Community//

On Middlescence

EMBRACING THE PUBERTY OF ADULTHOOD (ZITS AND ALL*) (*Okay, not literally zits, but actually kind of those, as well. Wasn’t that something you thought was behind you? ME, TOO. Where was I?)

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By the time we hit 40, most of us face a reality that can look quite different from the future we anticipated at 25. Sure, there’s a spiritual maturity–a deepening self-awareness and introspection–that results from embracing (Getting hit upside the head with?) the truth about ourselves. If we’re honest, though, it’s a bit more confusing, searching, and scary than we’d imagined–like waiting on the wall at your Middle School Dance.

On the one hand, we enjoy certain successes and we’re not wholly ungrateful for the wisdom that accompanies our frailties and failures. On the other hand, it’s also perfectly “normal” (let normal be in quotations forever and ever, amen) to miss our former simple and naive outlook on life…even if it’s a seemingly willful disregard of life’s realities.

All of this questioning–the wondering if you’re where you “should” be (let’s do the forever quotations thing for “should” too) heading into midlife–is not simply born of a cliched cultural narrative about crises and cougarspumas. It’s a recognized period of adaptation and growth called middlescence.

RETURN OF THE ANGST

In terms of biology, emotions, and social development, adolescence and middlescence are completely different (except for the zits and hair growth in new places). But they’re similar in that they’re transitions–common, foreseeable, and nonpathological (Whew!) transitions. Yet, one of them has a supportive social environment while the other has…sports cars, which is why it’s useful for us to better understand this stage of life through the lens of puberty.

Middlescence is:

  • A period some breeze through, while others are weighed down by struggles;
  • An experience many would benefit from getting help with, even if they could “grind it out” alone;
  • Aggravated by isolation, confusion, and self-defeating thought patterns;
  • Risky and stressful, and can lead to crisis (especially if handled inappropriately)–but it’s not, in and of itself, a crisis; and
  • A challenging transition that generally leads to a happier, more stable life.

In midlife, we face growing disappointment and declining optimism…underscored by a “What’ve I done so far and what’s left for me?” ennui. Here’s why we midlifers are often the most restless, stressed, and unhappy people (not that it’s a competition):

  • 10-20% of us face more obvious forms of personal turmoil and sudden changes from aging, physical decline, and feeling trapped in unwelcome, restrictive roles;
  • Our lives are hectic (the oft-used “crazy busy” term comes to mind, though I don’t endorse it) as we desperately nibble at freedom on the crusts of our “sandwich generation” reality;
  • Instead of savoring our accomplishments, we question and reject them;
  • Our age alone has a clear relationship with how happy we are (i.e., the happiness u-curve)…a phenomenon that shows up even after factoring out the stresses and strains of life; and
  • While we humans tend to think we’re special, the origins of our malaise lie partly in the biology we share with great apes.

BOTTOMS. UP.

How exactly does the bottom of our 40s funk feel? How do we know we’re there? Are family members waiting for us one day in the living room to “talk”? Probably not. In reality, the bottom of the happiness u-curve is long but shallow, which means most of us don’t experience acute depression. We experience chronic dissatisfaction, which is very different: our values and lives in tension, our achievement and fulfillment out of sync. (Oh, the irony! This middle stage is when we have the most cause for satisfaction but feel least fulfilled.)

This purgatory of despair and discontent can also bring some big, deep rewards:

  • Under the surface, our hollow of happiness makes an upturn, a change of emotional direction.
  • This upturn is no mere transient mood change: it’s a change in our values, our expectations, and our sources of satisfaction. It’s a change in who we are, often bringing unexpected contentment that extends well into old age (even into frailty and illness).
  • This entire process deepens our self-awareness, self-understanding, and self-realization.

CAN’T HARDLY WAIT.

Our midlife malaise begins sometime around 40, when we look at our lives and think, “Is this all there is?” It ends roughly 10 years later as we re-examine our lives and think, “You know what? This is pretty good.” But let’s not simply wait it out; let’s embrace those years (that decade!) in between.

Middlescence, however unpleasant at its nadir, seems imprinted on us as a way to repurpose ourselves for a changing role in society as we age. If we eschew the cultural caricature of a crisis and, instead, bend toward this repurposing, we can tap into healthy personal and social adaptation. Importantly, this adaptation–a slow-motion reboot of our emotional software–is based less on ambition and competition, and more on connection and compassion (#winwin).

Middlescence is understandably harder than other life phases, but it’s possible to be satisfied. We can identify the acne (but dear god DO NOT POP IT), and the gangly limbs we don’t quite know how to control or dress, and the strange feelings in strange places. But then let’s also be fully grown adults who can first accept the obvious imperfection (the “acne”), then treat it with a proper self-care regimen that leads to a more satisfying midlife.

Middlescence is understandably harder than other life phases, but it’s possible to be satisfied. We can identify the acne (but dear god DO NOT POP IT), and the gangly limbs we don’t quite know how to control or dress, and the strange feelings in strange places. But then let’s also be fully grown adults who can first accept the obvious imperfection (the “acne”), then treat it with a proper self-care regimen that leads to a more satisfying midlife.


You May Also Enjoy…

Crisis Subverted: A Midlifer’s Field Guide for When You Wonder, “Is This As Good As Life Gets?”

40-Something Woman Hospitalized in “Balanced” Lifestyle Attempt

How Your Personality Affects Your Wellbeing

Bitter or Better? My Personal Wellbeing Journey

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