Comfortably Numb at Midlife?

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re probably aware that the 78 million baby boomers have entered midlife. As a psychotherapist and business psychologist – and member of this new midlife generation myself – I’ve worked a great deal with midlifers seeking help for emotional conflicts, career dilemmas and life transition issues.

I’ve heard many expressions of midlife distress, but few as poignant as this one: A 47 year–old married mother of three told me of a dream in which she’s on one of those moving sidewalks, but can’t get off. On either side scenes pass by – it’s herself, living different lives, with different people. Suddenly she recognizes the Grim Reaper standing at the end of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, awaiting her. She wakes up, screaming.

How to best understand it’s meaning? One problem is that much of the research and clinical understanding about midlife is contradictory. Some, like a MacArthur Foundation study, suggest that there’s no such thing as a “midlife crisis” today; that most people sail through it smoothly. Others, like two recent studies, suggest that midlife is a time of universal depression;
sometimes severe.

For example, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found a 20 percent rise in midlife suicide among 45 to 54 year–olds from 1999–2004 – a rise that exceeded all other age groups in the U.S.

Another study reported an increase in depression during one’s 40s to early 50s, after which happiness rises again. Researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College studied 2 million people from 80 nations and found this pattern to be consistent across gender, socio–economic levels and among developed and developing countries alike.

Some experts think the rise of midlife suicide may reflect the decrease of hormone replacement therapy among women, the stress of modern life or increased drug usage among midlifers. But they’re groping in the dark.  Such experiences can lead to many outcomes, depending on how the person handles them, not necessarily suicide.

Regarding the rise of “happiness” after midlife depression, some speculate that people may feel happier after their 40s because they’ve learned to count their blessings, or resign themselves to life goals they know they’ll never achieve.

Based on my own work over the last few decades, I find these explanations unconvincing. The data only underscore the need for a new understanding of midlife; a new framework through which people could learn to deal more effectively with the positive and negative changes they encounter. Here’s mine:

What Is “Midlife”Anyway?

First, I think the term “midlife” is a misnomer. Psychologically, it’s really the portal into full adulthood, the time when you face the challenges of “evolving” into a fully adult human. Successfully crossing that portal involves addressing some core questions: “What am I living for?” “What’s the purpose of my life?”

These questions are the source of most adult emotional conflicts, because facing them often arouses tremendous fear, denial or escapism. After all, we’re highly conditioned to define ourselves by what we have rather than who we are. We learn to turn away from looking down the road, where we see Death patiently awaiting us all, as that 47 year–old woman did in her nightmare.  The economic downturn that began in September 2008 has added to the fears about what may lie ahead.

Moreover, “midlife” actually kicks in around 35.  That’s when most people start emerging from younger adulthood, which is really an extension of adolescence in our culture. Until then, you’re dealing with the often–long period of education and training, and getting established in the adult career world. You’re shifting your emotional connection with your family towards becoming more of your own person. You’re learning about intimate relationships, and (hopefully) why they fail. Overall, you’re having to take more responsibility for your actions and decisions.

When you begin to deal with the fully adult challenges you open a Pandora’s box of new questions and conflicting desires. For example, you feel pulled towards integrating the different “parts” of your life. You want to answer that inner voice asking, “Why am I choosing to live the life I’m living?” That is, the work you’re engaged in, your friendships and love relationships, your life–style and other commitments. Your inner voice begins to ask, “Are they what I truly want?”

And most critical of all is whether you’re serving anything larger than your own personal needs and wants.

Facing all that can be difficult, even painful, because we’re so easily trapped within past choices and/or materialistic life–styles and often don’t see any viable alternatives. Then, we may just resign to “what is.” It can lead to what one man said to his wife during a couples therapy session in my office, “Maintaining a certain life–style and juggling all the balls of busy lives and careers – that’s just part of normal life, isn’t it? Can’t do anything about that. Let’s just figure out how to smooth out the bumps.”

Happiness dips during the 40s because dealing with these new conflicts and needs converges with a second psychological shift: Old emotional defenses, rationalizations and self–deceptions from your childhood and adolescence, as well as from your adult decisions, begin to erode and crumble under their own weight. They no longer work so well as you age.

That’s because we always know the truth inside. And truth keeps trying to rise to the surface. We may have remained unconscious about old conflicts – and puzzle over repetitive patterns or underlying unhappiness — but the pull towards resolve them is a strong developmental need, and it tends to blossom more fully during midlife. In fact, the economic meltdown over the last several months has intensified that pull, out of necessity.  So it may prove to be a blessing in disguise for many people.

How People Deal With It

Sadly, though, some head into a downward spiral of midlife despair and resignation. That can segue into depression, from mild to severe.  Suicide attempts may occur in some cases, as the research found. An example of downward drift is a man who realized that he never really liked his career, felt underutilized and unfulfilled; and then was let go by his company. At the same time, he was going through a divorce. He asked me a tearful question in our first meeting that sounded like a Zen koan: “How do you start over when you can’t start over?”

Successful movement through this period of life challenges accounts for some of the data about that upswing of happiness after the 40s, but not all. A larger source of later life “happiness” is more likely masked resignation and accommodation –people who more or less give up trying to grow and change. They decide, consciously or unconsciously, to lope along in the life they’ve been living and define that as happiness.

It’s illusory, though, because over time they tend to become “comfortably numb,” emotionally and spiritually. And, they become increasingly vulnerable to physical ailments, an upsurge of elder–life depression, alcoholism or drug usage.

I’ve worked with many such “happy” people: A woman who feared what changes she might have to make in her life to feel more alive, more vital — until one day she discovered her husband had been conducting an affair for several years, and her world crumbled. Or the man who had become more withdrawn at home, burying himself in work, alcohol and Internet chat rooms – with the silent agreement of his wife.  Meanwhile, he gained weight and developed high blood pressure. When he consulted me, he said that whenever he had tried to “break free,” he reverted back to his “old ways,” so he had decided to just stop trying.

More positively, I see a rise in number of those who grapple with their midlife challenges right from the start. They do some self–examination and work at creating clearer purpose and more integration within their lives, which can open up a sense of renewal. Seen in this light, midlife is really a positive transition zone for forging creative solutions and better trade–offs about your daily life commitments – mortgages, tuitions, salaries, expenditures and so forth – and then restructuring your life choices, values and goals in ways more consistent with an integrated, healthy and authentic life that continues to grow and develop spiritually, emotionally and in your relationships.  That’s positive aging.

How Can You Do That?

Deal With Your Problems – Today

No one enters the thick of adulthood unscathed by childhood. Have you ever met anyone who had perfect parents?  But when your emotional conflicts impact your relationships and behavior, it’s time to find a good psychotherapist. Do it now. Remember what’s waiting for you down the road. If you feel depressed, don’t be so quick to pop pills. A new, large–scale study finds that antidepressant medications work no better than placebos, except for people with incapacitating depression or major mood disorder. Most people’s emotional state is a physiological–emotional byproduct of how you’re “practicing” your whole life.

Design Your Own “Evolution”

A large–scale study of baby boomers by MetLife/Civic Ventures in 2005 found that over half now want their work to contribute to the common good; to provide a greater sense of service. Does that resonate with you? Take an honest look at what you’re really working and living for. With your partner, assess how your career – its rewards and tradeoffs – relates to the rest of your life, including where you find meaning, your longer–term goals, and how you’re using your mental and emotional powers in the world, beyond your own self–interest. What changes would create better alignment?  Especially today, when financial rewards may not be as promising as in years past.

Rethink Your Relationship

Ready for this? If you and your partner have been together a long time take the radical step of confronting whether you want to continue your marriage or relationship. Is this the person you want to stay with the rest of your life? Face the possibility that the relationship you entered years ago and within which you raised children worked for that earlier purpose, but may no longer do so, today.  If so, how could you reconstitute it?  Do you want to?

Maybe a time will come when people choose a marriage partner on the basis of raising healthy children in a stable environment, and then later seek a different partner with whom one feels a greater romantic, soul–mate connection. But for now you can learn whether the two of you can rebuild the kind of relationship that you both want. Get the help of a good couples therapist if necessary.

But if you decide it’s better to end it, do it now, with mutual respect.  Don’t be like the 85 year–old man who, when asked by his surprised nephew — who was in a troubled marriage himself — why he was leaving his wife after 60 years of marriage, replied flatly, “Because I’ve been unhappy with her for 50 years.”

The upshot about midlife is that most are capable of self–directing their lives at this point. What you experience isn’t some inexorable process that simply happens to you. It’s the product of how you manage the changes within your mind/body/spirit; how you deal with the new possibilities that lie ahead.

Oh, and keep in mind Yogi Berra’s sage advice, “When you come to a fork in the road . . . take it!”

A condensed version of this article previously appeared in different form in the Washington Post.