From Midlife Crisis To Opportunity: how to stay sane when your world falls apart

the tower - tarot card #15

Are you going through a midlife crisis? Have you reached a stage in life where you’re beginning to question everything?

Does it feel as if your life is falling apart – or is about to?

From our mid thirties onwards, things begin to change. We start wondering about our career path, our relationships, life itself.

We begin to contemplate the ‘Big Questions of Life’: who am I? What is life all about? What gives my life meaning? Does my life have a purpose? Is this all there is?

In this blog post I’d like to share some of the things that have helped me journey through my middle years.

I hope some of what I say can help you if you’re going through what feels like a midlife crisis. Trust me, something good can emerge from the rubble…

What causes a midlife crisis?

Before we start looking at some of the ways to help you deal with the crisis, let’s take a moment exploring the usual causes.

A midlife crisis is usually the result of a number of factors. Put together, they merge into an overwhelming maelstrom of emotions from depression, anger outbursts, mood swings, anxiety, all of which might lead to indulging in risky out-of-character behaviours.

The triggers to a crisis might include..

  • Children leaving home (the classic empty nest syndrome)
  • An awareness of your own ageing (and your own mortality)
  • The end of a meaningful relationship
  • The loss of someone close to you
  • A serious health scare that leaves you feeling vulnerable
  • A feeling of being stuck or going nowhere in your career
  • Regrets that some of your important life goals now won’t be realised

All of these could compromise attempts to meet your emotional needs, so vital for your mental health.

So how do you deal with things when your life is falling apart at the seams or when the walls come tumbling down? For this we need to draw upon the wisdom of those that have gone before us…

From break down to break through

It was Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist, who first alerted me to the possibility that a midlife crisis could actually be a good thing.

What most of us call a ‘break down’, he called a ‘break through’ as he journeyed through his middle years.

As ‘shadow’ material – all the unfinished business from the past – came tumbling skeletal-like out of the closet, his sense of self went through an inevitable change.

But rather than getting lost in the chaos he was able to see it as a necessary step for his onward journey.

Midlife is the time to let go of an over-dominant ego and to contemplate the deeper significance of human existence.

It’s as if life itself forces us to change, some greater power pushing us over the edge we’ve been clinging onto for, perhaps, too long.

But it’s a tough task to surrender to this ‘greater power’ – to life itself. We hold on desperately to what we know, unwilling to look at our own ‘dark materials’, hoping the monsters will go away. But they don’t.

The call of midlife

At some point from your mid 30s right through to your 60s you’ll be required to make a choice of some sort. A big decision looms.

Life comes knocking at your door. Maybe death too.

I recall seeing the play Everyman at the theatre in my early 40s and was struck by the central character’s encounter with the Grim Reaper. There he was, our protagonist – a man in his middle years – just getting on with life.

Yes, maybe there were too many indulgences – too many women, drink, maybe even drugs – but nothing prepared him for a meeting with his own mortality.

Death asked him bluntly, “How are you spending your time on this planet?”

He was forced to take a long, hard look at himself and it was this encounter that led to an inner shift from a hedonistic (egoic) existence to a life in search of deeper meaning.

Everyman is a play well worth seeing if you ever get the chance, especially if you’re going through midlife yourself. It certainly left a lasting impression on me and got me thinking about the real tough questions about life.

How to see the opportunity in the crisis

When we become enmeshed in the emotional intensity of life’s dramas we are blinded. We can no longer see the wood for the trees. Our perception is narrowed so much that all we experience is coloured by feelings of overwhelm, despair, and pointlessness.

In effect, what we’re describing here is a trance state.

RELATED CONTENT: find out more about hypnosis and trance in my free ebook

If the emotions become too much for us to bear we get locked in to the dramas; they become our reality like a waking nightmare.

So how exactly do we develop the mind set of Carl Jung and see a break down as a break through? How do we experience the inner shift like the central character in Everyman?

How do we see the opportunity in a crisis?

Short answer: by staying awake. A state of equanimity – inner calm amidst the utter messiness and devastation of life – helps us keep on keeping on. This is more than just a form of stoicism. Yes, we need that too, along with a complete acceptance of – and surrender to – the harsh realities of life.

the Chinese symbol for crisis: danger and opportunity

What happened to Siddhartha when he left the palace?

When prince Siddhartha first left the confines of the palace walls that had shielded him from life, he was shocked by what he saw out on the streets…

First, a bent old man struggling to walk on sticks: old age.

Then a sick man: illness and disease.

Then a corpse just lying there in the street: death.

And then his attention was grabbed by a wandering ascetic: a holy man in search of a deeper meaning that would liberate him from suffering. The holy man seemed unaffected by the misery of life all around him. (That’s the equanimity I mentioned a moment ago).

Siddhartha’s experience outside the palace grounds shocked him into action. He left his wife and young child and made it his mission to find a means to end human suffering. This would eventually lead to his own enlightenment and the birth of Buddhism as we know it today.

Staring into the abyss

Just before his own enlightenment, the Buddha was tested to the max. Like Jesus in the desert, Buddha confronted all the evils thrown at him – and survived. Enlightenment followed.

It’s as if we need to stand steadfast and then stare into the abyss before the monsters finally turn away and leave us alone. Perhaps that’s what they’ve been wanting all along? For us to show them our own mettle?

When they see our own strength and resilience, they can leave us alone; their teaching is over.

But it takes a certain inner strength to look into the eyes of the monster. You need a strong enough sense of self; a firm grounding in who you are and what you stand for. But more than this…

A willingness to let all of that go, to lose your (ego) identity and surrender to a greater pattern of existence being woven around you and into the very fabric of your being. For many people, religion serves this purpose. How many of us seek a saviour in those darkest of nights?

Helpers at the threshold

We could imagine that even prince Siddhartha didn’t do this on his own. And Jesus had people he confided in, too.

During a midlife crisis we don’t have to meet our shadows alone.

Supportive family members, good friends, a wise counsellor or therapist, a belief system or philosophy that somehow connects us to a bigger reality, can all be seen as helpers at the threshold.

Stepping through the door – willingly or not – is made easier when we have support of some kind, even if that is nothing more than hope and faith.

And it takes the same degree of courage to step into the therapist’s office and share your dilemma, midlife crisis or not.

But that’s what good therapy offers. We become fellow travellers walking the twisting and winding paths and dark alleyways of life.

Spiritual hypnotherapy – moving toward a soul-based psychology

A midlife crisis is really a spiritual opportunity for growth, development and personal evolution. Your ego (who wants you to remain with the status quo) doesn’t like change. But your soul – that deeper part of you – demands attention.

Joseph Campbell’s idea of the monomyth and the hero’s journey really helped me as I went through my early 40s. Life came a-knocking on my door and I was summoned to step into an unknown world.

Like prince Siddhartha, I walked away from the family I had created with my partner and baby son and ventured into new territory. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life.

It’s only in putting this into words – this very moment – that I’ve realised I was doing what Siddhartha had done 2,500 years before me. Hermann Hesse’s book – which I’d first read as a young man – must have planted seeds!

I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths…in order to experience grace.

Siddhartha – by Hermann Hesse
Herman Hesse - Siddhartha

Rising from the ashes

Is it really possible to rise from the ashes of loss, suffering, despair, and meaninglessness?

The emotional intensity we feel at such times would tell us ‘no’. But that’s the trance talking. There’s more to you than that!

There are people all over the world right now going through the same things as you but who are not ending up depressed, traumatised and suicidal. How come?

What stops them falling into crisis? Or if they’ve come out the other side, how did they do it? I believe they’ve probably used some of the methods and resources I’ve mentioned in this post.

Let me summarise them here…

Nature’s resources to help you turn crisis into opportunity

Whether you realise it or not, we are all born with resources. The key thing is in learning how to use these properly when the going gets tough.

Our resources include…

  • The imagination – so that we can visualise things going better. (Unfortunately too many of us have gotten into the habit of seeing things going worse!)
  • The REM state – a deep trance state where we can lay down new, more positive expectations in the brain (something we all do naturally and which is used in hypnotherapy)
  • An observing self – that part of us that can step back from emotional arousal and see a bigger picture, so vital in a crisis situation
  • Our family, friends and wider network – people who are on our side
  • Previous successes, learnings and achievements – a crisis situation probably won’t be the first time you’ve felt like this. You got through it before and can rise up again
  • A belief or psychology that connects you up to something greater than yourself – whether it’s religion, spirituality, philosophy, or science, a connection to a larger paradigm can help you find meaning when there appears to be none

Where are you on the crisis-opportunity spectrum?

So, over to you…

Where are you on the crisis-opportunity spectrum? Can you see a glimmer of hope? Is the sun starting to break through? Is the phoenix beginning to stretch his or her wings?

I hope these words have given you cause for optimism, however slight.

There is a way through the crisis. And ‘through’ is the keyword here. Not skirting around it but dealing with it head-on. It could just turn out to be your greatest teacher.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post. Please leave a comment below.

Or if you would like to make a private comment please email me.

If you’re in a crisis situation and feel you need professional help take advantage of my Free Discovery Session.

Or to get started straight away check out this hypnosis download on midlife crisis

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