My Early Midlife Crisis: Bear, Manoeuvre or Heal

Sometimes beauty is sad

I’m wondering if I’ve experienced an early midlife crisis. A mid-career or midlife crisis is characterised by feelings of dissatisfaction, disappointment and a lack of gratitude that tend to appear in the middle of one’s life. As I reflect on my thoughts over the last 5 or 6 years, I cannot help seeing some resemblance with such a crisis. I want to explore this.

A recent HBR article, ‘Why So Many of Us Experience a Midlife Crisis‘ by Dr. Hannes Schwandt poses that on average,

‘Life satisfaction is high when people are young, then starts to decline in the early 30s, bottoming out between the mid-40s and mid-50s before increasing again to levels as high as during young adulthood.

Does this explain the decline in satisfaction, my worries about change and being average? I confess that I panicked early in my 30s when I started to feel less satisfied about where I was in my career and I felt guilty that I was whiny. The research outlined by Dr Hannes Schwandt resonates with me because it explains – to some extent – a natural development process driven by biology. Simply put, this feeling of dissatisfaction can happen to anyone – not necessarily everyone but it’s pretty common. He notes that it affects childless couples, parents of four, stay-at-home parents, single people and senior-level executives alike. However, it is not clear to me how personality, spirituality and environment affect the progress of this. I might have seen the onset of this in my life, perhaps too soon for whatever reason. I’ve handled it in a number of ways.

If I bear it, will you think I’m tough?

My 20s were filled with optimism. In fact, some of that optimism may have come off as over-confidence. I was going to get to the top of my game. I would stay up as long as necessary to get the job done. I was irritated with people that complained or wouldn’t move fast enough. If I was to describe my future status, I would have expressed high expectations of myself. It is unclear at what point exactly but there was certainly a time when I felt like I wasn’t meeting my own expectations of myself. The few people I told looked at me like I had suddenly grown horns. They were incredulous and would say, ‘What is wrong with you??’

Jonathan Rauch in his cover story, ‘The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis‘ in the Atlantic magazine describes a similar experience. He notes that he was a published author, wrote for top outlets, had won prestigious prizes and so on. If it was someone else’s career, he would have been impressed. But still he woke up disappointed morning after morning.

In the beginning, I decided that the best thing to do was to shut up and work. I did what I needed to do and tried to ignore all the negative images that would often remind me that I hadn’t achieved much. I became pretty tough in that time. I even coined a concept to describe how I was getting through. I recently described it to a close friend,

‘I go underwater. I hold my breath and just get it done. The breathlessness doesn’t last forever. When it’s done, I can come up for air at the other end.’

The data from Dr Schwandt’s research suggests that one can wait out a crisis like this and that things look up later in life so my approach may have some merit. There are coping mechanisms such as mentoring and acknowledgement of what it is. I’m just not convinced that is sufficient to manage the shear exhaustion of bearing a midlife crisis, particularly an early one.

Will a good manoeuvre fix this?

I planned a manoeuvre to get out of my exhaustion. It manifested in real terms when I applied for and accepted an offer to undertake a doctorate degree then took time off corporate life. But the seeds of change loomed for longer than that. For instance, I actively paid off all my credit card debt over a period of 3 years in anticipation of following a dream that required a low-maintenance budget – at least initially. I built up a network of contacts from different backgrounds, targeted and engaged potential mentors in order to get a taste of the other side. The nurturing of the seeds also involved continuous (and sometimes chronic) personal reflection. I asked myself questions like,

‘When have I been happiest?’

‘What do I love doing?’

‘How can I make changes without leaving a vacuum?’

‘Where will I get support if I need it?’

Dr Schwandt acknowledges that a mid-career crisis could be painful but it could be an opportunity for self-reflection, a reevaluation of personal strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know yet if I’ve stalled a midlife or mid-career crisis. Is it something that is still coming to ‘get me’ later in life? My recent manoeuvre might not hamper the natural process. In fact, Dr Schwandt adds,

‘Whether you choose to wait out the discontent, or make a drastic change in the hopes of a brighter tomorrow, rest assured this too shall pass.’

It sounds comforting and could even be true.  In his cover story, Jonathan Rauch wrote about emerging from a passage of midlife crisis with a returned gratitude aged 54. Dr Schwandt and Jonathan Rauch both write about the happiness U-curve. According to the U-curve, there’s hope and even a chance to heal.

If time heals, does aging heal too?

Brookings scholars Carol Graham and Milena Nikolova show a clear relationship between age and well-being in the United States. Rating life satisfaction relative to the “best possible life” for them, with 0 being worst and 10 being best, respondents to the survey provided evidence of a U-curve depicted below:

happiness u-curve

According to Jonathan Rauch’s cover story, age brings the onset of wisdom which favours more emotional regulation, more tolerance of diversity , more insight, lower expectations and overall, less regret. From the graph, I have more crisis ahead because I’m 36 – not 39 or 47 or 54. I’d need to wait till my mid-50s to acquire the wisdom to help me heal. Well, I don’t accept this. An early midlife crisis surely deserves an early acquisition of aged wisdom, right? I feel like my life satisfaction is actually beginning to increase. Perhaps I’m more easily satisfied….perhaps I just know better. If this U curve represents me, then satisfaction may dip later and put a ‘hump’ at the bottom left of this U curve.

In any event, I feel strangely comforted by these research. Whether or not I’m in a midlife crisis, when things feel sunken, I’ll know that it’s unlikely to mean I’m crazy or ungrateful. I can choose to bear, manoeuvre or wait for the healing to begin.

Is anyone else on the U curve?

Image from flickr user: ella larose – sometimes beauty is sad

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