If you're between 45 and 65 years old, then you know what it's like to be lumped together by age, as a mid-lifer, Baby Boomer, Hippie or Yuppie. Viewed as that huge generation reaching middle age (and beyond) by the millions, we've been told that we can retain our vitality and visibility if we just work hard enough. "Hit the gym, keep active, play Scrabble, join Facebook and try Tweeting," experts advise. Oh, and should we hit bumps along the way, hampered by some poor life choices -- a dysfunctional marriage, a dead-end job, an overweight or out-of-shape body -- we need only reawaken our dormant passions and reinvent ourselves to move gracefully into old age. We are, after all, going to be all right. Better than ever.
With angst, yet relief, I read "Never Say Die," by Susan Jacoby, who is a little less sanguine about this whole aging thing, describing it, more or less, as "brutal." She argues that we have been blindly led to believe in midlife "mythical metamorphosis," after years of being bombarded by age-defying fantasies in the media -- and not just by marketers who make money out of that sort of thing, but by well-meaning psychologists, support groups, self-help books and magazines. According to The New York Times, Jacoby debunks the anti-aging fairy-tale and questions our dream that "medical science will transform human biology and spare us all from decrepitude." She warns, "Dream on." Or better yet, stop dreaming.
Somewhere between "forever young" fantasies and throwing in the towel is reality -- the true-life struggles confronted during the phase I call "Emerging Maturity." In a recent article here, titled "Midlife Crisis: A Misleading Myth or a Reality in Search of a New Name?" I described the cultural changes that necessitated a redefinition of the outdated term. Originally coined in the mid 1900s, the midlife crisis has become associated with the derogatory image of the 40-year-old guy behaving badly (think Owen Wilson movies) as he yearns to return to his youth -- a hackneyed cliché rendering the term relatively useless.
Emerging Maturity, on the other hand, is customized to fit today's cultural landscape -- neither something that occurs at midlife, nor necessarily a crisis. Experienced by both men and women, it starts most often as signs of aging emerge but can occur at any point when questions about mortality arise. It reflects the fact that we are the first generation living well into our 80s and 90s, facing new challenges and opportunities as a result. While our midpoint once led to feelings of panic and urgency -- and therefore a desire to fulfill unmet goals before time ran out -- it now more often leads to a heightened awareness of the many years that lie ahead, and a wish to bring fulfillment to the rest of the journey.
Having renamed this stage of life Emerging Maturity, we can now explore what actually happens between our "uh-oh, I'm getting old" moments and the acceptance that we are, in fact, moving on. We can explore the similarities and differences between what men and women feel during this pivotal period of reassessment and renegotiation. More importantly, we can look at how to keep this phase from turning into a major life crisis -- not just for ourselves, but for those closest to us -- and how to avoid the collateral damage that can be left along the way. The goal? Facing midlife challenges in such a way that they truly lead to renewed satisfaction, making the aphorism "getting older means getting better" not just words but a reality.
Below, I describe the first step that helps us move through Emerging Maturity. This psychological process is an outgrowth of writing "Face It," a book that researched how women deal with the emotional reactions they have as they reach midlife. Although the book was directed mostly toward women, it taught me that the challenges they experience and the solutions they seek are applicable to men as well. The fellows I spoke with at lectures, on the radio and in blogs often told me about feeling dismissed, as if their aging experience had been reduced to the midlife crisis cliché. Emerging Maturity, on the other hand, was a life challenge they could relate to, one that could be resolved without disastrous results if properly understood.
Step 1: Acknowledgment Of The "Uh-Oh" Moment
Acknowledgment is the first step in resolving most psychological dilemmas -- identifying and clearly understanding the challenge being faced. In terms of Emerging Maturity, I suggest starting this process by substituting a new image to replace the old one associated with the midlife crisis. Picture this: You have been driving along a familiar road and you hit an unexpected traffic circle. Taken by surprise -- "uh-oh" -- you are not sure which way to go. You have several options. You can go around and around the circle, feeling confused, getting nowhere (like when someone says, "Oh, no, this can't be all there is!"). You can simply go straight, just because it's what you know and have done before (it's what we call "going through the motions"). You can make a turn, just any turn, and hope it all turns out all right (these are those reflexive, reckless reactions). You can retrace your steps and start again (we know what turning back the clock can look like!).
Or you can pull over, look at a map, discuss the options with whomever else is in the car, get out and ask for help. The key is, you are willing to stop long enough to figure out how to proceed. You acknowledge that you have hit an unexpected turning point -- "uh-oh" -- and that you are potentially lost, that you need to take a moment, that you need to think and feel before making the next step. This is the first step toward finding your way.
Now let's better understand the psychological experience behind this image. We know that "uh-oh" moments are felt throughout transitional times in life -- adolescence, first jobs, marriage, first children. We come to many crossroads as we age. But Emerging Maturity hits us on a deeper existential level -- as if we were punched in gut -- at the core of who we are as human beings. Reckoning with our mortality feels less like making a new turn than facing the fact that this may be our last one.
Keep in mind that these feelings may start on the surface. For women, they may be triggered by the physical changes we see -- wrinkles, gray hair, age spots -- but they can be sparked by interpersonal, familial and hormonal changes, as well. Men's "uh-oh" moments can also start on the surface -- balding, hanging jowls, yellowing teeth -- but more often are provoked by losses in strength, endurance and potency. Financial or professional losses also trigger these feelings. Sometimes they are stirred by a serious illness, loss of a mate or the death of a parent. Other times it's frightening world events that remind us of the fragility of life. Regardless of the particular trigger, these moments rarely remain on the surface but go deep within, creating strong emotional reactions.
Acknowledging that we have these feelings and how we deal with them is what Emerging Maturity is largely about. It is the first step. My next post will be about what happens emotionally as we react to our "uh-oh moment" -- after we enter that traffic circle, accept that we feel lost and begin to deal with what comes next. Understanding "fight-or-flight" reactions is the second step toward resolving Emerging Maturity.
Let me know: have you had an "uh-oh" moment? What did it feel like?
To hear more about how to survive midlife without a crisis, watch the "Today" show on NBC on Monday, April 18 at 8 a.m.
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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.