We walk a spiral path as we progress through life. With each step we have the opportunity to gain wisdom from the one before it. With each step we can look inward and look out. We revisit our steps in this pattern, with the opportunity to see the same things from a different perspective. How open are we to looking? How fearless are we that we might see something that could change how we live our lives if we dare to be honest with ourselves?
Self-reflection and assessing its truth become the developmental task at hand when we reach midlife. “Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But, we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning—for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie” (1)
Carl Jung, the well-known Swiss Psychiatrist, is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern psychology. Jung made great contributions to the understanding of human personality and development. He spoke of the importance of what happens at midlife and the need to let go of behaviors and beliefs that guided our first half of life, and look bravely into the unconscious to guide the second.
It seems many of us find we have created a life based on stereotypical shoulds, how one is supposed to live as a woman in our society. At midlife women begin to experience life change and possibly life changing feelings. Challenging questions and turbulent feelings come to the fore. If we react without contemplation and self-honesty we might see the behaviors of the stereotypical mid-life crisis: issues are acted out through impulsive decisions and behaviors, and feelings become manifested as symptoms and labeled as illness. Behaviors can become focused actions attempting to reclaim one’s youth. Feelings such as depression, anxiety, confusion, anger and resentment can come to dominate everyday life. These feelings can be viewed as illness and are often treated physically, when in reality they are a sign to go within. Typically the focus is on menopause, regulating hormones and diet, and looking for what is wrong and getting treatment. Instead, perhaps we can look at turbulent feelings at this stage in life as looking for something right.
Jung identifies two main developmental tasks of midlife transition: first, to seek and find the authentic self; second, to create a personal world where one can be that self. What happens if that authentic self and the world in which that self needs to thrive is very different from how the self currently exists? Jung explains in the first half of life we create a self based on what parents, peers, partners and society expects of us. We learn from the reactions of these significant others which parts of us are acceptable and which are not; the unacceptable parts get repressed in our unconscious. If we complete the task of which Jung speaks, if we go within and reclaim those repressed parts and parts of ourselves that we have never known, we may feel a state of crisis if the life we have made is in direct conflict with the one in which we come to see we belong.
In her poem “The Invitation” Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes:
“It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me
I want to know if you can
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.” (2)
One may think this is selfish talk and choices based on accepting this invitation could perhaps be hurtful to others in our lives. We may feel obligated and bound to continue living in the choices we made in the first half of our life. The truth is that others in our lives could indeed be hurt by our self-honesty and the changes that may come with our truth. However, how hurtful is it to others and ourselves to move through the world and our relationships acting out of a repressed self? Not only do we betray ourselves, we betray those around us when we do not live in our truth. Perhaps then the actual crisis of midlife is not as much fear of death and not having lived but rather fear of living before death.
Once aware, we are challenged with the choice of striving to live as our authentic self or denying our truth. Either choice can seem frightening. Perhaps frightening to the point of being petrified, unable to choose and stuck at the point of choice. Once we become aware we cannot truly become unaware. So perhaps we stay still at this point of choice until we are ready to move. Perhaps we look at taking up midlife as a process of processing rather than immediate radical change. We raise our consciousness and look honestly inward as a step.
Finding and living the authentic self is hard work. The key is a willingness to do the work of self-reflection. Soul searching can be pursued in many forms: personal journaling, participating in spiritual work, self-help and therapy groups, and traditional counseling and psychotherapy are all examples of resources to seek and find one’s authentic self.
If we are willing to do the hard work of looking at our truth we can move toward living an honest and fulfilling second half of life. We can look to each other for understanding, support, and validation as we risk journeying to our center and then back out into the world. If we dare to live an authentic life we have the opportunity to share the gift of genuine generativity with our selves and with others.
Jung, C. G. (1971). “The Stages of Life”, in The Portable Jung. New York : Viking Press
Oriah, (1999). The Invitation. New York: Harper Collins.