The Midlife Crisis

Dr. Peter A. O’Connor
A psychologist with a private psychotherapy practice in Melbourne, Dr O'Connor works therapeutically with men and dreams, both in individual therapy and dream groups. A graduate of Melbourne University, he was Director of Counselling at the Marriage Guidance Council of Victoria for seven years. In 1972 he was awarded the Winston Churchill Fellowship and completed a PhD in Marriage and Family Counselling at the University of Southern California. He has held several academic and clinical positions in Australia and overseas and is the author of a number of books including Mirror on Marriage, Understanding Jung, Dreams and the Search for Meaning, The Inner Man, Looking Inwards, and his best-known and most influential work Understanding the Mid-Life Crisis.

What is a midlife crisis?
It’s a crisis of identity. It’s a time when people really question who they are. It often reaches a peak when men have had some measure of success and everything is going well. Then something happens and the question arises, ‘is this really what I want? … is this what life’s about?’ Like many crises, it’s the end of an era. Then there’s often a period of turmoil and then the potential for the beginning of a new era.

What triggers a midlife crisis and what does it feel like?
In the 1970s and 80s, it was the man’s son becoming an adolescent that sparked a mid-life crisis. A man would look at his adolescent son and realise what he hadn’t achieved in his own life.

Men have often reached the goals they set themselves by 35 or 40, but when they reach that age these goals might not be in line with who they feel they are inside.  Relationship break-ups or a sense of losing their youth and not feeling physically attractive can also be triggers.

In midlife crisis something disturbs the way a man sees himself and knows himself. It can manifest in irrational behaviour, depression, anger, anxiety and a terrible sense of meaninglessness. He might drink, change jobs or sexually act out. He starts saying ‘if only’ which is about a sense of grieving and loss. He needs to explore what he has lost and ask, ‘where it is I need to go – at this stage of my life?’.

There is an instinct in us that wants to grow, become more developed and complete and to explore various parts of ourselves. If we turn our backs on it, life can become one-dimensional and the danger is we will end up sterile and empty at 55 or 60.
The way we deal with mid-life is an important precedent to how we will deal with getting older.

At what age do men commonly have a mid-life crisis and how long does it last?
It often happens between the ages of 35 and 45 but can be earlier or later. It is different to the kind of crisis men go through at the age of 55 and 60. The minimum period to recover from a major loss and grief is thought to be 18 months to two years: and a mid-life crisis is a major loss. It can last between five and ten years from the beginning to a resolution.

What opportunity does a midlife crisis offer?

It’s an opportunity for men to develop their inner life. Sometimes this can be confronting because men have to confront feelings of self-loathing and despair, but if they can stick with these feelings they can open up a rich and imaginative life, which can also improve their relationships.

It’s an opportunity to learn about reflection rather than action. You can learn to become more patient and tolerant and less caught up in control and ego. Without these periods of crisis and transition, I’m not sure that growth would occur. Change is the only thing that’s constant in life and we need to learn to deal with this change in order to cope with the changes to come.

How does anger feature?
The majority of men I’ve seen over the years are at their saddest when they are angriest and they don’t recognise that the sadness is in the anger. For most of us, this feeling starts in the body, as a visceral feeling. If you can help men to read this physical feeling, it can help them to identify the emotion.

What can men do to help themselves?
Because you’re depressed and down, you’re stuck with yourself. Midlife provides you with an important opportunity to learn about reflection. I encourage men to read literature, to stimulate interest in their inner life. The most popular author is Herman Hesse who wrote Siddhartha. Hesse writes about the mind and feelings.

I also encourage men to reflect on what had they fantasised about doing when they were adolescent. In that fantasy you sometimes find the seeds of what needs to be done for the next part of life. It’s a key to what direction they might need to take in mid-life.

As an adult, if they say their fantasy is to become a farmer, this doesn’t mean they should race off and buy a farm, but can be understood as an expression of a need that can be attended to in another way. I would take that farmer fantasy and ask, “what will it give you?” They might say, “freedom, connection with nature, space”.  These are things they can do in their every day life without running away and actually becoming a farmer.

A common midlife fantasy is, “I just want to drop out and write.” But it’s not about writing, it’s about being more creative somehow. You have to mine the fantasy for the need, and find a way for this to be met. Imagination is a vital part of this process. Making dramatic changes isn’t advisable in my view. It’s better to let things unfold in an organic way and follow small leads. We don’t know what we want in advance and we have to explore things. Let ideas and thoughts come up, tune into them and don’t dismiss them as silly.

What role can dreams play in helping men to understand themselves?
I have no doubt that dreams are the most incredibly valuable source of reflective thoughts about ourselves. When we go to sleep we process a whole lot of feelings. Those feelings end up in a story form. A dream is like a piece of involuntary poetry each night that we write to ourselves.

If we see dreams as metaphors, not as literally true, then they are a fantastically rich aid to self-reflection. Every figure in the dream is part of ourselves. Every dreamer knows what their dream meant. I believe the dream is a metaphor and in the metaphor is a valuable story of feelings that you might be struggling with - that you might not be aware of.

Dreams show us what we are feeling at the core of our being. I’m stunned at how meaningful they can be. They are helpful to men because dreaming is an act of self-reflection. Even if they don’t understand it, they are paying attention to something other than the outer world. If you can understand the dream and reflect on it, then there are more gains.

The dreams are uncontaminated by the ego because the ego is asleep. A dream is a way to develop a reflective capacity. If you can reflect, you are less inclined to project things out into the outside world.

How can we use our dreams?
Remembering dreams is a learned skill. All you need is an exercise book. Before you go to sleep, you need to be thinking about having a dream. If you go to sleep full of booze or drugs or busy-ness in your head, then you are less likely to remember your dreams.
When you wake up in the morning, keep your eyes closed, lie there and ask yourself the question ‘did I dream last night?’ We are most likely to remember the last dream we had, which could be up to 45 minutes long.

Spend five minutes writing down your dream in your dream book: on the right hand page put the date and what you can remember about your dream. On the left hand page, jot down thoughts and feelings that come to mind about the dream. Continue to do this every day and look back over it a month later and see what you’re dreaming about. Take time to reflect on this.

It’s as if the dream is a piece of theatre and we are the writer, producer and actors. Every figure is a personification of a feeling state within ourselves. Engaging in this process is like engaging with the whole part of yourself.

What are the benefits of midlife crisis and reflection?
If you can explore your own feelings and talk about them, you realise we are all connected at some level and this increases compassion and empathy. You can identify more with other people and operate less out of your ego.

Understanding yourself on a deeper level and moving through these transitions will foster compassion and spontaneity and enable you to live more in the moment.

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