There comes a point in most people’s lives when they begin to reflect on what their life is about. It’s a moment that can affect anyone at any age but for people in their midlife it perhaps feels more poignant. Middle age can feel like a tipping point: the start of a decline from which there is no return. Because there’s no chance of putting the clock back it’s a time of possible regret, of chances missed or opportunities passed over.
Our younger selves sometimes have a way of suppressing emotions that come back to bite us as we age. The point when we start reflecting on things like the decline of intimacy in a relationship, or perhaps the way we’ve emphasized security and practicalities over, say, creativity and risk taking can fuel old feelings and bring them to the surface. It can be a difficult place to find yourself and one that, if left unchecked, could lead to despondency and even depression.
People view their midlife differently. Some, for example, see it as the start of a second life and a way to catch up on the things they’ve missed or always wanted to do. Others retain the perspective that life is categorized into chunks of time. It’s an idea that says when you hit 65 you are to retire and are therefore old. The same set of ideas dictate when you are 40 you are middle-aged and your best years are passed. It’s troubling the way such views can affect people’s emotions and behavior. Thinking life has no more to offer and that all your chances and opportunities have passed is a recipe for sadness and inactivity. It’s also, in my view, entirely inaccurate.
A good number of the things we’ve done in life come down to the choices we make at that time. Of these, some will work out better than others and some may fuel regret. A lot of what we do when we’re younger is based purely on happenstance. Little thought may have gone into those decisions and there was no real life experience to fall back on to help guide actions. Equally, our younger lives may have been shaped, sometimes very directly, by wishes of other adults?
Whatever your early life experiences, hitting yourself over the head for things that may actually have been out of your control, or simply down to youth, isn’t going to change things; but as an adult some real opportunities may now be afforded to you. As an adult you hopefully have the life experience, autonomy and wisdom you never had as a child or young person. Perhaps your own children have grown up and left home? Yes, the empty nest may serve to remind you of time passing, but on the other, isn’t this now an opportunity to do something for yourself?
If you feel your life is in a rut, that one day is as predictable as the next and you don’t like it, what’s to lose? I know you may have certain constraints in your life, as we all do, but don’t allow that to become an excuse for inaction. So you don’t have the resources to book a Kenyan safari or a world cruise. Well, you’re not alone in that. It is quite possible to get great satisfaction and fulfillment in doing things much closer to home. Have you ever considered volunteer work, or some other activity where you help others just by putting yourself out a little?
In saying that I don’t want to dismiss the significance of the issues that can contribute to a sense of a flatlined life. These are often complex and involve both personal and interpersonal issues. It can feel effortful and tiring trying to confront these issues, but leaving them to fester and grow will only worsen things. Only you will have a sense of the depth and complexity of these issues and only you will have a sense of what you want to prioritize. For some people it’s a simple case of dusting off the inertia and getting active again. For others the issues run deeper and may benefit from professional help and guidance.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.