A midlife crisis is a household phrase in Western culture conjuring up images of middle-aged men in red sports cars trying to recapture their youth. This stereotype has become either sadly ridiculous when being lived out in front of our eyes, or just downright inaccurate when it comes to the personal reality of the experience. Is there more to it? What lies at the heart of the midlife crisis, and does it truly exist? If so, when's that cute pool boy going to deliver my new red car?
The period of life known as midlife can span as many as twenty-five years from the ages of 35–60, but the peak age of the culmination of the midlife crisis centers around ages 40–45. While the symptoms can be experienced at many times in life, for a number of reasons these symptoms often gang up on a person during a period of months or years in their midlife, signaling the beginning of a transition. In addition to some physical symptoms such as changes in sleep, eating, or sexual habits, the top three symptoms most commonly experienced are:
- A profound sense of emptiness, boredom, or discontent.
People on the precipice of a midlife shift often find that a sense of emptiness has crept up on them over time, slowly siphoning away the sense of meaning, joy, and purpose their life once contained until the deficit has reached a point that it commands attention. Relationships, activities, hobbies, and/or spiritual or professional goals may suddenly feel hollow and meaningless, for reasons unknown. These feelings may be accompanied by or shortly followed by a restlessness that's difficult to shake, as a vague but insistent search for something indefinable simultaneously begins. Even previously ambitious and active people may find that their motivation drops precariously low as their present and future direction becomes confused and unclear. Life, or a big part of it, may seem futile or pointless. This often occurs in the early stages of the midlife transition, and prompts an attempt to figure out what has gone wrong. This sometimes happens with frequent daydreaming and re-evaluation of past decisions and where they've led.
- A general sense of decline.
This may manifest as an urgent feeling like of time running out, sometimes bringing an almost manic increase of ambition rather than a decrease, as if we've got to hurry up and get on with living. Alternatively, this feeling may be more sluggish, as though something is slowly ending. Physical changes associated with aging and the realization of them may accompany these feelings or seem to trigger them.
- Intensity and/or fluctuation in moods.
Moodiness may abound, ranging from unexpected anger out of nowhere to frequent irritability to a persistent or recurring feelings of sadness. These mood swings may make it preferable to escape the confusion of the present through drugs, alcohol, sleep, or any other activity that can consume our attention and divert it from the not-yet-understood underlying issue.
Crisis is not necessarily the focus of midlife, but internal change certainly is. This can prompt crisis if the change is confusing, unwelcome, or unexpected. A crisis is often a sudden development or change that throws us into a tailspin, whose consequences may be long-reaching even though the event may be brief. "Midlife transition" may be a better phrase to describe this period, for while a sense of crisis can certainly accompany the midlife transition, it is not always brought on by an event and is rarely brief. Some type of loss such as losing a job, divorce, or the death of a parent can certainly bring on a crisis, and it can happen at any age. But even when there is no outward event, an inward sense of something changing may arise, surprising us with its intensity even though our outward life goes on merrily.
If a crisis event does manifest, it may be the event that begins the roller coaster of the midlife transition. However, the reverse may be true as well. A crisis event doesn't always prompt the change, but it may be a symptom of an inner change that has started or a change we were ready for, if not yet consciously. We may find, for example, that the person we've become is no longer a fit for the job, living situation, or life we've fashioned for ourselves, even if it used to fit like a glove. Yet, not all midlife transitions result in a crisis, and even fewer result in the traditional red sports car. They are still quietly profound nonetheless.
Psychologist Carl Jung experienced a profound midlife transition of his own. His exploration and documentation of his own process resulted in his Red Book, a project from which the rest of his life's work and theories emerged.
In alignment with this experience, Jung theorized that the midlife transition is about a sort of changing of the guard, where the Ego (the center of conscious, the part of us that we call "I") must hand over the reins to the Self (the wholeness of who we are, including our divinity and our unconscious, not just the "I"). The first half of life is spent in ascension, strengthening, and building the Ego (the "I"), for we must have a strong identity for self-discovery and self-expression to hold our own and find our way out in the world. But at midlife, that ascension peaks, like the Sun rising and reaching its highest point, after which a more whole self must emerge that is not driven solely by the Ego needs, but by a more complex and holistic approach to life and understanding of oneself.
Jung postulated that in order to facilitate this shift, a break-down of the persona and a release of material from the unconscious must occur. This breakdown can produce a breakthrough, and the process of undoing and releasing frees the shadow (beliefs or characteristics about ourselves that we do not consciously acknowledge). This raw material of self-discovery provides the grit that we'll need in order to change what is necessary to live more fully.
Midlife in Three Stages
Jung saw this process unfolding roughly in three stages: Separation, Liminality, and Reintegration.
Separation begins the process and is often the crisis part of the transition. Something feels like it's slipping away, whether it's the loss of something real and tangible, or the slow and mysterious loss of vibrancy and meaning that we may have once had.
What are we losing? It may take the form of losing a person, a job, or a belief, but it is not out of necessity that we lose that thing; it is our attachment to or overidentification with something that we are losing. This is often why the loss is so profound—because it feels like we are losing a part of our very identity.
A person may cope with the loss in a number of ways according to their personality, ranging from continuing to go through the motions and waiting for this phase to pass, to abruptly changing their behavior or circumstances in an attempt to recapture meaning elsewhere. Because this phase is purely about separation and perhaps gaining objectivity and clarity, any flailing attempts to understand or correct the issue seem to fall short. Something is dying, and even if we don't know what it is, attempts to stop or reverse that death are often what author Murray Stein has called "propping up the corpse." Even if we don't fully understand why, we must surrender to the reality of what is happening before we can do anything about it. We must "bury the corpse" and acknowledge a need to move on in some way, even if we're not yet sure how or why.
As we surrender to the separation stage, acknowledging that we have to leave something behind, even if it's just a certain idea of ourselves, liminality begins. A liminal state is a state of in-between, as if standing on the threshold of the doorway between two rooms. We are not what we were, and we have not become what we will be.
The first stage of midlife transition is often accompanied by responses ranging from panic to anger to fear, but stillness accompanies this stage. Life doesn't stop and it certainly doesn't need to, but in this stage there is a feeling of suspension as we wait for clues to surface telling us what to do next. This stage is an exploratory one with many questions without answers. Trial and error can allow oneself to be open and leave the shore of the old, but not be in such a hurry to simply land on the next island one sees. It's common during this stage to feel impatient for the people, things, and places that the old self was entwined with. Even if you don't know where you are going, you know you cannot return.
This seeking and exploring is the key to moving through this second stage of the midlife transition. Old longings, pains, or unfinished business from youth may come up in a new way, asking to be addressed. New interests and hobbies, no matter how vague or fleeting, can provide the playground for exploration. Dreams, impressions, feelings, symbols that strike you, interests that suddenly move you, are all fodder for crafting a more whole self, even if the tools only serve in the moment.
In this final stage, we may find that we've not only changed the part of our life and self that was in need of upheaval, but have also shifted the attitude that we approach life and living with itself. In her book The Astrology of Midlife and Aging, astrologer Erin Sullivan suggests that the success of this phase lies in the process of "leaving behind the things that are not possible" and living life "as an experience and not a striving."
With this stage comes a sense of freedom, with past goals and old ego attachments either stripped entirely, or streamlined and redefined. A new or reclaimed sense of purpose can arise from the dust, along with clarity about the things that really matter and a consolidation of our energies toward pursuing those things. With an expanded consciousness and a humbled ego, we are at once smaller yet vaster than we once were.
We may never return to the contained focus of the egoic "I," for we have outgrown that uniform. We are bigger than our bodies and minds, our ambitions and plans, and that vastness of soul is reflected in the way we experience life from here. Not in perfection, but in wholeness.
Suffering and Surviving with the Moon
With a process as intense as the midlife transition, it is symbolized by not just one but several astrological symbols, such as Uranus coming to the point opposite one's natal Uranus, urging authenticity and breaking free through change, and Neptune forming a square to its natal position, encouraging us to confront our tried-and-true beliefs. But ever present is the Moon.
Our Moon is, of course, always active in our lives, considering that the Moon corresponds with our emotional body and we're always feeling something. Its presence in midlife becomes center stage because as reason and routine seem to abandon us during the midlife transition, it is only by the heart that we're able to navigate the terrain, feeling our way through.
Our natal Moon is with us every step of the way, providing clues to the complex process of the midlife transition. In the Separation phase, when we feel most threatened and fearful, our Moon sign reveals how we manage those fears and how we might seek comfort. In Liminality, we follow our emotional instincts as we navigate new terrain blindly. In Reintegration, we take what is most essential into the future and secure in our heart's priorities. Below is a brief survivor's guide to midlife with your Moon sign.
- Aries Moon
With a warrior's heart, you don't tend to shy away from a battle, but when the enemy is unseen or undefined, your limited patience can run thin quickly. Modern life can get so regulated, safe, and sanitary that the warrior heart within has no outlet for direct and uncomplicated expression. Return to your primal instincts; look to the ways you've become too careful, too practical, or too acquiescent. You may need to live a little closer to the edge in some way, carving out some space in your own life that's just yours.
- Taurus Moon
You tend to be nourished, not numbed, by routine, so it may come as an even bigger shock to you when the tried-and-trues no longer seem to hit the spot. Change is the name of the game in midlife, so embrace it with your usual calm and patience for its slow process. A return to simplicity may be the end point, but based on what truly matters to you now, not just what's easy or what has already come before on the path of least resistance.
- Gemini Moon
You may be friendlier with change than some, but a puzzle with no answers will drive you crazy with boredom and impatience eventually! Leave room for the questions themselves and know that the answers are coming. Reclaiming your heart may mean returning to that natural childlike state of curiosity. Not innocence, but openness. Reacquaint yourself with what enlivens you: learning and discovery on a small or grand scale.
- Cancer Moon
You put your heart into everything you do and everyone you love, so midlife separation may test your bonds and confuse your alignments. You feel so deeply and give so much that you can be vulnerable to constant overwhelming. Drop those balls youre always juggling and give yourself what you need, even if it's solitude and time, to figure out what is truly most important to the newly emerging you.
- Leo Moon
Jealously guard the time in your life that you need to reserve for play and creativity. It's not arts and crafts that you are seeking, but renewal through inspiration itself, which may inspire any number of creative acts. Exploring new hobbies during the liminality phase may reveal short- or long-term outlets for new and more profound self-expression.
- Virgo Moon
During midlife, the well-ordered life you've crafted may feel like it's unraveling at the seams. Your instinct may be to work harder to get it back under control, but this will only prolong the process. Focus on short-term goals to continue to provide yourself with a sense of progress even if your long-term direction is hazy to keep your spirits up and recapture new motivation.
- Libra Moon
You're no stranger to uncertainty, but this is ridiculous! Decisions you've made may return for reassessment (even if you can't change them), and future paths may seem too diverse. If you can, reserve judgment as you explore your options, but eventually you may find that the midlife transition leaves your choices simpler and your confidence to make them stronger.
- Scorpio Moon
You don't surrender control easily, but if you can meet the unmaking and surrender at midlife voluntarily and with ferocity, you will emerge stronger. You know that you come alive when you are pushed to your edges. Let the midlife transition strip you down to the bare essentials and then live the truths you find without fear. Total transformation is not out of the question!
- Sagittarius Moon
Your heart has a lightness and buoyancy that can resist blows and setbacks, but the slow plod of time and obligations can be the proverbial frog in the boiling pot for you. It creeps in and weighs you down when you're not looking. Freedom and adventure are the Sagittarius Moon's secret weapon; when midlife gets you down, get on the move, and you'll shake the answers loose!
- Capricorn Moon
Watch out. You're a little too good at putting your needs aside when it comes to sticking with the program you've committed to, so you may be most vulnerable to plodding ahead when you should be hitting a rest stop or even rerouting. This midlife lay-over may challenge you to honestly reassess your priorities and desires, which may mean putting aside goals that you haven't achieved yet because they no longer reflect your priorities. This is not failure; your inner life is being restructured and that must be reflected in your new goals.
- Aquarius Moon
Individuality and self-authentic behaviors are at the heart of your journey as an Aquarius Moon, and the midlife transition asks no more than that. Take the opportunity to self-assess, as it's possible that changes in your heart and mind over time call for a realignment. Become friendly with your changing moods and your inner life; now is the time to embrace the subjective experience and not try to remain objective and untouched.
- Pisces Moon
You can be prone to depression during this transition, as it's difficult to keep focused on the positive when the realities of midlife press into your consciousness. Find joy where you can to carry you through the intensity, and if you feel you need to escape, be strategic about it. Rather than hiding from life, give yourself a gentle and loving outlet through which to explore your feelings. Reacquaint yourself with your own brand of magic and if you feel you've lost it, take heart; this transition may help you find it again.
Excerpted from Llewellyn's 2016 Moon Sign Book.