Leigh Wilson has been working in the same cubicle in the same office for the past 12 years after spending 20 years climbing the corporate ladder.
The 41-year-old Chicago marketing manager, who is single and has no commitments, finally decided that she’d had enough of her mundane life.
“I wanted to do more,” Wilson said. “I have a nice little nest egg, and I reached a point in my life where I just don’t know what to do.”
Last month, she left her comfortable job with a steady salary to embark on a six-month, 10,000-mile solo trip, first hiking through Switzerland, followed by a road trip through the western United States with her dog to figure out where she wants to live next.
Wilson, who described her current life stage as a midlife crisis, said that many of her friends are going through similar phases.
“We’re all feeling, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m halfway to 80. Is this what I really want from my life?’”
A midlife crisis, as popularly understood, refers to an emotional reaction to the realization that your life has time limits, said Janice Morris, an Austin, Texas-based psychologist.
“The reaction typically involves anxiety or fear that the ways we have spent our time, along with the choices we have made, are not important enough, enjoyable enough or consistent with some ideal sense of self,” Morris said.
But these desires to live the life you truly want to live don’t simply occur at midlife.
Sometimes, a death of a loved one, or an accident or illness, a divorce or the loss of a job can stimulate these reflections and the desire to make changes, Morris said.
Often, it occurs when people view their current road map as no longer applicable, which is why James Hollis, a Washington, D.C.-based Jungian analyst, doesn’t like to limit the term “midlife crisis” to a single decade of your life.
“It can rise when they retire, or are downsized, or when the children leave, or they face illness and loss,” Hollis said. But, he said, “often this turbulence does arise in the 30s and 40s because whatever psychology the person has been serving does not bring the sense of satisfaction expected.”
It’s a time to consider redirecting one’s life.
But these crises don’t usually affect every demographic.
The midlife crisis typically occurs in educated people who have the luxury to worry about what they want from their lives, as opposed to those who have to simply focus on making ends meet, said Ronald Levant, professor of psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio, and former president of the American Psychological Association.
They also typically happen between the ages of 45 and 64, but can ultimately happen at any age when you’ve established your adult life structure: you have a partner, a career, children and a comfortable home.
Essentially, you’ve made it, and your dreams are realized.
“Like a lot of dreams, people attach fantastical expectations to it: When I get to be a full professor, I’m going to walk on air because I’ll be so happy,” Levant said. “But once you get to be an established adult, your life becomes more or less routine: You have child care, time with your partner — there isn’t a great big rush that everyone imagines.”
That’s when you start wondering if this is the life that you really want, and you start questioning your identity.
At this point, some will make rash changes, like changing careers, having affairs, moving across the globe or getting a red Chevrolet Camaro.
Depending on the person having the crisis, the changes can be positive, but they can also be negative.
“The healthier outcomes of reflecting on one’s life might look like the decision to lose weight and exercise more,” Morris said.
Others will change careers, go back to school or move to a different part of the world. Smaller changes could include starting a new hobby.
Often the midlife crisis is accompanied with therapy to figure out how to understand yourself better.
Ultimately, these crises are an attempt to fulfill yourself.
“A midlife crisis, no matter what time of life it occurs, is an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, to understand and accept the choices we’ve made and the limitations we have, and to work past the obstacles to claiming more of the life we wish to live,” Morris said.
“But for most people, this feeling passes, so it’s wiser not to take action,” Levant said. “It’s also wise to reflect on where it might be coming from — unrealistic expectations of what your adult life might bring you.”
Exploring these ideas through counseling also could help.
Sometimes, however, acting on your feelings can lead to a happier life.
Levant said he had a student who quit his job as a lawyer and went back to school to become a psychologist. Now, he’s happy, Levant said.
But more often, impulsive changes spurred by a midlife crisis, like divorce, or a change of career or lifestyle — aren’t ultimately satisfying, Hollis said.
He said that it’s necessary to meet with a therapist to figure out the driving force behind the midlife crisis to really fix the problem, instead of simply acting out as a result of it.
“Without this level of genuine self-examination, why would one expect a new car or a simple change to really resolve their mental state?” Hollis asked. “The second half of life is about recovering a better relationship to ourselves, from which a different set of choices will emerge.”
The midlife crisis is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, and to understand and accept the choices you’ve made, along with the limitations you have, and to work past the obstacles to claim more of the life you wish to live, Morris said.
If done with thought and care, the midlife crisis doesn’t have to be a crisis at all.
Danielle Braff is a freelancer.