photo by youngjun koo for

photo by youngjun koo for

It seems like an epidemic: we’re all becoming older and feeling that we’re becoming more-and-more invisible. I get emails from mid-life men and women saying some version of: “I am physically aging much faster than I’d hoped. Who’s going to want me now?” Popular culture calls this a “midlife crisis”, but does it have to be a crisis?


Midlife crises shake up our lives for better and for worse, but – surprisingly – the biggest mistake is not having one at all. A midlife crisis is a period of a time of intense growth and dramatic life changes that are exciting and terrifying. The “crisis” usually occurs between our late 30’s and early 50’s. How do you know you’re having a midlife crisis? It’s not only about how your looks change; more importantly, it’s about realizing that your values have changed. You realize that the values that have guided you for so many years no longer work. Something’s gotta give!


Most midlife crises are triggered by introspection, events like a death or a relationship ending, unhappiness with physical aging and/or money or career concerns. For many of us, physical aging hits us – hard -about this time. As one client told me, “What will I do when I’m not young and cute any more?” Unlike celebrities and movie stars, most normal people visibly age. More importantly, we psychologically age. This is also known as becoming “wiser”, and it’s a good thing. Wisdom, however, has a way of pulling the rug out from under our youthful illusions (“I’m going to be rich and famous.” or “Once I find my soul mate, everything will be perfect”.) Few of us manage to manifest all the dreams of our 20’s and 30’s, and when we do, the money or the success or the partner rarely measures up to our idealistic standards.


Most of us have looked at our own racism and homophobia, but let’s look at a more subtle form of discrimination and self-hatred: ageism. All forms of media unceasingly promote the high-priced anti-aging products of their advertisers. They are unlikely to encourage us to love ourselves just as we are. Instead, we are brainwashed to think we are barely acceptable unless we hide or eliminate our gray hair, receding hairlines, love handles and wrinkled skin.


Happy, secure women and men won’t buy overpriced anti-aging products; but scared and desperate people will…and do. How can we escape the self-hatred of ageism? First off, be willing to identify old parts of yourself that you’ve suppressed. Those needs and desires can be very important for us as we pour the ”foundation” for the second half of our life. Ask yourself: what do I really care about? What do I want to spend my energy on? We are a generation of people who (in general) are better educated, healthier and more affluent than our forefathers/mothers. We may live for another 40 or 50 years. But, as one of my 40-something clients recently asked me, “What am I gonna do with all that time?”


I experienced my own midlife crisis when a long-term relationship ended and I found myself unhappy in my job and newly single. While it was a time of great potential, it was as scary as hell. As a result of this midlife “crisis”, I found a good therapist, quit my job, dated a lot, and went back to college. It was quite an upheaval (I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco with no job, no partner and few friends) but I doubt I would have changed my life so dramatically if I wasn’t “forced” to.


Some of us, in midlife, go through a period of reckless behavior. If we’re in a monogamous relationship we may have affairs or even end a long-term relationship. We may find ourselves drinking more, taking too many anti-depressants, smoking too much pot, spending money we really don’t have and/or charging expensive vacations that will take us years to pay for. All these behaviors are ways of acting out and avoiding reality. They’re detours off the path. We can take them, but sooner or later, we have to face the music: we’re getting older and our lives have to change. How are we going to handle this?


Instead of acting out like some overaged teenager – kicking and screaming into your 40’s and 50’s – I suggest that you use this time to make your life even better. Take more healthy risks: try things that make you uncomfortable, like learning a new sport, going to social gatherings and starting conversations (rather than waiting for people to come to you), volunteering or even going back to school to switch careers.


At times like these, lean on your friends and family. These folks can be your rock. As you begin to change your life, you need them more than ever. Ask them for support, call them when you get scared, and hang with them when you need some comfort. It’s okay to be scared, but don’t wallow in self-pity. When you ask “Who’s going to want me now?” the answer needs to be: “I do”. If you don’t want to be with yourself, who else would want to be with you? Mid-life is the perfect time to start to please yourself by finding out what’s missing from your life (self-esteem, excitement, joy, spontaneity, fulfilling sex) and taking steps to have it.


If we are lucky, we get to be older. So let’s be grateful we’re still alive and use our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s to learn from past mistakes and set the course for our future: a future based on more than unwrinkled skin…a future based on wisdom and self-acceptance.