Am I having a midlife crisis? How to know & what to do.
You're reading this story thanks to an incident in a bathroom three years ago.
On a toilet, actually.
That's where I sat at about 2:00 am sometime in mid-2015. My stomach was in knots – a mix of anxiety, exhaustion and hopelessness. I hadn't slept well in months, and for the past year, I'd decided my life was meaningless. Not kill-myself-meaningless, but I'd struggled to see the point of it all, and nothing seemed to help.
The fact that my life looked fine (great family, steady employment, food on the table, lovely home) only amplified the problem. By all the measures we use to define ourselves, I was kicking goals. I had arrived. So why didn't I feel like it? I had no reason to be miserable, and that made me more miserable.
Had I been an alcoholic womaniser with a gambling addiction, the root cause might have been more apparent. But I'd worked like a dog, invested well, read the right books and had no problem with booze. I wasn't a philanderer, either.
What had happened was the same thing that happens to millions of middle-aged folks the world over. I'd followed a script handed down by popular culture and the mass media. I'd bought into the doctrine that says happiness comes from working up an invisible ladder and obtaining as many trinkets as possible along the way.
Like so many, I would accumulate debt, work myself to the bone to pay it off, then repeat the cycle again and again. And because I worked so hard, I'd buy more stuff to reward myself for all the hard work I was doing.
I'd become trapped in the relentless pursuit of more.
But that was only part of it. I'd bought into three false beliefs:
1. Life is a quest, where all the rewards come at the end (retirement).
2. I can't make enough money doing something I love.
3. Everyone is watching and keeping score.
These beliefs manifested in a life which railed against work days and longed for weekends. It stopped me from pursuing things I might enjoy (because ‘there's no money in it') and made me a card-carrying member of The Joneses who positioned himself based on the stuff he owned.
Symptoms of a Midlife Crisis
My midlife crisis manifested in ways both cliched and unique. For example, I didn't seek outside female attention and I wasn't overcome with a desire to look younger (no gym for me, then), but I was burdened with a tonne of negative thoughts.
I don't want you to feel foolish, so let me start by sharing my own thoughts over that tumultuous year.
- I felt frustrated that I'd worked so hard but had less freedom than ever.
- I didn't have as much energy as I used to – the machine was wearing out – and it began to worry me a lot.
- I was doing work that fed the family buy not my soul.
- Most of my work felt superficial and only benefitted a select few.
- Even when I wasn't working, all I could think about was work.
- There was no room for spontaneity anymore – everything was scheduled.
- I worried I'd never give my son the childhood my dad gave me, filled with camping adventures and fireside chats.
- I toyed with the idea of selling everything and living ultra simply.
- I envied people with simple lives and simpler needs.
- I resented having strived so hard in my younger years, only to lose it all after my last marriage collapsed.
- I envied my 78-year-old dad who was fitter, freer and happier – even though he'd well and truly earned those things.
- I bought all manner of things to wallpaper the problem. For me, it was a tonne of camping and adventure gear. I figured if I just got away more, I'd be happy. But none of it worked because wherever I went, the other problems followed me around. I needed to address them before I could truly escape.
I didn't start sneaking off to smoke weed, and I didn't buy a motorbike (I already had one) or sadly, a Porsche, but everything pointed to the same cause.
I wasn't living up to the person I'd wanted to be.
I eventually learned that frustration manifests because there's a gap (or in my case, a chasm) between who we are and who we wished we were. This explains why there are millions of happy, fulfilled people living simple, unglamorous lives. They're living the life they envisioned for themselves. There's no gap.
So it's a self-esteem issue.
It's the difference between our self-image (how we see ourselves) and our self-ideal (who we wish we were). If those two things align, we're happy. There's no midlife crisis. If they don't, it all comes home to roost sometime in our middle years.
The rush of day-to-day living offers precious little time to address the issue, too. So it accumulates, and eventually, it reaches critical mass. That's what happened to me three years ago.
So what did I do? Like many of us, I grabbed my phone and I Googled the problem. I've written about what happened that night, and the Midlife Mentors series honours some of those people I discovered that night. Together, with their help and a commitment to work through the problem, I emerged from my depression and turned things around.
What I learned.
- Even if we're 70, we still have time to change things. My dad transformed his life in his late 60's, and he's never been happier. He's now 81 and living a brilliant life.
- If you elect to do nothing, you'll run out of time very quickly (a paradox, I know). Corbett Barr (CEO of Fizzle) summed it up beautifully. He said, “Remember when you used to have dreams and desires and high hopes for yourself? You’ll never be younger than you are right now. Don’t wait until the door closes on your opportunity to live the life you once believed was your destiny.”
- Thanks to the human spirit and the Internet, you can muster the tools and the knowledge required to turn your ship around. The fact that you're reading this is all the proof you need.
- You can attack the problem from both ends (expectations and outcomes), then expand both later. You can reduce your lofty goals now, while simultaneously working to improve your circumstances. You can always set bigger goals later once things begin to improve. Don't put so much pressure on yourself.
- It only takes one change to kick off the domino effect. I learned this from Gary Keller's fantastic book, The One Thing. He explained how in 1893, Lorne Whitehead discovered that a single domino can bring down another domino 50% larger. This geometric progression shows that the 18th domino would be powerful enough to knock over something as big as the Leaning Tower of Pisa! The 31st domino would dwarf Mt Everest.
- This applies to our lives, too, and what it means is, all we need do is start with the first domino, then move to the next, and so on. Framed this way, we can achieve massive change in our lives much faster than many of us realise. As Tony Robbins says, “We overestimate what we can achieve in a year, but underestimate what we can achieve in a decade.” And a decade will pass either way, whether we become the architects of change or not.
- As Seth Godin said recently, “If we focus too much on the end, we end up taking our eyes away from right here and right now.” In other words, we need to stop overthinking outcomes and focus on what's in front of us. And on feeling stuck in our current circumstances, he suggested, “Stuck is a choice. Not merely the external stuck, but our narrative of stuck. Change the narrative first. It’s easier.”
- An interview with Uraguay's former President revealed a compelling truth. He said he earns more than he needs (at the time, he donated 90% of his salary). He said many people were ‘poor' because they need too much. They're never satisfied. He said that by forgoing many of the trinkets westerners lust after, it gave him the time and freedom to live a happy life.
So the question becomes, how do we get out of this hole? How do we solve this riddle of the midlife crisis? Well, it's different for each one of us. But here's what I did.
- I killed off all my consumer debts. That meant I didn't need to work quite so hard to keep my head above water.
- I developed a side hustle I could sink my teeth into – something that fed my creative needs and helped others (you're reading it).
- I scheduled time with my kids so I could enjoy them more and stave off any guilt of being an ‘absent dad'.
- I committed to reading again – not a lot – just enough each day to inspire me to live a more meaningful and purposeful life.
- I reached out to people I admired and developed relationships with them.
- I started taking better care of my body – employing principles from The Miracle Morning, Tim Ferriss's work and Dr Phil Carson.
- I took control of my daily schedule to minimise overwhelm; saying no to things (and people) I didn't enjoy, and yes to more fun.
- I dedicated more time to my parents, taking regular days off to enjoy quality time with them without distractions.
- I donated to causes I cared about and set them on autopilot.
- I pledged to grow as an individual, not by thinking about it, but by doing stuff that scared me a little. My podcast is one of those things.
- I started selling, donating or tossing out my unwanted stuff. I have The Minimalists to thank for that. I still have a long way to go, but the effects are profound. I feel lighter, freer, and less enamoured with shiny new things.
I could list many more, and some of the articles below go into more detail, but conquering a midlife crisis is undoubtedly doable. You don't need a Harley and you sure as hell don't want a mistress (or a dalliance with that person in HR).
Recognise there's a far better life on the other side, and all that's happening here is you're being presented with a chance to pivot. It's a milestone, nothing more.
Surround yourself with good people, get clear on what's crushing your spirit, and resolve to do something about it. That's the whole purpose of Midlife Tribe; to help you master your midlife.
The bottom line is, I feel a lot more content with my life today. That's not to say my ambition has wavered, only that it's rooted in more meaningful pursuits.
I strive to live a full life and to use my talents to make it less stressful, more purpose-driven and a lot more deliberate. I no longer delay happiness based on goals way out there on the horizon. I am happy now, as I pursue my dreams. That's a huge change, and once you get it, your life improves measurably.
Go back through the lists above and see which items make sense to you. Add your own bits as you go, and resolve to start changing how you look at this situation. More importantly, decide to start doing a couple of small things to get the domino effect in play.
Most of all, remember that you're not alone, and you can do this.A midlife crisis manifests because there's a gap between who we are and who we wished we were. It's essentially a self-esteem issue. Click To Tweet
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Also published on Medium.