June 23, 2024
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Dealing With My Midlife Crisis

Dear Dr. Chani,

I so enjoy reading your column. I appreciate your cogent and insightful advice. I am reaching out to you for help with a problem I am not sure you can solve. It is basically a biological issue, but I find that it affects the way I feel about my relationships, too.

I am getting older. I am 39 and I find it very hard to deal with it. I have a wonderful, loving husband, and three beautiful children. My job is OK, too. I enjoy it and get paid nicely. But I cannot deal with getting older. I cannot even bear to think about how I am 39. I think of all the things I wanted to be “when I grow up.” I am not near them at all. I have not done most of them. I also do not feel that I’ve accomplished much to show for the many years I have. In taking stock, I feel I’ve fallen short.

When I was younger, I felt like I had time in the future to take care of what I had not done yet. Now I feel that time is not on my side anymore. I am not an adolescent, newlywed or a new mother. I am middle aged and I feel like instead of the “when you get there” feeling, I am already there—with no specific arrival. Life is good, but life just is. I also think that I am halfway through life—and the rest is downhill from here. Can you help?

Samantha

Dear Samantha,

You are right that the issue you are facing has a bit to do with biology. Time marches in one direction, and there is little you can do to stop that. Yet, your difficulties really come from your painful thinking about getting older. As you reflect on your life, you wonder where the days have gone. You sense that you have accomplished much less than you would have imagined you would by this time in your life. You used to feel like you had a lot to accomplish and much time to do it. Now, you feel like a lot of that time has passed. Your hourglass has already poured through a lot of sand.

You are describing what some call a midlife crisis. You feel like you are at the midpoint of your life and you have not yet lived life to its fullest. It can be a very painful, overwhelming feeling that could potentially continue for years. There are a few things that can help you out of this rut.

Firstly, it can be beneficial to discuss your frustration with others who are going through (or have gone through) this stage of life. Arriving at middle age is a natural part of life; so are some of the reactions that you are describing. When you talk about them with others, such as your friends, family, or colleagues, it can allow you to see the normalcy of your thoughts and feel supported by other people who can relate to your feelings.

Secondly, try to narrow your disappointment. Think about the specific areas of your life about which you feel particularly frustrated or sad. You might have had certain goals or dreams that you hoped would come to fruition, and they did not. You might have made choices or done things that you regret. Those unfulfilled dreams or mistakes can spread clouds over your whole attitude about your life. You do not have to let it be that way.

Allow yourself to focus on the specific issues that are bothering you and name them. Pinpoint the particular areas that are troubling you about your life experiences and label each one. When you identify specific sources of your disappointment, you might be able to trace your disillusionment to several specific areas of your life instead of generalizing about your whole life.

In addition, when you notice the particular areas that are bothering you, it becomes easier to explore each one. You may be able to reframe or change your perspective about these disappointments or discover new ways to resolve them. You might benefit from speaking to a therapist who can help you better understand those thoughts and emotions.

Thirdly, strive to reflect on your life in a more balanced way. After you focus on what is particularly troubling and limit your disappointment to these areas, allow yourself to appreciate the positive aspects of your life, too. Instead of being self-critical, allow yourself to appreciate the positive things in your life and your accomplishments. For example, you describe a loving relationship with your husband and three children. You are also working at a job that you enjoy. Even amidst the clouds, do not take the sunshine in your life for granted.

Broaden your standards by which you are judging yourself. Keep in mind that you do not need to measure your life by other people’s standards and expectations. You do not need to achieve what other people did. You do not need to achieve what other people thought you would. In fact, you do not need to achieve even what you thought you would. Even if you did not accomplish all that you dreamed about, your life probably has many aspects about it that you can focus on to give you joy, pride and satisfaction.

Finally, recognize that today is the beginning of the rest of your life. Instead of lamenting about not achieving your previous goals, create new goals that take into account your current life circumstances. Focusing on new goals can inject a renewed sense of excitement and purpose into your step as you begin to pursue Goals 2.0. If you choose new goals you can gently guide yourself away from regrets for the past and focus your energy to accomplishing your goals in the future.

What about your earlier goals? You can use those to help you inform your decision about what to select for new goals. Alternatively, you can choose completely different ideals and dreams for the future. How do you know which to choose? Your old goals can sometimes provide navigation toward your future, or shackles to your past. Are they giving you much-needed guidance to know how to live your life now, or are they heaping frustrations on you for your past dreams and guilt for what you have not yet done? Give thought to what your previous goals do for you as you select whether to modify or replace them.

As you enter midlife, the self-doubting thoughts that you are describing are normal. There are several ways to deal with them to help you lift your spirits. You can discuss your feelings with people who can relate to you; narrow your broad disappointment by identifying specific areas of frustration; strive to reflect on your life in a balanced way that allows the positive aspects to shine; and replace your previous goals with new, exciting goals. As you take these steps, you can make peace with your past, enjoy your present, and anticipate a beautiful future.

Wishing you much success,

Chani


Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional-connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, teaches courses on how to become a master of relationships and provides free relationship resources at chanimaybruch.com. Learn a step-by-step method to improve your ability to emotionally connect with her new online course: The RELATE Technique™—Seven Steps to Emotionally Connect Through Conversation. Reach out to her at [email protected].

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