A dear friend of mine has been watching her boyfriend go through the typical stages of a midlife crisis. Despite having a successful career, plenty of money, and a woman he loves, he is exhausted and questioning what comes next. Cue the purchase of a Ferrari, and we’ve all seen this movie before. The middle-aged man tries to regain his lost youth.
His journey has inspired her to research what happens to us when we reach that point in our lives, and she suggested to me that quitting my job was inspired by my own version of a midlife crisis. I started reading the articles she sent to me, and I had to agree. The midlife reassessment appears to occur differently for men and women – particularly professional women. According to Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D., a mid-life crisis isn't about recovering lost youth for smart, goal-driven women. It's more about discovering the application of their greatness. The challenge is defining what greatness means, so often the journey is winding and, at least at first, has no specific destination.
Career-oriented women tend to have shifts in aspirations with each decade. We pay our dues and anxiously await the rewards. Sometimes these awards don’t appear, and as we enter our 30s, many women start to seek something more meaningful. We’ve experienced inequality in the workplace, we’ve realized that the world is not a meritocracy, and we start to examine the gap between our personal values and our careers. By our 40s, many of us have lost the desire to prove ourselves. This can manifest is several different ways. Some decide to work on their own, some switch careers to fulfill their personal dreams and create a better life balance, and some fall off the grid to regroup completely. Instead of a midlife “crisis” it’s more of a midlife quest for identity.
Two years ago, at 42, I chose the latter path and dropped off the grid. I thought I was choosing to work independently, but once I was out of the daily grind I lost that identity and had yet to form a new one. I enjoyed my freedom for a while, but at some point, I realized I was adrift. I couldn’t answer the “so, what do you do” question without feeling like a fraud. I would mumble some answer about consulting projects and starting a business, but inside my brain was screaming “YOU ARE SO FULL OF SHIT!” I went through a period of crisis. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, I withdrew from friends, I stopped exercising. I felt like I was wading through quicksand. Thankfully I never went so far down the rabbit hole that I didn’t realize what was happening. I knew, rationally, that I needed to pull myself out of it, but I couldn’t do it until I was ready. Finally, I reached that day when I had had enough. I allowed myself a few more hours at the pity party for one, and decided that in the morning I would wake up and do something about it. And I did. I started to work out again, re-engage with people, and slowly everything shifted.
It’s important to avoid the coulda-shoulda-woulda spiral, but it can be informative to listen to that voice to some degree. What do you feel you could or should have done at this point in your life? Is it a legitimate passion or just guilt about what you have not achieved? What do you want more (and less) of in your life going forward? I’m working on giving up the “shoulda” of staying with a big financial firm, working my way up the ladder, ignoring the politics and bureaucracy and cashing my paycheck. I know that’s not who I am, and it’s ok.
I am positive that I will apply my “greatness” in a way that will make a major impact, but I’m still figuring out exactly what that means. It’s difficult to give up the anchor of the identity we have built for 40-plus years, especially when we have been the good girls, the achievers, the A students. Starting fresh takes courage, and the path is not linear. I look back on the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met over the past two years and I regret none of it. I’ve been able to try on many different identities to see if they fit. I’ve dipped my toe into the waters of geopolitical risk, multi-cultural marketing, an online talk show, sales, and coaching. I’ve written about my challenges, and not been afraid to look vulnerable. Most importantly, I’ve been able to rest and live healthier. I now know better what works for me and what doesn’t. I want to help people, but money still matters. Boundaries are important – it’s healthy to say no. I must have creative, physical, and mental avenues of expression to be fulfilled. It’s time to make the second half count