Overcoming the Terror of Midlife
Overcoming the Terror of Midlife.
Does the thought of being in your midlife terrify you? In this article, Niru Subramanian, founder of The Inclusive Coach, shares a very candid and powerful reflection on her own midlife journey.
About two years ago, I had a panic attack in my sleep. I woke up shivering, covered in sweat and struggling to breathe. It was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Although I had always been one of life’s worriers, I had never experienced these types of symptoms. The dream that had caused such symptoms was a vivid one. I was being chased so I was running swiftly through a forest. That was terrifying enough but I realised that I was running towards a quarry with a sharp drop and if I didn’t stop, I was going to fall. But there was my dilemma because I couldn’t stop as I would be caught. So, I just kept running with my heart racing and my legs trembling. No surprise that I woke up a quivering mess. I imagine anyone half acquainted with the psychology of dreams could figure out what was the true meaning of this one, but it hit me incredibly hard. I recognise now that it was a start of a journey – one that I am still travelling and one that continues to challenge me. It was me hurtling into midlife.
We have all heard of the midlife ‘crisis’ and many of us have joked about it or heard others joke about it. “Oh, John, had an affair? Must be his midlife crisis.” “Really, Ellie left her successful job as partner in that law firm? Seriously? Must be having a midlife crisis?” Unfortunately, these kinds of comments tend to diminish the sheer terror that midlife can cause and the real challenges that it brings for both men and women, affecting their entire life. These midlife crises can cause a shattering of people’s health, partnerships, careers and sanity. It is no surprise at all that major depression is most likely to affect those between 45-65 and that women, are more adversely affected.*
So what is going on here? Do we ever really stop to examine why this pivotal phase in our lives impacts us so deeply? Part of my midlife journey has been to recognise the importance of really stopping when the pain and terror hits and become mindful of those emotions. I am an analyst at heart though and I was keen to find some real meaning to this voyage. Although few and difficult to find, there are some wonderful writings about midlife that go beyond the usual surface treatment of the subject.
As a woman who embraces her vulnerability, Brene Brown’s ‘On Midlife’ (2018), is a wonderful piece of writing that challenges us to question the meaning and purpose of our life. She describes the midlife not as a ‘crisis’ but as an ‘unravelling’.
Germain Greer is another interesting author who has written about the experience of this turbulent time in her book ‘The Change’ (1992). I was moved by her lens of entering midlife as a “winter, ice, an interminable dark.”
Both Brown and Greer chose different routes for their midlife journey but very much in common, they acknowledge that it took immense bravery to push forward and truly understand themselves and acknowledge their needs.
One of the most powerful books about midlife is by James Hollis, a Jungian Analyst and Psychotherapist who writes beautifully about the ‘middle passage’ in his book ‘The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife’ (1993). Hollis asserts that midlife forces us to confront “who am I apart from my history and the roles I have played?” I very much agree with Hollis when he states that “many of us treat life as if it were a novel. We pass from page to page passively”. He talks about the need to shed our own identities that served us before but that no longer serve us and many of the sadness and pain we feel during midlife actually comes from grief. Grief is the immense pain that accompanies loss and once viewed with this particular lens, may allow real healing to occur.
It helps to understand why we are experiencing what we are experiencing but it is equally important to really feel. At this time though, many of us don’t really feel our emotions. We are so very busy. We may have teenage children who can be emotionally demanding and financial draining. We may have elderly parents who are the same. Women, often disproportionately, carry this double burden as well as having to cope with the challenges of the menopause and the hormonal turbulence that it brings.
However, men experience this midlife unravelling as deeply, often feeling hopelessly trapped in a life that is no longer fulfilling. Many of us just do not sit with our emotions and let them radiate through our body. We act quickly and impulsively, trying to hide from this point in our lives by having affairs, buying expensive cars, having plastic surgery and the cliched list goes on. I am not judging. These indeed may be the right steps to take on an individual basis. However, these cliched steps are often taken in haste as a way to numb our feelings or indeed, to feel anything entirely different to the emotions that we are truly experiencing.
We have been conditioned to do this; it often allows us to continue with the challenges of life. But in my experience and the experience of many, this is not the time to numb those feelings. Why? Because time is short.
And that is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? We are now faced with our mortality and that life simply isn’t going to last forever. My dream was a stark reminder that there is a cliff that awaits and I am forever nudging towards it. Sometimes, it still strikes me with terror. However, it forced me, along with reading the texts and blogs above (and some others) to confront myself, where I stood at midlife and where I wanted to go.
So I ask you now – who are you really? Who are you other than the roles that you play and the circumstances that have led you here? Who do you really want to be and where do you want this midlife journey to take you? The only way you can answer these questions is to be brave enough to explore them, perhaps with the support from a coach or therapist, and really be willing to accept the answers. They won’t necessarily be easy answers but they will allow you to find your true sense of self and live the remainder of your life the way you choose to live it.
I am sure that most of you have read ‘We’re going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen (1989) to your children or have heard of it at least. There are some very apt lyrics in that book that we can relate to midlife “You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it…we’ve got to go through it.” With midlife, there is no choice. We can’t hide from it, we can’t lie or cheat it. It keeps coming. There is nowhere else to go. My journey is ongoing. I am still working on my sense of self. I have found purpose in my life through my coaching and consulting business, working with women and individuals from minority groups but I have much further to travel. I have not yet accepted my mortality and I still wake occasionally from a nightmare in which I am being chased. There is further to go but there is a difference. I have learnt not to fear the journey but to embrace for the most part. I urge you to do as Hollis states in The Middle Passage “become conscious, accept responsibility for the rest of the pages [in your book of life] and risk the largeness of life to which we are summoned.”
Niru Subramanian, founder of The Inclusive Coach, is an ICF approved coach and diversity and inclusion specialist, partnering with organisations and individuals to enable the best possible outcomes for women and people from minority groups. Niru will shortly be launching her signature coaching programme for women facing the challenges of midlife.
*Source: Facts about depression
If you enjoyed this article, why not read Harness the Power of Midlife