No one wants to talk about the good old midlife crisis.
It’s embarrassing really, because it’s the time in life when an otherwise rational person loses their mind and is driven to buy a sports car or a Birkin bag or to endure a litany of cosmetic surgery procedures. Many of us (especially those of us with a perfectionist streak) fear that if we're not happy at midlife, it’s because we've messed up, we’ve been careless, we’ve taken a wrong turn, and are therefore failing at life. It's enough to make us run to our She Sheds and Man Caves and never come out.
I’m here to tell you that if done correctly, your midlife crisis can be a lovely time in your life that one day you’ll look back upon not only with fondness, but also nostalgia.
We all know that life, from childhood through our teen years and into early adulthood, is full of exciting growth and change. But it’s as if between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five, we’re expected to enter some kind of stasis in which not much happens. We’re supposed to get up every day, go to work, go home, throw in a load of laundry, and that’s about it.
The thing is, the years from thirty-five to sixty-five are among the most interesting, challenging, creative and generative years of our lives. If, that is, we manage them effectively. And that requires going through a continuous series of renewal cycles.
Psychologist Frederic Hudson describes the renewal cycle as having four distinct phases: Go for it, The Doldrums, Cocooning and Getting Ready.
In the Go for it phase, we’re at our best. Our actions are aligned with our values and purpose. We’re taking positive action toward our goals. We’re committed and consistent. We have energy, vitality and are excited to get up and get going every day.
The Go for it phase is, obviously fantastic. And because of that, most of us want to stay there indefinitely. After all, our culture has convinced us that our state of being in this phase is the only way to be if we’re going to be successful. But that’s impossible. If we don’t burn out, we will, most certainly, hit a plateau. Some people are able to swim happily around in their plateaus for a few months or years. But for most of us, the plateau is a difficult time. It activates our fear. And in that fear, our needs for certainty and significance become our priority. We prioritize who we should be over who we could be, forget who we are, and become entrenched in smallness, and, stuck.
Hudson calls this stuckness, The Doldrums. The Doldrums is an unhappy, extremely uncomfortable place to be. The majority of the stuck people I spoke to during The Unstuck Project had hit a plateau and sunk into The Doldrums. Their doldrums varied – they were bored, stalled or disconnected from their careers, disliked their bosses, hated the city they lived in, and a few knew they were in the wrong relationship – but what they had in common was the sense that something was ending, and a feeling of being unable or unwilling to move on.
The choice we must make while lolling in the doldrums is between holding on and letting go. Holding on may seem easier and more practical, but it’s really a form of self-betrayal. When we refuse to let go, we double down by avoiding change and challenge, increasing our stuckness and suffering even more.
Stuckness is tedious and exhausting. And some of us seek relief in the distraction of unhealthy behaviors. We eat too much, or drink too much, or have extramarital affairs. We might create drama around the office, or gossip about our coworkers or tear others down. And yes, this is when the so-called midlife crisis behaviors such as buying a sports car or having cosmetic surgery happen. The result is crisis – the end of a marriage, health issues, job loss and even financial ruin. All of it, because we refuse to let go.
So let go.
Letting go can be sad, and is most definitely frightening, but it’s also necessary. We must let go of what is ending, to clear the way for something new. We need to let go of what we thought we wanted, let go of toxic people, and let go of limiting beliefs and behaviors (our toxic selves).
Only when we let go, can we begin to transition. We can move to a new job, new industry, new city or country. We can start a new hobby, focus on health and wellness or go back to school. We can get a divorce, if that’s what’s right for us, and begin a new relationship. Frederic Hudson called these “micro-transitions” and we may go through several of them throughout our lives. They may seem like big changes, but in the grand scheme of things, they are superficial, small adjustments that allow us to leap back quickly into Go for it mode.
The really big transitions in life happen when we let go of what is most precious to us; when we let go of who we think we are. And to do that, we first must enter phase three: Cocooning.
The Cocooning process is difficult, especially if we enter into it as the result of a crisis. We may be battling depression or anxiety as we cocoon. It can be a lonely time, as those around us may not understand what we’re experiencing as we go through it.
Okay, so yes, that does sound pretty grim. But in reality, it’s also a beautiful time.
Cocooning is spiritual in nature, in that it requires us to tap into our deepest, truest selves. During cocooning, we come to a deep understanding of ourselves, what we need and what we value. This involves identifying the limiting patterns of belief and behavior that are currently holding us back - ideas, constructs and ultimately, our small and contractive views of ourselves - and letting go of them.
Everything is on the table during the process. Hudson says that, “Ever so gradually, you let go of the external chapter as it clings to your mind – lost dreams, lost roles, lost beauty, lost muscles, lost parents, lost careers, lost children, lost marriages, lost income, lost hope – and you live for a while in a neutral zone where you are, psychologically speaking, by yourself, in suspension, in limbo, and more aware of who you are not than who you are becoming.”
Yes, yes, it still sounds grim. But before you run to Hermes or the Tesla dealership, keep reading.
Hudson says that after the Cocooning process, “…you feel not merely healed but vital and alive. It is a quiet fire, within, and it brings warmth and new confidence. Your eyes mirror the resilience that you have found. You want little but feel much, and most of all you feel in touch with the deep murmurs of your own heart. Your deep-seated values arise to shape your new human agenda, and you get ready to journey again.”
This is the very essence of the Unstuck Leader. And this is my wish for you. Because after you’ve gone through the Cocooning process and are aligned with your core values and purpose, you will be ready to enter Phase Four: Getting Ready.
What are we getting ready for? A new life chapter of exploration, creativity, innovation and networking. For our emergence as a new kind of leader. An Unstuck Leader. We take our new selves for a test drive. We meet new people, learn new things, ask new questions. We plot a new course. One that is aligned with who we are. We go for it.
And eventually, we will hit another plateau. And maybe we’ll swim around in it for a while, and maybe we’ll sink into the doldrums. And maybe a micro-transition will do the trick to transport us back into go for it mode, and maybe we’ll need to cocoon again. And then get ready again. And then go for it again.
And on and on the cycle goes, and with each revolution, we emerge with new wisdom, new capabilities, more confidence and a deeper reservoir of purpose and meaning. And through it all, we accept that this is the cycle of life in the adult years and through that acceptance, we remain unstuck.
See? It's not so bad after all.