpetually Persistent Myth

Ah, the midlife crisis! We often envision a man in his 40s, possibly pushing 50, who wakes up one morning to realize that half his life is passed. He panics in an existential crisis, bemoaning the lost youth and missed opportunities. Then he decides to try to turn back the clock by ditching his wife of 20 years and their children, dying his hair, hitting the gym every day or enrolling in extreme recreation (e.g. sky diving), trading in the family mini van for a brand new Mustang, and dating his 22-year-old secretary.

If we're being gender-equal, then perhaps we see a woman in the same age range (45-55) who decides to get some plastic surgery, dye her hair, get some piercings or tattoos, leave her husband to date the 20-year-old pool boy, and take monthly or quarterly booze cruises with her fellow mid-life crisis girl friends.

The truth of the matter is that the midlife crisis is more of a mythical excuse to behave immaturely instead of dealing with the realities of aging and adult responsibilities. Two primary psychosocial developmental theories that address this age range are Carl Jung's and Erik Erikson's. I will discuss Erik Erikson's theory in a future blog post. Most of the other developmental theories cover childhood, not any part of adulthood. Let's take a look at the original theory, the one that actually mentions the midlife crisis: Carl Jung.

Stage 1: Childhood (age 0 to 25 years). This is the dawn of life. Jung believed that human personality emerges from the Universal (i.e. collective) Unconscious at birth and returns to it at death. We spend childhood learning the ins and outs of the world and growing (emotionally, psychologically, physically) so that we have the skills and abilities to handle the requirements of adulthood.

Stage 2: Youth (age 20-38). This is the morning of life. We set out on our independent life-careers, acquiring whatever we think we need for our happiness and well-being. According to Jung, people in this life stage usually define life goals in terms of family, money, social position, and career success. Basically, this time is spent in acquiring "stuff" and focusing on personal needs.

Midlife crisis: age 37-43 years. This is what Jung called the noon of life, a time of spiritual bankruptcy. According to Jung, life ceases to have any meaning for most individuals at this stage, especially for men. [NOTE: most of Carl Jung's patients were affluent men in the post-Victorian era.] At this point in life, individuals begin to focus on their transpersonal needs--tenderness and caring in families, intimate friendships and challenging companions, moments of deep conversation and quiet intimacy, appreciation of nature.
Jung did propose a "midlife crisis" of sorts for women of this age as well. Unlike men, however, he hypothesized that women spend their Youth concentrating on meeting the needs of others, enjoying intimate conversations with other women, and enjoying nature and spirituality. During midlife, they devote their time and efforts to new career goals outside of their nurturing role. In other words, for Carl Jung women and men switch their life focus during this Noon of life.

Stage 3: Maturity (age 42-69). The afternoon of life, this is the time in which our focus shifts from getting "stuff" to devoting our efforts toward suprapersonal values, developing our relationships with others. People see their grown children as worthy of mutual respect and friendship. They spend more time sharing activities with their spouse, going on vacations, visiting friends and relatives. This is also a time in which an individual becomes his/her own person. They finish deciphering who they want to be and pursue their own non-material needs and express their own values.

Stage 4: Old Age (retirement to death). This is the evening of life, a time when a person accepts the waning of their years with grace and no regrets. They prepare to reemerge into the Universal Unconscious, to add their personal life experiences to the collective unconscious so that it can become fodder for future generations. This is a time for the aged to attempt to pass on their wisdom to future generations, though chances are pretty good that the youth aren't listening.

So, while Carl Jung did take it for granted that the majority of men in their late 30s to early 40s would experience some sort of midlife crisis, he saw it as more of a turning point to realign priorities from youthful selfish materialism to mature wisdom of spiritual growth and social relationships. This is not a time to try to turn back the clock, as is the typical scenario for what we expect of a midlife crisis according to modern media. The fact is that even what we usually think of as a midlife crisis (see the examples above) is pretty rare. Most individuals in middle adulthood transition fairly well from their youthful days into mature responsibilities. It is primarily persons suffering from some form of psychological malady--depression, personality disorders, anxiety disorders--who behave so irrationally. Aging is a part of life. Many of us accept it for what it is. We maintain the positive aspects of youth--optimism, enthusiasm, curiosity--and supplement them with the new benefits of maturity--nurturing, responsibility, forward-thinking.