Victor Hugo once said, “Forty is the old age of youth; fifty the youth of old age.” If there is one thing Gen X is battling with today, it is midlife crisis. There are many real-life stories, tips, and blogs out there on dealing with midlife crisis or stagnation in life.
The Speed Breaker
As I see my daughter stepping into her career, I remember how heady and excited I was about getting started my career during my twenties. Our life in the twenties is all about rushing headlong into our careers. Little do we worry about stuff like power struggles, office politics, or abysmally low salaries! Our ignorance gives us that confidence to tread into unknown waters and we go along with the flow. Thereafter, we step into our thirties, by the time which most of us get married, have kids, and focus on what we really want in our careers. Income, position, role, status, and promotions keep us busy and our priorities are clear where salary and growth is concerned. As we are busy careening into our careers, there’s suddenly a rude BUMP! We realize we’ve hit a speed breaker, which is usually by the time we touch our forties.
Truly the “Mid” Life
Besides our metabolism that slows down (and fat that settles comfortably around the middle), our career progression slows down considerably. Although we are aware that an organizational structure is a pyramid, little do we realize that the number of positions too taper out. Worse, we are caught in the dreaded M word – Monotony! Your title changes from Manager to Senior Manager to Director to VP, but your job more or less remains the same. All that you do is manage 2000 people instead of 20! To top that, if you are part of a humungous organization, you realize you are that insignificant bit that can easily get cut out one fine day. Some resort to politics or cliques to hang on to their jobs while others sink into despair. Ironically, forties are also a time when our kids become teenagers, and our parents, septuagenarians. Caught in the middle, did you say?! Expenses too mount to an alarming degree. College fees, medical bills, taxes and everything that seems to need maintenance. Forties is also when we get prone to malaise like hypertension, diabetes, depression, anxiety and heart problems. You have that sinking feeling in your gut that has suddenly become sensitive to what you eat.
Caught in the Middle
One overpowering feeling that I felt a few years ago was the claustrophobic feeling of “stuckness”. The endless possibilities of my twenties and thirties morphed into stumbling blocks where I realized it was too late to switch careers, especially once I began to find my career stagnating. I have had to take a 3 year career break in my thirties to take care of my kids in the past, which already set back my career behind by a decade. So by the time I was well into my forties, I was looking forward to catching up on that gap by putting my entire focus on my career. I realized how naïve I was when I hit my midlife speed bump all too soon, barely 6 years after I resumed work. Besides being passed over for someone younger, more qualified and not necessarily experienced, the other painful pill to swallow is to report to someone not competent enough. As though the generation gap at home wasn’t enough, there was the gap at work too. So there I was in my mid-forties caught between angst-y teenagers and ailing elderly, and a flatlining career. The cruel mirror started showing the signs of aging on my face, right from crow’s feet, under-eye bags, graying and thinning hair, droopy stress lines around the mouth, and the dreaded middle-age glasses! No matter what I did, I was looking old all of a sudden. Not a very happy feeling for sure.
Midlife has also been a period of other losses – of those good old days, of people from your parents’ generation, and loss of certain beliefs in which I had lived my life till then. Everything reached a head when I lost my elderly parents-in-law to sickness within months of each other. Between the frequent trips to the hospital to the crematory to bickering teenagers and hormonal overdrives, this questioned suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere. “What is the purpose of my existence? Where am I going to go from here?”
I decided to take a couple of certification courses to further my career. On an impulse, I Googled the word, “coaching”. Believe it or not, an email found its way to my mailbox promoting a coaching certification program. I decided to take that up and explore where it took me.
Coaching has been a fantastic experience for me. I found the inward journey into the recesses of my thoughts and feelings very insightful, painful, yet liberating. I was able to acknowledge what was holding me back from moving forward. It was a journey towards the unknown, for I uncovered negative behaviors inside me that were the true roadblocks.
Separating Behavior from Judgment
“Middle age is when your broad mind and narrow waist begin to change places”, said E Joseph Cossmann. Nothing could be truer, at least in my case! I had very definite ideas about people that affected my behavior towards them. As I consciously began to separate the behavior from the person, I was able to empathize with people from different generations, ethnicities, personalities and preferences and at least begin to understand there could be a point of view other than mine.
Becoming more self-aware
Overthinking and speaking without thinking – I was known for both these contradictory qualities! One of the tools I learnt during coaching is meditation. As I learnt how to focus only on my breathing, my tangle of thoughts loosened over a period of time. This incredible mindfulness exercise helped me become more aware of my health, my chaotic thoughts and my speech. Rather than the immediate need to react, I became cognizant of the need to pause, reflect, and respond.
During my midlife challenge period, I changed from a cheerful and optimistic individual to someone with anxiety and low self-esteem issues. I began to doubt my capabilities and started to lose confidence in myself. Talking to good friends, having fun, pro bono coaching and mentoring, writing, networking – all of these helped tremendously in restoring my belief in myself.
Prioritizing on what I really want
One fine day it so happened that I had to walk out of my job. There was a growing feeling of discontent and unsettled feeling prior to that, and I had already started looking out for another job, but I had the usual wants of title, designation, salary, company, and other trappings. I had the belief that I absolutely need these to be happy in my career. In my solo year as a freelance consultant, as I reflected on this, I realized how narrowly I was viewing my future. I was so brainwashed into thinking that I needed that fancy title next to my name. One day when my teenager impulsively hugged me saying how happy she felt having me as her mother, I felt a deep sense of gratitude and inner calm. I became conscious that I am more than my title or designation. My happiness need not be compartmentalized within just a career. It’s the fulfillment of having achieved milestones in my personal, family, health, and other aspects of my life that truly mattered. Today when I look at a job, it’s THE job content that I’m looking at. I need to know what meaning and “value” I’m going to add. The toppings or garnishes like title, designation and salary are not unimportant, but rather secondary.
Perhaps the most profound lesson I learnt during my introspective path was Surrender. Letting go of unconstructive and self-limiting beliefs, relinquishing the need to have control over every outcome, giving up my inner insecurities, and submitting to the future without overly worrying – these are some of the things I have been constantly trying to let go. I still struggle with anxiety and overthinking. Letting go is easier said than done, after all.
As I took those steps back to pause, reflect and respond, I was finally able to reveal the roadblocks that were impeding my progress. It was a painful process as I had to battle with a lifetime of strongly held beliefs, unhealthy habits, and raw feelings. I really had to lay open my emotions and learn to accept without expectations. “Accept and Don’t Expect” became my life’s new philosophy.
Midlife is also a lot to do with change management. It is all about battling against all that is to discover what could be. The resistance is all within. And the solution also is all within.
I’m not saying that this process suddenly brought magic to my life. What is brought is a much clearer view of where I want to go and I what I want to do. Most importantly, I have realized that midlife is a beautiful stage when you can look forward to a richer life without pretenses. It’s similar to climbing a mountain. It is tiring, but offers a great view and perspective.
What has been your experience with midlife crisis? I would be happy to hear your story of how you made your midlife an enriching experience.
Here are some of my other related posts on LinkedIn that you might like to read: