A couple of years ago, the wife of my cousin “snapped.” She had recently crossed the north side of forty-five, had a teenage son, a good job, a steady marriage, and comfortable living. That is, your perfect epitome of a “normal life.” However, that didn’t stop a midlife crisis in women from appearing.
Something was “off” with her, a common friend told me. And indeed—because they live abroad, when I saw her, I barely recognized her. She looked great, no doubt—courtesy of the combination of a fitness instructor, a tanning bed, and regular visits to an aesthetic clinic.
“I feel different,” she told me. “I have more self-respect now and want to take better care of myself. I refuse to feel gloomy that my life is over.”
To outsiders, though, it looked like she was having a midlife crisis and entering menopause. Everyone in the family expected her to run off with a hunky barista so that she could feel young again for a while.
Well, this didn’t happen (to some people’s disappointment perhaps), but the stereotype prevailed. Why go through such a sudden transformation and life crisis if you don’t want to prove that forty-five is the new thirty and that you still “got it”?
Table of Contents
- The Myth about Midlife Crisis in Women
- What Midlife “Crisis” in Women Is Really About
- Factors Impacting Midlife Crisis in Women
- Why Is the Midlife Crisis Getting Such a Bad Reputation?
- How a Midlife Crisis Can Make You a Better Person
- Tips on Handling A Midlife Crisis
- Summing It All Up
The Myth about Midlife Crisis in Women
There is a typical way of thinking, indeed—the midlife crisis narrative fueled by the image of a guy buying a luxury sports car and driving into the sunset with his 20-something new girlfriend. Or a middle-aged woman finding a younger fling so that she can feel wanted and sexy again.
This social cliché paints a picture of reckless behavior—of overspending, unfaithfulness, and an uncontrollable desire to turn back time. And all this is presumably fueled by a bubbling frustration the person feels underneath—because of dreams unmet, goals unrealized and life, and feeling unable to leave a dent in the universe.
But all this begs the question:
Just because something is a decades-old stereotype, does it make it true today? Does midlife foster more carelessness or thoughtfulness?
What Midlife “Crisis” in Women Is Really About
A midlife crisis in women is basically a period of transition of identity and usually occurs between the ages of about 45 and 65. It’s often thought of a psychological crisis triggered by an awareness of age and mortality.
First coined in an article by the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, the term has quickly become a mainstream explanation for anyone who “snaps” after they pass forty. “Must-be-the-midlife-crisis” adage makes it all easier for us to understand and label this transitional period as something that seems more of a catastrophe than a catharsis.
An interesting thing to note is that one study shows that it manifests during different times for middle aged women and men. For the former group, it is between thirty-five and forty-five, and for the latter, it’s between forty-five and fifty-four. Other studies place lock-bottom around fifty for both genders.
Although many may be bracing themselves for the dark times that are coming, it’s important not to develop tunnel-vision and to only focus on the bad.
Midlife transition is part of the natural aging process that everyone goes through—it is about the physical changes to your body.
Apart from the outer shell, it may also change our inner landscapes, and often in a positive way.
Symptoms of a Midlife Crisis in Women
As described in the common literature, the “typical” symptoms of midlife crisis are:
- Feelings of depression and disappointment
- Anger at oneself for not being as successful as others
- Nostalgia about the younger years
- Dissatisfaction with one’s life in general
- A sense of pressure that there is much you still want to do in a shrinking timespan
- A heightened need for a change or “something different”
- Doubts about your achievements and the choices you have made so far
- A desire for passion, intimacy, and to feel wanted again
Simply put, you may feel progressively but somewhat unfoundedly unhappy. Life appears to be hollowed out of meaning.
Factors Impacting Midlife Crisis in Women
The midlife crisis for women is often misrepresented in pop culture and various forms of media, leading many to believe it stems from menopause, personal dissatisfaction, and insecurities. However, instead of looking at it as an entirely internal formula, it is important to see the external factors that contribute to women’s midlife crisis taking such a volatile form.
A lot of pressure is put on women to manage their responsibilities alongside societal expectations when they reach this stage of life. They are often taken for granted when they do things associated with the ‘female’ role and hardly get much encouragement. Above all, the natural process of aging is often demonized for women. One of the most important external factors is:
We live in a society that is fixated on achievements and productivity as measures for human worth and life’s value. For women, when their children leave the house and their job reaches a point where they won’t be getting more promotions, they are seen to have reached their limit. From there on they are expected to act like their life is over.
It could also be due to cultural differences and society’s attitude towards aging women. In most western societies, aging is not celebrated for women. They actively go out of their way to look like anything but their age, and they have every right to do so. As society has associated the middle-aged woman to be a background character, women actively struggle with accepting that as their reality once they reach that age.
“Imagine what our story would look like if, rather than succumbing to the insistent voices of family or culture, we determined that our vocation was to be a better human.” – James Hollis, Ph.D.
Similar to external factors, internal factors also heavily weigh the reality of a midlife crisis on women. This is because biologically and psychologically they feel at odds with themselves. It is hard to accept aging, especially when younger women are the only group considered desirable. It is even harder to accept new roles in life that are out of their comfort zone. Two of the most important internal factors are:
Once women start experiencing midlife crisis, they reevaluate their role in the lives of others around them. The children that they once looked after, have now left home and care for themselves. Their own aging parents remind them of their future and how their role in everyone’s lives has been reduced greatly.
When women are going through this phase, their lives are drastically changing. This can lead to a clash of interests and feelings and they often feel victimized. Their behavior is often described as irrational. With reduced responsibilities, the days seem longer and life seems to lose meaning.
However, this doesn’t mean one gives up. The best way to tackle the excess time on your hands is to think about what made you happy when you were younger. Think about the talents you had that you couldn’t invest in due to work or family. Spend time rediscovering yourself and building upon the hobbies that bring you joy. Additionally consulting with a mental health professional can also prove to be helpful.
Certain physical and hormonal changes bring about the most prominent symptoms of a midlife crisis. Aging is a natural process and yet loose skin, grey hair, and wrinkles can be a cause of anxiety for many. Biologically, many women are also going through menopause during this time, which makes them more emotional and moody.
Menopause is not easy to go through, the active changes in estrogen and progesterone levels can lead to hot flashes and a generally irritable mood. It can also lead to a severe onslaught of depression. Many women have to face this without having someone to talk to and without the understanding of their families at times. This severely impacts their experience of going through a mid life crisis.
Why Is the Midlife Crisis Getting Such a Bad Reputation?
Going through the typical manifestations of a midlife crisis, it is easy to understand why it is not a time one should excitedly anticipate.
On top of the above-mentioned signs, there are deeper and darker waters running underneath your sense of unhappiness.
The period marks the beginning of the sunset of your life. It’s the stage where you start to notice more vividly the streaks of grey hair, the wrinkles, the sagging skin, or your feeling out of place amongst younger crowds.
In a sometimes-desperate attempt to summon back youth, some may embark on, as shown in the movies, rather reckless behavior, such as overspending, excessive working out, or a fling with the young hot gardener in the style of Desperate Housewives.
Most importantly, however, a midlife crisis has come to be associated with a dip in happiness, as described by the famed “U-shape” of Happiness. One of the first pieces of research supporting this idea is from 2008 by two economics professors, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald.
Using data from 500,000 people from the U.S. and Europe, they found that the lowest point of subjective well-being happens around the age of 46. After this, it begins to increase. However, it’s unclear what exactly causes this—there seem to be different explanations floating around.
The prevailing rationale seems to be that it’s due to “unmet expectations,” which are, naturally, accompanied by the gloomy feeling of depression and a sense that we have wasted our lives without achieving anything truly remarkable.
Therefore, a rather joyless picture emerges—a period which feels more like the Dark Ages—to be dreaded rather than celebrated as the new chapter of one’s life.
Why the Hype Is Untrue
The evidence from studies has been somewhat controversial on whether a midlife crisis really exists.
Some research has shown that midlife transitional period does exist, but not at a specific point in time. It’s more part of the aging and maturing process, which happens gradually during adulthood. It is more a hype about the hype, an expectation that creates a “reality,” which is not nearly as dramatic as we have been led to believe.
Other recent tests also chime in with a similar tone—two Canadian longitudinal studies found that, when accounting for variables as health, employment, and martial status, our happiness tends to rise, not fall, during adulthood. That is, people in their 40s are generally more joyful and satisfied than people in their 20s or 30s.
A piece in The Atlantic points out that, as more research began to come in, “most scientists abandoned the idea that the midlife crisis is biological. They regarded it mostly as a cultural construct. The same mass media that had once heralded the midlife crisis began trying to debunk it, in dozens of news stories with variations on the headline ‘Myth of the Midlife Crisis.'”
However, the same story points out that “the idea was too delicious to be debunked. It had become part of the Western middle-class narrative, offering a fresh, self-actualizing story about how life is supposed to go”.
Basically, it became a convenient way of putting a name to moments in our life that were difficult to explain.
A U-shape of happiness may exist, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a crisis. And there is no proof that the experiences are universal to all people.
Decades ago, by the time aging women hit their forties, they were considered to be well into their mature, older years. They would marry in their twenties, have kids almost right away, and twenty years later, they would be sending them to college and going through the empty-nest syndrome.
Now, we live longer, and we have kids later in life, often after thirty-five. The way our career and personal life trajectories unfold is very different.
Do not fall a victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just because we are told to expect something dreadful, it doesn’t mean it will happen.
How a Midlife Crisis Can Make You a Better Person
The midlife years do not have to feel like a stone around your neck. They are not about depression and mood swings, or about feeling stuck in a rut and having an existential crisis.
They are about reassessment, reflection, and the opportunity to become an improved version of yourself. It can be a long-term silver lining when experiencing moments of regret.
Here are some ways in which this period can also make you a better person in the process:
1. Your Mental Health Improves
Faced with the transience of your existence, you realize that some things are not worth stressing about. You become calmer and wiser, and you learn to accept the things you can not change.
In fact, studies have shown that, as we age, responsiveness to regret decreases. Therefore, our “emotional health” improves.
2. You Have Stronger Relationships
You become nicer with people—you let go of old grudges and are willing to overlook small disagreements. You don’t get hinged on the trivial stuff, as you start looking at the bigger picture.
In fact, you may become more appreciative of your relationships and spend more time with those who matter in your life.
3. You Are More Motivated
As you have gone through some ups and downs in the past years, you can become more focused, driven, and motivated.
You can craft new goals, use your lessons learned, and find better ways of going after what you want.
4. You Take Better Care of Yourself—Both Physically and Mentally
This is more relevant for those with grown children. It is finally time to treat yourself better.
After all the years you spent neglecting yourself to be a good mom or wife, it’s finally the time to give yourself some appreciation.
You will seek balance, will stray away from extreme emotions, and may adopt a more philosophical way of life—more in line with the Eastern philosophy of focusing on the Now.
5. You Feel More Connected With Others
As you think more about leaving a mark on Earth and doing something meaningful during a midlife crisis for women, you may look for ways to make the world a better place. You will want to have a positive legacy, so you may start helping others more, donate to charity, or volunteer.
You will come to realize that the good life is more about connectedness and less about social competition.
6. You’re More Grateful
In this vein, you also start appreciating more what you have—i.e. there is a spike in gratitude as we age, studies tell us.
You may shift focus from career to personal relationships and start nurturing them more. You will spend more time with family and friends and rekindle your connections.
7. You’re More Positive
Finally, if you chose to see the positive regarding what you have achieved and what you have in your life, you will adopt a more optimistic outlook, too.
You will be proud of our life unfolding the way it has, rather than feeling miserable that it has not taken another direction.
8. You Can Change a Course of Your Life
When you feel the imminence of old age and realize that time is limited, you learn to appreciate it more.
There is no deluding yourself that you have unlimited number of years left—it can be a sort of “Now-or-Never” moment in your life.
9. You Will Learn to Let Go of The Past
You have lived long enough now to fully recognize that the past is not a predictor of the future. Leave it where it belongs.
Therefore, midlife is also a time for a mental cleanse.
10. Let Go of the Petty Stuff
You can see the bigger picture now and are able to figure out that some things are just not worth your energy, anger, or time.
Therefore, you can really focus on achieving your goals with less distractions.
11. Make a Lifestyle Change Through New Habits
A midlife crisis for women can be a turning point where you can let go of bad habits that are holding you back. It’s high time you start going to the gym as you have always wanted—one New Year’s resolution after another.
It is also the period to attempt quitting smoking, eating better, or reading more. Whatever it is that you want to improve, use the midlife years as a “wake-up” call to do so.
12. Figure out How to Make Your Life Count
Finally, according to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, between ages of 40 and 65, we start asking ourselves how to make our lives count.
The answer, he advises, is something called “generativity”—which is simply a “concern for establishing and guiding for the next generation”. That is, what makes your life meaningful is to ensure that you care for and guide your kids into the future and raise them to become good human beings.
If you don’t have children, there are other ways to “care” and “guide.” You can volunteer, start a charity, become a mentor, etc. Find what helps you feel that your life means something to the world.
Tips on Handling A Midlife Crisis
There are some important tips that you need to take into consideration when going through a midlife crisis. They will help you handle things better and navigate through this chapter of your life with more clarity. Some useful tips are:
- Prioritize yourself. Take the time to invest in yourself through spas, skincare, a vacation and generally improving your own wellbeing.
- Now that your children are independent, choose who stays in your life. Realize that you’re the main character of your life and you decide what goes in it.
- Make time for investing in hobbies and activities that improve your wellbeing and are good for your mental health.
- Find ways to give back to the community, the feeling of being needed can extend the boundaries of your home.
- Learn to be the main character of your life again, reaching a middle-age is no time to lose gumption, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
Summing It All Up
In the end, there are a few takeaways regarding a midlife crisis for women.
Remember that it is more about an opportunity for a re-assessment, improving your life and relationships, not about going haywire with your behavior.
We should, in fact, stop calling this period “crisis”—as it is really not. It is more about midlife chances to finally summon the courage to become the person we are meant to be. If it really does feel like a crisis, it may be time to seek professional help or look into life coaching.
Rather than being scared, you can anticipate it with excitement—it is finally the time to “put your ducks in order” and focus on what truly matters to you.
Featured photo credit: Christian Gertenbach via unsplash.com
|||^||The Conversation: Hard evidence: is the midlife crisis real?|
|||^||Live About: What Are the Causes of a Midlife Crisis?|
|||^||National Bureau of Economic Research: Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle?|
|||^||The Washington Post: Under 50? You still haven’t hit rock bottom, happiness-wise.|
|||^||Gail Sheehy: Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life|
|||^||Shek, D. T. L. (1996): Midlife crisis in Chinese men and women.|
|||^||Developmental Psychology: Up, not down: The age curve in happiness from early adulthood to midlife in two longitudinal studies|
|||^||The Atlantic: How the Midlife Crisis Came to Be|
|||^||Enjoy Midlife: What are the signs of midlife crisis and other questions|
|||^||Science: Don’t look back in anger! Responsiveness to missed chances in successful and nonsuccessful aging.|
|||^||The Atlantic: The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis|
|||^||Very Well Mind: Generativity vs. Stagnation: Psychosocial Stage 7|