Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Midlife Disaster

A crisis at midlife can be a door to greater satisfaction in all areas of life -  if navigated successfully.   Lately I have been thinking that when the midlife crisis is being referenced in our popular lexicon, what we are really discussing is a midlife disaster.   A crisis is simply a critical juncture or turning point in life.  Any crisis is stressful, but not by definition a negative event.   But it is a time for paying attention.    What are the distinguishing features of the midlife disaster?    There are the more dramatic ones that could include the demise of a significant relationship; the loss of one's job, career, or livelihood; depression and even suicide.    But there are also quieter forms of the midlife disaster.   In this disaster, everything on the surface may look perfectly fine, with no major external disruptions.   However in the internal world something is clearly amiss.   I was talking with someone recently who knew that many years ago, without realizing it, she had abandoned something vital in her.   She saw this part of her as someone wild and sensual, who many in her early world felt threatened by.  As a girl she remembers just wanting to go outside and walk in the grass in her bare feet, but even that was somehow against the rules.   Without any one to recognize, help, and 'bless' this energy it led her into misadventures that then locked this energy up further in guilt and regret.    These conditions are ripe for creating those dramatic disasters, if the 'wild and sensual' side jumps over the fence and begins to act (or act out)  without anyone  looking after her.    But it will be equally disastrous, in my opinion, for that force of life to remain caged within her.    The bills will still get paid, the roof will remain over her head, her family's and clients needs will be tended to, but she will not feel passionate and alive.

Copyright © 2010 David O. Aspenson   All rights reserved

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tending the Garden of the Midlife Mind

Men are disturbed not by the things that happen,
But by their opinion of the things that happen.

~ Epictetus ~

Everything we feel, experience, and do is powerfully shaped by the activity that exists between our right and left ears, - in the perceptions of our mind.     I am using this metaphor, the garden of the mind, to suggest the benefits of tending to the nature of our thoughts and perceptions.   Our ability to navigate the crisis that can come at the midlife juncture - to understand it and make the most use of its hidden benefits - will depend upon our mental gardening habits.    Tending the garden of the mind is one of the most under-utilized strategies we have at our disposal to make positive changes in our lives.    How do we become good gardeners of the mind at midlife?

Weeds in the garden of the mind
There are a number of factors that contribute to a healthy garden including placing it in a location where it will receive the light of the sun, choosing the right seeds for the environment, and watering the seeds you want to grow.    But let’s focus on one especially important discipline required- weeding your mental garden.   Weeds in the garden of the mind are the thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that when left unattended choke the life of the plants we want to grow.    The weeds of our thoughts are what leave us discouraged, demoralized, fearful, and even depressed.    They are the perceptions that will derail us from accomplishing what we set out to do or rob us of our peace of mind.     Some midlife weeds include thoughts such as:  “There is so much more I thought I would have done with my life by now”;   “I no longer  have sufficient time left or the inclination to pursue my dream, or even remember what it was”;  “The best years of my life are over”;  “I can’t really stand the work I do, but I have no choice but to keep doing it”;  “What’s wrong with me- I should be happy with my life just as it is”’;  “The world is for the young, there is no place for me anymore”.      If you have managed to make it to middle age, it’s likely you have some such weeds.    What are yours?     

How to weed
The importance of your thoughts in shaping your experience may not be a new idea for you. However, if you find yourself stuck or suffering inordinately, it suggests you may not be seeing and tending to the weeds in your own garden.   The more typical strategy at this juncture is to look first to changing external circumstances rather than tending to this inner garden.    Here are some tips to help: 
1) Be aware of the signs of too many weeds.    Simply feeling bad is the main symptom of an untended garden.  You may feel chronically frustrated, or find that something you really want to do or have remains forever elusive.  
2) Pay attention.    Listen for thought weeds as they occur.    If you believe you are having a crisis, it is a good time to get your pen or keyboard and write down all the thoughts that the ‘little voice’ in your mind is saying to you about your experience.     Make note especially of the ones that leave you feeling sad, discouraged, guilty, angry, or hopeless. 
3) Most importantly- PULL THOSE WEEDS.   Mental weeding is to adopt the perspective that all those unhelpful thoughts are not literally true.   They are just thoughts - unhelpful thoughts at that.   But if we water them… that is dwell upon and entertain them as literal truths, they can devastate the health of our  precious mental garden.    A good inner response as you pull a mental weed is simply saying to those unhelpful thoughts  “thanks for sharing”, as you turn your attention instead to watering the healthy plants.   When I stumble upon a patch of mental weeds, I like to adopt the persona of the “Dude” (cf. The Big Lebowski) and respond to those unhelpful thought weeds with:  “…Well that’s, like, just your opinion man”.     Try making all of those unhelpful thoughts speak to you with the voice of an old cartoon character, like Elmer Fudd.   That will help put them into perspective.     
4) Think better thoughts.   Sounds simple, but in reality choosing to replace an unhelpful thought with a better one takes a great deal of focus, practice, and mental discipline.    Most of the time, most of us just leave all those weeds to grow like… well weeds. 

If we can bring some conscious awareness to the state of our mental garden, it gives us the option of doing something about it.  Ultimately, it does not matter where those weeds originated.  If they have blown into your garden, they are now your responsibility.      To survive and even thrive as a result of your midlife crisis, tend to this garden…and it will take care of you.  

Copyright © 2010 David O. Aspenson   All rights reserved   

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Midlife Fantasies

I was thinking today while driving home from my Sunday afternoon hike that some might think it irresponsible to encourage people to listen to their fantasies.  In the movie American Beauty the main character, (played by Kevin Spacey-one of my favorite actors) was pining after a teenage girl- a friend of his daughters no less.   If I remember correctly,  his fantasy even included some rose petals on the bed.    Would we encourage that fantasy?   Of course not.   But does that fantasy suggest nothing more than a ridiculous sexually frustrated middle aged man?   It could.    But if our character managed to avoid getting distracted by the literal form of the fantasy (and sent to jail),  maybe he would notice that it is trying to tell him something.    Perhaps it is trying to tell him that as went about finding his way in the world, something vital was lost.    Maybe it is a much larger and broader passion for life that is trying to wake up.    Yes, it would be irresponsible to take such a fantasy literally.   But it may also be irresponsible, in equal measure, to not listen to these fantasies, nor deeply consider what is trying to wake up in our own soul.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Friday, November 5, 2010

Midlife Fantasies

To successfully navigate a midlife crisis you must adopt a useful relationship with your fantasies.    Fantasies can emerge with a vengeance at midlife.  They are typically formed out of certain important needs that have not been really attended to in the life you have built to date.     Someone told me recently they fantasized about having three months away from their business to wander leisurely to California and back.   Though they did not consider this 'realistic', it was still important to pay attention to what the fantasy was trying to say about what was missing.    In a  nutshell, the 'useful relationship' to your fantasies is to listen deeply to their underlying message without 1) taking them too literally by acting prematurely and thoughtlessly or 2) denying them altogether as irrelevant and impractical in your life.    I will come back to this subject later.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Has your partner gone crazy?

If your partner seems to have gone 'crazy' at midlife - suddenly voicing a wide range of extreme discontents that you have not heard before - this is also a crisis for you. Life as you knew it has suddenly been disrupted and it is not even your choice. What do you do? There are two coping strategies at the extreme ends that you want to avoid. On one end is feeling over responsible for where your partner has landed, and assuming it is up to you to 'fix' things. Recognize that if you are pulling your own hair out in a frustrated attempt to get things back to where they were - it is your own anxiety that is working on you. You are certainly entitled to that anxiety under the circumstances, but in the short run it will be more effective to work on managing the anxiety directly and taking care of yourself. It might help to not take everything you hear from your partner as a literal truth at this point. The other end of the coping strategy continuum is a little more subtle to describe. On this end, you discount anything your partner has to say as a symptom of his or her midlife craziness. Here is the temptation to adopt more of the stance of a victim. No matter what the circumstances when we start down the victim path we feel our life is just circumstances that are happening to us. If only those circumstances would line for us for once, then all will be OK. There is not much sense of personal power and self-direction down this path. You are not the cause of your partner's apparent temporary insanity, even if they directly or indirectly insinuate that you are. But we do not want leave you as an innocent victim is this drama. There may well be something here for you to look at in your own life. The most effective strategies for coping with your partner's crisis are found in the middle ground between these two extremes.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The "Mess" of Midlife

I read something recently that novelist David Mitchell wrote regarding the midlife crisis:

"The heart gets more interesting than structure. I’ve got kids, I’ve got a wife, we’re stuck with each other for a while. And suddenly there’s an understanding that this is what life is — it’s actually the mess, it’s the mud, it’s the tangle. It’s not the clean, hygienic… fireworks. It’s the little invisible novels that get written between two people every day of their lives. It’s the subtle power shifts. It’s the love, it’s the less-noble sentiments that make every single day either good or bad or not so good or wonderful or moving through all these things at the speed of West Cork weather. This is interesting stuff. Why go out there in search of extraterrestrial life when it’s already here?"

I love that last line - "Why go out there... when it's already here?" One of the ways to go astray at midlife is in exactly this manner... to go in search out there for something that is already here. Mr. Mitchell suggests that life is found right in the midst of the mess, mud, and tangle. I could not agree more. In my practice I often hear variations on the theme "I am a mess", or "this is a mess". The implication is that things should be more "in order" or that uncomfortable feelings should not be so out of hand. But really, if we are going to be alive at all, there is no good alternative to simply recognizing the place and value of our mess, regardless of the particular form it may take. If we could just accept that this is the way life unfolds we could at least relax and not expect that we are going to get anywhere of true value on a narrow, straight,orderly, and mess free path. That will also help protect us from going searching for something out there when it may be that what we are really searching for is right under our noses - already here - in the mess of our actual experience.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Friday, October 29, 2010

Midlife Survival Skills

I said yesterday that one of the essential survival skills for the MLC was... "the ability to keep a commitment to both your self and a commitment to those you are in relationship with - even if, or especially when, those needs seem in deep conflict with each other". One of the things that can happen at the midlife juncture is the emergence of what feels like an essential conflict. The perceived conflict is between some important need of the Self and the duties, obligations, and commitments of your life. I was talking with a man recently who had a desire to be very materially successful in his business. At the same time, he firmly believed it was not possible to do that and still honor his commitment to his family. Not surprisingly, he had not yet let himself succeed in his business as to do so would, in his mind, violate his deep commitment to his family. Of course, it would be easy for him to find data to support his belief in this unavoidable conflict. Perhaps his own father sacrificed his place in the family to 'get ahead'. But my client's mission was to discover how to bring down the wall created in his own mind between the needs of self and the needs of the important others in his life. When he holds on to both, and believes it is possible, he will find a way to honor his ambition and his family life.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Midlife Survival Skills

I have heard it said that if we feel stuck in an any arena of life, it suggests a skill deficit. In other words, if there is something we want to accomplish or overcome and we can't quite get there, it means there are skills we have yet to learn. I like this positive perspective as it so much more productive than imagining we are stuck due to external circumstances or some personal deficit about which we can do nothing.

So what are the skills needed for successfully navigating the notorious midlife crisis? I think they include:

1) The ability to deal with our inner conflicts and competing motivations directly and consciously.

2) The ability to keep a commitment to both your self and a commitment to those you are in relationship with - even if, or especially when, those needs seem in deep conflict with each other.

3) The willingness and ability to entertain all of your private dreams and fantasies WITHOUT prematurely acting upon them as concrete and literal new life directions.

4) The ability to cultivate a certain lightness and appreciation for the absurdities of life.

5) A commitment to working your life out, in some basic way, on your own terms and a willingness to take complete responsibility for your choices and their consequences. e.g. the skill of blaming no one or no thing else for your life just as it is.

6) The skill of tending to your own fire.

These are some of the skills that I believe are required to mine the true potential value of a crisis that comes at midlife and to avoid some of the major pitfalls along the way.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Monday, October 25, 2010

Perturbation at Midlife, Part III

In Part II of the Perturbation of Midlife I said: "For humans however, it seems the process requires some conscious understanding, choice and skill". We were looking at the natural process of destabilization and reorganization as it applies to the developmental issues of midlife. Let's look more closely at 'conscious understanding'. What does that mean in this context? As human beings we can have a wide range of feeling, perception, motivation and conditioned behavior or habits that operate outside of our conscious awareness and control. In fact, we all do. Getting a conscious 'clue' about ourselves and what are really up to is a life long project. The midlife crisis can be a critical time that brings many things into focus of which we were previously unaware. For example, my fear of being alone came to find me at midlife. Meeting such a deep feeling that I had previously kept mostly buried was a challenge. But it was also impossible to be where I wanted to be when that fear was running so much of my 'show' in relationships. Often when working with my own clients at this juncture, they so badly want to be able get their inner life back into the box where it lived previously. But when the box cracks open, there really is no turning back.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Perturbation at Midlife, Part II

The definition of the verb perturb is to "...throw into great disorder; to derange". The Perturbation of Midlife can be a time where life, as you have know it, is deranged and thrown into great disorder. That disorder can be external, taking the form of major disruptions in the world of relationships and work. You are contemplating leaving a long term relationship, or your partner is contemplating leaving you. Or perhaps you have taken a major economic blow in your career and have no idea what the future might hold. Or conversely, the old order may all still be in place in the external world, but you feel an inner unraveling. It feels as if business as usual is, or is about to be, threatened in a very significant way. The third possibility is that the "derangement" might be full blown and both are true.. you feel an inner unraveling - AND there is already major disruptions in some or all of your major roles in life.

The point of this thread is that the perturbation of midlife is a naturally occurring phenomena. If properly understand and navigated, it can be a positive force which reorders us to a new level of higher functioning - a clearer sense that we are on our own path. We are more here in some significant way. In nature the process happens -well naturally. An acorn does not have a midlife crisis and say: "This acorn thing is not working out for me. I feel I am destined for something much bigger and greater"; or "I really would like to run off one of those seedlings that can float on the air". It simply surrenders to the pressure of the elements, its acorn self becomes completely disassembled and deranged, and a new form , the mighty oak, emerges. For humans however, it seems the process requires some conscious understanding, choice and skill. Otherwise the pressure comes - we experience the chaos - but the new re-organization to a new and higher level does not really take place.

© Copyright David Aspenson

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Perturbation at midlife

One of my teachers * draws heavily upon the work of Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. He applies Prigogine's understanding of unstable systems in the natural world as way to describe the process by which humans grow and change. The basic idea seems to be that nature on all levels is continually disassembling under pressure, but is also subsequently reassembling into a new order. For example, what we know as coal , under great pressure, moves through chaos and reorders as an entirely new form we know as diamond. The pressure itself is know as 'perturbation'. Well midlife can be very perturbing can't it? Maybe it is also a naturally occurring process of chaos,pressure,and reordering. How then do we survive the pressure?
(*Blair Singer, business and organizational consultant)

© Copyright David Aspenson

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Tremendous Tension of Midlife: How Do You Cope?

"Would you say that in many respects you have put together a pretty good life? Would you also acknowledge that in the midst of that life you are now living - you have a deep and inescapable sense that there is something vital for you to live- that you are not yet living? Can you relate to the well known statement of Dante: "In the middle of the journey of my life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straightway was utterly lost." If you can, you may be experiencing what I call the tremendous tension of midlife. I am using ‘tremendous’ in both meanings of the word - tremendous as in a very large amount and tremendous as in really, really great. I would like to offer you some unique perspective on what a truly tremendous benefit the tension of mid life holds. At stake at this crossroads are the most important and significant matters that one can engage over the course of their life. How you navigate this tremendous tension has the potential to leave you dashed on the rocks. Or it can help you open a way to the deep satisfaction and joy that emerge as you begin to walk on the path that is only yours to walk. Whether you consider yourself a candidate for the crisis of midlife or someone close to you is in its grip, I’d like to offer you a positive and practical understanding of the experience."

To learn more about coping with midlife crisis, be sure to read the entire article.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Surviving the Midlife Crisis

"Rise in Suicides of Middle-Aged Is Continuing - "Rise in Suicides of Middle-Aged Is Continuing
Published: June 4, 2010
For the second year in a row, middle-aged adults have registered the highest suicide rate in the country, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "

I saw this article recently in a Psychology Today Blog called the "New Mid-Life Crisis" and found it alarming.

I don't think I am being over dramatic when I say there are very high stakes at play in the crisis of mid-life. We don't ever really know why someone takes their own life, even if they leave a note. To say they are depressed is not really saying much at all. There are some real hazards of not finding a way to successfully navigate the crisis of midlife. And suicide may well be one. There are others less dramatic, but no less far reaching or painful for everyone involved. Living requires some hope and positive expectation for the future. If, as we get on in years, we imagine and project the life we are currently living out into our future - and it does not feel good...that is a crisis. If it feels so bad we can not imagine even going on, or we feel trapped in a life from which can neither stand or escape, it it is time to seek help. The crisis of midlife does have tremendous potential for helping us find our own path, but to get there - we do need to survive.

Welcome to Midlife Crisis Help

Welcome to Midlife Crisis Help. This blog is for anyone grappling with the unique and important challenges of Midlife. "Midlife" is not meant literally as who knows if they are in the middle of their life or how much time clock time we have left to keep breathing here. Midlife is more of a metaphor that describes an important juncture on our way to figuring out how to welcome the full expression of the life we are meant to live. We might also encounter more than one such critical junctures. I have been reflecting deeply on the nature of this crisis for a number of years. My interest is driven by attempting to understand my own experience as well as the experience of those who I have worked with as a professional psychologist.

I believe there are a number of vital and far reaching matters that are at stake in what is commonly referred to as a 'midlife crisis'. There are hazards to be avoided if we are going to survive our crisis with a sense of integrity and sanity. And there are tremendous benefits to successfully navigating our way when confronted with an inescapable crisis. My intention for this blog is that be a help and resource to those on the midlife journey.