Midlife, as seen through the eyes of popular culture and conventional medicine, is a time when things break down and fall apart. It’s often regarded as the beginning of the end of the most exciting, active and meaningful part of life.
But in my almost three decades of practicing conventional and integrative medicine, I’ve come to regard this phase as the beginning of the beginning: a threshold for the sacred gateway for self-healing and transformation in the middle of our lives.
The experiences that occur around this time provide us with rich opportunities to find our authentic, intrinsic identities — as opposed to those defined by our roles in or the expectations of the external world. We are given a second chance to reconnect with or discover anew what brings us joy and fulfillment.
During this period, fear, nervousness, sadness and regret may surface. Our Western medical system tends to view these feelings as symptoms and label them pathological. But within a more holistic, psycho-spiritual context, they are actually seen as signals that herald a renaissance is under way.
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Standing at a Crossroads
Shannon, a 50-year-old woman suffering from fatigue, nervousness and insomnia, came to see me last year. Her doctor had written her off as “depressed” and prescribed medication, but she didn’t feel his diagnosis was complete or even accurate. Seeking another doctor's opinion, she found my integrative healing center that specializes in women's health issues. Her symptoms were relatively new: They started exactly two months after her husband had filed for divorce. Ironically, she’d been looking forward — with guarded optimism — to rekindling their marriage once the last of their kids were grown and gone. But instead, her husband of 30 years threw her a curve ball.
Not that she wasn’t braced for it on some level. For the previous few years, Shannon had been feeling a lack of fulfillment in her primary roles of wife and mother. She’d been searching for ways to rediscover and re-engage her old, happier self — and her quest intensified when her nest emptied. Now, suddenly faced with being single again, she realized she was standing at the crossroads of her old life and a new, unknown one that lay ahead.
Like Shannon, many of us have found ourselves undergoing profound transitions in midlife that are either forced upon us by external circumstances or are the result of conscious choices we’ve made. Whatever the catalyst may be, paying attention to our feelings in midlife and relating to them in a new way can lead to unparalleled rediscovery, reconnection and creativity.
Reinventing Yourself at Midlife
Carl Jung referred to this transformational process as individuation. During the first half of our lives, our decisions create a path that we hurtle along — too busy to question it or shift gears — until midlife hits. Then inner and outer circumstances force a re-evaluation.
In this stage, we step through a portal and onto a different stage, one that requires us to identify and release what no longer feels authentic or meaningful. It’s at this powerful, vulnerable moment that individuation begins. And the uncomfortable feelings that accompany this process are actually a confirmation that things are starting to shift.
When Jung said, “Whatever is not brought to consciousness comes to us as fate,” he could have been referring specifically to Shannon. She needed to explore the ways in which she had become conditioned to adapt to societal values while unwittingly compromising her own. I helped her see that her work would be to strip away layers of personality shape-shifting and explore what was underneath it all.
Our society teaches us that putting others’ needs before ours is an act of love and that not speaking our truth is a sign of respect. For the first half of our lives, these conditioned behaviors provide a means for us to define ourselves, but they can ultimately lead to self-neglect and a disconnection from our true feelings and needs.
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The Role of Hormones
The precision of the timing of the midlife transformational process is remarkable. In a woman’s late 30s, her reproductive hormone levels start to decline, causing emotional sensitivity and feelings of restlessness that can be mistaken for anxiety. This is often a sign that a woman's inner life needs more attention than she is giving it. By her late 40s, she gains greater clarity around the difference between what her needs really are and how she’s been compromising them. By her 50s she finds the courage to express her desires and act in ways that nurture her. As she begins to value self-care and act with compassion, she finds more meaning in her life.
For men, the midlife process is not marked by the dramatic hormonal shifts that women experience. Their levels decline more gradually, and for many, midlife transformation is initiated by a sudden change of health, financial security or a relationship, which can trigger the reinvention process.
How to Make the Most of a Midlife Crisis
In our society, we don’t really have a framework to guide us through this midlife journey or validate our experiences. I tried to create one in my book Becoming Real: Harnessing the Power of Menopause for Health and Success. The first and most important thing is to not confuse the feelings that transformation evokes as pathological. The feelings we experience are a normal part of the reinvention process. After that, follow these four suggestions, which can provide support during this important time.
- Consider working with a Jungian therapist to explore ways of cultivating greater intimacy and authenticity if you sense this is missing in your life. Jung’s approach to analysis is deeply effective for self-exploration and helping one differentiate the conditioned self from the authentic self.
- Eat a largely plant-based, whole-foods diet with an abundance of greens. This will increase your physical and emotional vitality and strengthen the body. Stress can weaken the immune system and increase vulnerability to diseases, and a healthy diet can give the resilience you need. As a bonus, there’s an abundance of evidence showing that this kind of diet reduces heart disease and cancer, the top two killers of people over 50.
- Commit to an exercise program that involves at least 20 minutes of daily aerobic exercise. Studies show that this provides an outlet for stress, decreases cholesterol, reduces the incidence of heart disease and chronic illness and improves mood. This invaluable part of self-care supports the midlife transformational process.
- Begin a regular meditation or “mindfulness” practice to cultivate inner peace and self-compassion. This has been shown in multiple studies to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and increase feelings of well-being. As little as 10 minutes of meditation a day can have a positive impact on your health. It increases self-awareness and puts you in touch with feelings that may otherwise be ignored or denied.
Shannon has been following this “prescription” religiously for the better part of a year now. She's been seeing a therapist who helped her change her lifestyle and her worldview. She came to reframe her feelings of sadness, grief and fear in new ways. She changed to a healthier diet and took up exercise and meditation. By learning to care for herself in new ways, she’s embracing her “midlife crisis” as an opportunity for growth and reconnection.