Embracing the Midlife Crisis

Many of us have had our head down, focused and working hard, through our 30’s and into our 40’s, when midlife seems to sneak up on us out of nowhere. Suddenly we are not just out of college. We are not “the young people.” We are actual grown ups, perhaps midcareer, perhaps parents, perhaps even caring for our own parents. We are the decision makers. We have a lot of responsibility, some wisdom, and some real effectiveness.

Sometimes midlife also brings a feeling of angst and a questioning of our lives. Different people associate midlife with a different age—a 40th birthday, the 40’s in general, and others with 50. I connect midlife with the time when we have exhausted the path that we set upon in our 20's. In the, sometimes, tumultuous times that were our teens and 20's, we asked ourselves questions about our identity and values. By some point in our 20's, many of us set life goals based on our identity, values, family structure, knowledge, and economic conditions of the time. We worked hard on those goals through our 30's and 40's. And by some point in our midlife, we accomplished many of those goals while other goals fell to the wayside or became irrelevant.

We also might become aware of health and aging. Our bodies ache a little, or a lot. Bodies and minds lay down limits. We can’t stay up as late as we used to. We might not adapt as quickly as we once did. Some of us have real health scares. Heart disease and cancer often rear their ugly heads in the 40’s. We are in the circle of life—sandwiched between aging parents and young children. And, we now live in a world where there exist adults who were born after we became adults ourselves. 

That's where the midlife crisis comes into play. We choose, or are forced into, some kind of redo of our teens/20's and we question basic ideas again. I say, embrace it! It’s a wonderful opportunity to get our lives up to date and relevant. Throw out (or donate) the old clothes that don’t fit, the old values that don’t make sense, the old habits that aren’t working. Hone in on the things you love and make you look and feel great, the traditions that warm your heart, and the skills that make you real money. Rework or pull in new items, ideas, and practices that make sense for you and your family in the current world.

You might need to try on a few different ideas, clothes, and identities to see how they fit you. Just as in our teens, we might end up with a bad hairstyle and a few cringe worthy photos, but we’ll hopefully also emerge from mid life with some incredible identity-defining experiences, close friends, and a set of goals and values for the next phase of our lives.

A Budget

Most people are familiar with the idea of a financial budget. Most of us get a set amount of income each month, and we have to figure out a way to make that money last through the month until we get our next check. I think our energy and emotions work in a similar fashion. We wake up each morning with a certain amount of energy and emotional capacity. We spend that throughout the day on work, conversations, relationships, etc. We need to budget our energy and emotional capacity so that it can last us through the day. This is especially true if you are a parent and need to come home with a big smile and a ready hug and say, "Hi sweetie(s), how was your day?"

Just as with receiving a bonus at work or side gigs we might do to augment our income, we can get little influxes of extra “income” by going to the gym or taking a break to meditate. You have to be realistic about how those will play into the budget. These rarely turn out to be the magical lottery winning that eliminates the need to budget.

Now, people do go into debt sometimes to get through the month, but you know that's just going to be a problem later when you have to pay off those credit cards. The same is true when we go into emotional or energy debt. We can borrow against tomorrow and keep pushing ourselves even when we are exhausted, but the bill will inevitably come due. And you could be looking at a painful payment plan - laid up in bed with an infection, medical leave, or an embarrassing public emotional outburst.

Writing out a budget and checking your bank balances regularly makes all the difference. Many of us have large fixed expenses -- rent or mortgage, school tuition, health expenses. We have similar large fixed emotional/energy expenses -- parenthood, an ill family member, a difficult boss,. Put those in the budget first to make sure that they are accounted for, so that you’ll have sufficient funds for the expenditures that are most important to you.

The other key practice is checking your account often. This allows you to catch problematic patterns or budget shortfalls early. If you check your account once a year and find that a significant amount is missing or your credit cards have been maxed out, good luck figuring out what happened. If your check your accounts weekly, you can quickly notice a developing expensive Starbucks habit or a small charge that turns out to be identity theft. Same thing emotionally -- the more often you check-in with yourself, the easier it is to notice that you are spending more energy than you can afford on a random colleague or Facebook.

A hallmark of a successful budget is having extra funds to save or donate. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, we include retirement, rainy day funds, and charitable donations in our budget. How wonderful would it be to be able to include the equivalent in our emotional budget? When we can go to bed at night with a little extra to spare, we could start the next day perhaps a little more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. We could chose to take the extra time to get to know a stranger, or help a friend move, or have a relaxed conversation with grandma about whatever she wants to talk about.


I woke up this morning thinking about presidential candidates throughout the history of the United States, and how they have the privilege to travel the country, hearing people's stories. I'm a psychiatrist, so naturally I love hearing people's stories. There are many ways to learn about the diversity of people living in the United States and to connect to their lives -- from watching documentaries to reading biographies. But nothing is as genuine as shaking someone's hand, sitting close with them, and hearing their personal experiences and perspectives.

I feel so privileged to have been able to hear many deeply-held personal stories. These shared stories are the greatest gifts I could imagine. The differences and commonalities are sometimes surprising, but they are invariably understandable and relatable. Through these conversations, over and over again, I am gifted feelings of connection and love. Though I never yearn for the stress or responsibility of holding public office, I woke up this morning wishing to be able to travel our country so that I can shake so many people's hands and hear so many people's stories.

In a way, many of us are about to have that opportunity. Thanksgiving is coming up. Along with the experience of family gathered around a table that is overflowing with food and gratitude, Thanksgiving often brings air travel. Crowded airports full of people from across the country. Blue states and red states, women and men, people of all races and creeds sitting side by side in rows of plastic chairs, waiting for delayed flights. What would it be like to turn to someone, someone who seems like they are probably very different from you, and ask them about their experience? And then, here's the really special part -- just listen with no judgment and no assumptions and really value what the person is telling you. What if you then shook their hand and thanked them for sharing?

Broken Pieces

On the, sometimes, bumpy road of life, things will inevitably break. What we do with those broken pieces creates our unique narrative. I have always found the ways in which we hold the broken pieces together to be profound and beautiful. We form scars and we heal. We lose the unblemished beauty of youth and we grow into complex sophistication. In realizing our frailty, we find our strength. Knowledge of our limits illuminates our path. Our regrets and mistakes, as much as our successes, create our story. They have made us into the people we are today.

Manageable Falls

Imagine a baby learning to walk. The ideal approach for the parent or caretaker is to allow the baby enough space to have minor falls. The kind of fall where the baby can pick herself back up and try walking again. These experiences are important because the act of overcoming them gives the baby a sense of mastery and confidence in her walking. At the same time, you don’t want the baby to take such a serious tumble that she ends up hurt or terrified, and cannot pick herself back up to walk again. As a parent, you want to try, as much as possible, to allow the little one enough freedom where she can experience manageable falls.

I find this image of the baby learning to walk a helpful one to keep in mind, because I believe the concept applies to individuals across the age spectrum, engaging in most activities. We should strive, as much as it is possible, to lead our lives and to open ourselves up to situations where we can experience such manageable falls – and even manageable failures.

We are taught to push the limits. If you fail; try, try, and try again until you succeed. To never fail is to miss out on experiencing the valuable self-confidence that emerges when you succeed at the task you weren’t able to accomplish previously. But to be able to get back up on that proverbial horse, you can’t have been knocked unconscious by the initial fall.

Just as a parent provides a dependable environment for the baby learning to walk, so that she may fail yet still feel safe to try again; we should allow ourselves, no matter our age or circumstance, the opportunity to experience manageable falls.

The Holidays and Family

The holiday season can be a challenging time for many people because it puts a focus on family. People who are without family or whose family is filled with strife can feel particularly alone at this time of year. I think part of the reason that so many people struggle with this is because of how family is ordinarily conceptualized. People equate family with genetic relatives and a traditional family structure.

I think family is a feeling. Family is love, acceptance, and commitment. Family is shared values, traditions, and experiences. When thought of in this way, it becomes clear why family is said to be so important. When someone sees family as a treasured concept, as opposed to a set of people one is born or married into, that person has agency in creating her family. She can choose her family members, creating a group where she “fits in.” A group that will stand by her even during hard times. She can create traditions that will be meaningful, predictable, and comforting. She can share positive, loving experiences with others during the holidays.

Locating the "Crazy"

In today’s dizzying world, change happens so fast and individuals carry so many varying responsibilities all at once. A person can easily feel overwhelmed, falling behind, and even “crazy.” “Crazy” is not such a politically correct word anymore, and many people don’t like to say it out loud. But in the safety of the therapist’s office, it emerges… the secret fear that one is “crazy.”

“What is wrong with me…?”
“Why can’t I…?”
“Sometimes I worry that I am crazy. I feel crazy.”

You may be picking up on something that is real and important. Take that feeling seriously, but don’t jump to the conclusion that it is you. Pause a moment to locate the “crazy.” Many times, especially as women, we assume, or we are told, that the “crazy” is in us. We believe that there is something wrong with us if we are struggling to fit in or we can’t cope. Sometimes that is true, but many times the “crazy” is in the situation. Many times life is just “crazy.” We find ourselves in “crazy” predicaments where not being able to fit-in or cope is actually typical or even “normal.”

When you find yourself in the midst of “crazy,” consider whether the situation can be changed. You might be surprised. You might be able to get the support needed if you speak up. If you step back and assess your options, you might be able to just walk away from the “crazy” situation. Unfortunately, sometimes there is nothing we can do to change the situation and we have no choice but to remain there. You might have to just muddle along the best you can. But to struggle without the added burden of thinking that something is wrong with you is a major improvement in your personal emotional experience.

The Need for New Definitions of “Normal”

I spend a fair amount of time in my psychiatric practice helping women come to terms with the idea that they are “normal.” These are incredibly competent, engaging, intelligent, kind, funny women who juggle work and family, maybe not always with ease, but quite well. In spite of everything they are able to carry on their plate, with only occasional spills, somehow these women doubt themselves. Deep inside they feel that something is “wrong” with them; that they are not doing a good job at life. I have been in this situation so many times that I have come to realize that good, competent women doubting themselves is a norm these days.

Why would this happen with such regularity? How is it that a large proportion of women have gotten the idea that they are “not normal?” First, let’s take a look at how “normal” has been defined. If, let’s say, normal was defined as having a Y chromosome, then 50% of people would, by definition, not be normal. We should then question that definition because it doesn’t make sense, at least for 50% of people.

I’m not saying that normal has been defined explicitly as having a Y chromosome, but maybe there has been a similar process going on. Much of psychological theory predates the women’s lib and civil rights movements. Of course, even more of psychological theory predates the rise of the internet. Sigmund Freud attended medical school in 1881. Although his psychoanalytic theory was informed by his work in psychiatric hospitals and by his research on hypnosis, much of it stemmed from his self-analysis. He often claimed he had little understanding of women.

Beyond the field of psychology, many other cultural ideas about how the classroom and workplace should function predate the large numbers of women who choose or need to work, to earn money, to achieve.

What if the current definition of normal is in fact normal… for a certain percentage of people? And, what if there are also other ways to be normal?

Genomics and medical research keep giving us an increasingly greater number of illnesses and disease models to diagnose with and be diagnosed with. New viruses and bacteria to worry about. New gene sequences that, we are told, encode stress, difficulty, or tragedy.

The world is changing at a faster and faster rate. These changes should not only prompt us to define new pathologies. We also need to continually understand and create new definitions of normal.