The middle years of our lives are often referred to dramatically as “midlife crises” in an attempt to explain the persistent discontent we experience within ourselves and with the external world. A phase when success feels dry and unrealized dreams linger tantalizingly. Our typical response during this phase is to rely on strategies that have worked for us in the past to help us get rid of these troubling feelings. However, the impact of these strategies is fleeting.
The reference points we have developed in the first half of our lives could become potential obstacles for our future development. Recent research findings suggest a U- shaped curve in job satisfaction and well being studies across countries and across the socioeconomic spectrum, with the bottom of the U coinciding with the mid-life years.
So what is the evolutionary message that accompanies this disquiet?
Some of us may remember the turmoil of our adolescent years. The gift from that phase in our lives is a challenge to the wishful, magical world of our childhood when we expected to be held as special and central in our worlds. Adolescence tempers our wished for world as a child and infuses some realism into our hopes and dreams. If adolescence has not been too rough a journey, we get back on to the saddle and persist with our heroic quests. As in the fairy tale, we believe we will have the power to slay the dragon when the time comes and find our way to treasure and power. As the Jungian analyst, James Hollis, puts it, ‘heroic thinking’ is needed in our early adulthood or else we would never step outside of our safe environments. The psychological term for heroic thinking is projection. It is our projection that the treasure is worth striving for, that there are demons to be overcome and that we are embarking on a noble cause that assists in developing our identities during early adulthood. We project nobility and power on to the institutions we work for, the idea of fulfillment on to our marriage and dream of becoming the perfect parent.
And then we arrive at the middle years and start reviewing the wins along with the losses. Sure, we got to the treasure but we didn’t realize the collateral that had to be paid to secure the win. And the treasure in our hands does not seem like the treasure we had seen over the horizon as we set off on our quest. The institutions we tried to belong to, and serve, did not offer the fulfillment we desired. And so begins the painful process of pulling back our projections and encountering reality directly. Tragic as it may seem, the disappointments in our outer world open the door for more enduring anchors in our inner world.
The MBTI® instrument and Jung’s theory of psychological types offers us some insights on how we may begin to observe the changes taking place within us during midlife. According to Jung, the four mental functions- Sensing, Intuition, Thinking and Feeling are used and accessed by all of us but for each one of us there is a hierarchy with which the functions are accessed. One of the four mental functions serves as our dominant mental function or the lead mental function. The word ‘dominant’ is to be understood as more developed and utilized.
We use our dominant function as much as we can. The dominant function serves as the primary lens through which we prefer to solve problems, make decisions, and even choose our vocation. Jung observed that the dominant function develops and is made use of in the first half of our life. This results in each of us developing a specialization or a stance, which we utilize in our lives. Once we experience success in the use of our dominant function, we may become disinclined to attempt alternate approaches. This could become confining and restrictive. Jung suggested that in order to help us experience wholeness, during our middle years, our psyche begins to open up to the less preferred mental functions.
Thus, the Sensing Type who has been living in the world of tangibles and concrete experiences begins to experience ‘hunches’.
The Intuitive Type who has been living in the world of ideas and possibilities becomes aware of the material world.
Thinking Types begin to experience their ‘softer’ side and feel emotionally touched by situations
Feeling Types discover their ‘tough-minded’ side and experience an inner push to be objective and assertive.
Integrating behaviours and attitudes that we have evaded or avoided prepares us for a broader range of experiences. It also helps us develop a genuine appreciation for people who we feel are different from us.
Thus, while midlife may appear in our life as a ‘crisis,’ it is in fact a doorway to our undiscovered potential. It is an invitation to individuate and become the best version of ourselves.