A Frank Discussion of Midlife Malaise

I like to think I am pretty good with words—at least on paper, if not always while speaking on the spot (a common characteristic of introverts). But, for the past several years, I had not been able to find a label that I felt accurately described the sense of internal unrest that that been nagging me. Sure, there are aspects of my life that I would like to be different, and I am actively working to improve some of them, but it was more pervasive, if subtler, than that. I felt guilty for my unsettledness. There was no good reason. What was the deal?

Just after the first of the year, I read Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, and I felt like he was reading my mind. So often throughout the book, I found myself saying, “Yes!” or “That’s exactly how I feel.” And he gave me a new vocabulary for identifying and explaining—even if only to myself—this underlying nag of discontent.

Rauch found himself feeling the same way in his 40s. He was a successful journalist who was in a loving relationship. Outwardly, he had achieved so much of what he wanted to accomplish, and life looked good. Overall, it felt good, too. He appreciated what he had. That was why he felt so bad about feeling bad.

Yet he also felt like there was more that he should have done and achieved and that time to do so was running out. He decided to dive into this nagging feeling and learn more.

His own informal research and conversations with many experts in human growth and development, lifespan, aging, psychology and even primatology revealed that some level of this slump in the 40s to early 50s is not only common, but normal. We’re familiar with the stereotype of “midlife crises,” usually involving red sports cars, but, although, like most stereotypes, this one holds true in some cases, the reality is that for most people it is less dramatic than a crisis. It’s more like an underlying sense of unease and disappointment. In most cases it is not precipitated by any momentous event; it just sort of creeps in and makes itself known. There is even evidence that this midlife melancholy has a basis in biology. Experts who study our primate relatives have recognized that middle-aged chimpanzees and orangutans exhibit signs of a slump that resembles what humans experience.

Since “crisis” doesn’t accurately describe the more common—yet largely undiscussed—phenomenon, Rauch searched for a word that better captured it—slump, melancholy, dissatisfaction. All of those fit, but the one that resonated with me the most was “malaise”—”a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” according to Oxford Languages. While “illness” doesn’t fit my personal experience (another reason to be grateful!), “discomfort” and “uneasiness” certainly do, and there is no single, easily identifiable cause, which is why I believe it feels so shameful and ungrateful to discuss.

Rauch’s book convinced me that we need to be able to talk about it, though. Just knowing that it is common, even close to universal, albeit to varying degrees, mitigates the sense of shame. So, I decided to write about what I read in Rauch’s book and to own up to my own experience with this midlife malaise. And I also wanted to share hope.

Rauch’s research revealed that, while this midlife malaise is prevalent and unpleasant, those who study the phenomenon have consistently found that it occurs in the shape of a U-curve, with a peak in the 20s, a gradual decline to a nadir that varies from the mid-40s to mid50s, averaging around age 50 worldwide, to a gradual incline into the 70s. One reason for this seems to be the development of wisdom, an emerging area in science. Viewed through a lens of wisdom, midlife malaise can best be described as a passage from one phase of adulthood to another. It makes me think of a term we hear in higher education: “the murky middle.” In higher ed this refers to sophomore and junior years, when college students are most at risk for dropping out.

Midlife can feel murky but viewed as a passage to a state of greater contentment with the potential benefit of wisdom, it feels more normative and hopeful.

Monika Ardelt, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida, is one of the experts Jonathan Rauch consulted. She studies wisdom and considers it to be a “combination of personal qualities” that she divides into three categories: cognitive, reflective and affective. She defines cognitive wisdom as “an understanding of life and a desire to know the truth.” In action this is a recognition of both the positive and negative aspects of life and an ability to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. Reflective wisdom is “a perception of phenomena and events from multiple perspectives.” This may manifest as accepting responsibility for one’s own circumstances. Finally, affective wisdom is “sympathetic and compassionate love for others,” which is pretty self-explanatory.

In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Rauch gives a good synopsis of the topics in the book, including reasons why it is important to share this information. He says, “The story of the U-curve . . .  is a story not of chaos or disruption but of a difficult yet natural transition to a new equilibrium. And I find that when I tell troubled middle-aged people about it, their reaction is one of relief. Just knowing that the phenomenon is common can be therapeutic.” He notes that some of the experts he consulted agreed that the awareness of this normal passage can make an important difference in mitigating both the suffering that it can cause and the regrettable decisions that can result when people blame relationships, jobs or other life circumstances for their discontent. That’s not to say those things don’t ever need to be addressed or changed, but they don’t always, and making those changes should be well considered, rather than rash. Princeton researcher Hannes Schwandt said, “Part of your disappointment is driven by disappointment itself.”

As Rauch says, “People thrash around for explanations, which can lead to attribution errors and bad decisions. And those, of course, can bring on what really is a stereotypical midlife crisis, complete with lurching change and ill-judged behavior.”

Ultimately, Rauch recommends caution when making major decisions in midlife. He outlines this strategy:

  • Be careful: Because of the underlying sense of dissatisfaction, there can be a tendency to make reckless decisions, upending lives. This could be the right direction, but it very well might not be. It might be best to take a wait-and-see approach.
  • Step, don’t leap: Make changes gradually. Build on your life experience to this point, rather then abruptly throwing everything away.
  • Reach out: As is true in most things in life, shame is reduced when we can talk openly and especially when we realize that others experience the same thing.
  • Consider coaching: As Rauch describes, “coach and client work as allies to better align the client’s life and values. That approach is well suited to those who feel successful yet unfulfilled.” This can be very helpful in making reasoned changes that reflect the client’s growing wisdom as she/he progresses through the passage of midlife.
  • Forewarned is forearmed: It’s too late for those of us who are already working our way through midlife malaise, but being more open about this phenomenon can help those younger people who have not yet reached that point. Just knowing that it might be coming and that it is normal can minimize the misery it can provoke.
  • If in doubt . . . wait: Once again, the best approach may be patience. While it may be hard to tease out the difference between patience and complacency, it can be valuable to proceed with caution and wait and see what changes really need to be made and what actually is okay or even good.

Have you experienced this midlife malaise? Are you on the upside of the U-curve? I feel, at 51, like I am starting—just starting—to ride up the other side of the U. Reading Rauch’s book gave me hope and helped to normalize my feelings. I still have moments when I feel ungrateful because of the discontent I feel, but I have released some of the unhelpful mental habits that tormented me more a few years ago, like comparing my accomplishments to those of similar or younger age. We all live our own lives and create our own paths as we go. No two of us are exactly alike. We are all strong in some areas and not as strong as others. But I firmly believe that we can all make positive contributions in the world and that there is a difference we are all meant to make. This may look dramatically different from one person to another, so comparing is pointless at best and masochistic at worst.

If you can relate with the concept of midlife malaise, I recommend Rauch’s book. It is excellent and enjoyable to read, and I found it tremendously helpful.

Whether you are experiencing a midlife slump or just feel like there is more you can do to optimize your life, I’d love to help. Claim your free Blossom 2021 Quick Coach Power Session by clicking the button below to sign up to receive a link to schedule your session. In this coaching call, we’ll get right down to business with a powerful coaching conversation designed to help you blossom in 2021.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

I share free daily content on my JustWind Coaching Facebook business page. Click here and “like” to be sure you see it.

If you like this post, please share the link with others you think will enjoy the content I produce. I am working hard to grow my platform to improve my chances at securing a traditional publishing deal for my in-progress book. I would be grateful to you for helping me extend my reach.


Self-Compassion or Losing My Edge?

We are living in strange times. So much has changed in all of our lives in such a short period of time. I could never have imagined the current state of our world. Maybe that was ignorance or short-sightedness or naivete´, but the events of the last couple months have me working to find my way in this new reality. Partly by necessity and partly through this process of feeling my way, I am doing a lot of things differently. Within these changes, I have found myself struggling to discern the difference between self-compassion and weakness or laziness.

I believe in listening to my gut and in being patient and compassionate with myself, but I also believe in self-discipline and determination and dedication. I believe in living courageously. Where is the line between these values? Are they dichotomous? How can they coexist?

The changes in my life and my habits extend beyond the bike, but I find so many metaphors in cycling (I’m writing a whole book around that.), that the bike is where these are most evident for me.

I’m still riding a lot. I have over 1,100 miles for 2020, so far. I generally ride five days out of seven. But I am doing it differently. Maybe it is okay because I am still putting in the miles, but it does make me stop to think whether I am being honest with myself. How much of this is related to COVID-19 and being socially responsible, and how much of it is losing my edge?

For me, my “edge” is my dedication and commitment to do what I say I am going to do, to live courageously and to push myself. Cycling is the major manifestation of it at this point in my life.

I have an index-card file (old-fashioned, I know!) of cycling routes I have constructed in every direction from Andale, ranging from 15 miles to over 100 miles. I have ridden all of them, mostly alone, some of them hundreds or even thousands of times.

In all honesty, I have felt myself becoming more constrained over the last few years, even before COVID-19. This has mostly been related to multiple scary close calls with chasing dogs. (And I LOVE dogs! Just not irresponsible people who let them run unsupervised. But that is another post.) There are some routes I have avoided completely since a particularly harrowing canine encounter. It feels like I have narrowed my “safe” options a little more in each of the past few years. I have told myself that there is no point adding to my stress if I can have a more enjoyable ride by playing it safe.

This year, in the midst of the pandemic, I have made the decision to do shorter loops on my longer rides, so that I can stop back by my home for bathroom and fluid breaks, rather than stopping in public places. For example, on Sunday, I rode 26 miles for the first loop and 25 miles for the second loop. Somehow this feels both safer and more socially responsible. I ride without a mask, alone on the road or occasionally with Kenny. The more I read and hear about the ability of asymptomatic individuals to carry the virus, the more important it seems to wear a mask when I am around people. So, it seems wiser and more courteous to be more self-contained on my mask-free rides.

But, is that the truth?

Is it just fear? Is it getting soft or weak?

And, whatever it is, what all is behind it?

I have pondered several possibilities.

  • Fear. There is certainly fear involved. This is not just about social responsibility, although that is part of it. But, is it simply that I am letting fear dictate my choices? I don’t believe in living my life from a place of fear, but, if I am genuinely (and justifiably?) fearful, is it smart to listen to it? Is that self-compassion? Is that trusting my instinct to keep me safe, or is it being a wimp? The line between the two seems blurred to me.
  • Uncertainty. It is impossible to plan anything right now. Everything feels uncertain and in question. Maybe that is why it feels safer to stick to known, safe, chasing-dog-free routes that are close to home. The uncertainty of the world is overwhelming. Introducing additional unpredictability feels like too much.
  • Weirdness. Grocery shopping feels so weird right now. Increasingly, it seems like the only appropriate thing to do is wear a mask, just in case we could be asymptomatic, but infectious. Or to help other people feel more comfortable. This is just one more thing to worry about on the bike. Putting a mask on a sweaty face (after pulling it out of a sweaty jersey pocket) sounds unappealing. Not wearing one into a small-town gas station seems rude, if not reckless.
  • Fatigue. Is it just that I am tired, not so much physically, but emotionally? The world feels heavy. Life is more complicated. We have all had to accept a lot of loss in the last couple of months. Maybe I am just exhausted by that and want to minimize my potential for more loss and stress and trauma. Does it just feel easier not to have to cope with apprehension around what I might experience out on the road in farther reaches, even though that sense of adventure and possibility has been food for my soul in the past?
  • Wisdom. Maybe I could take a more positive perspective. Maybe my reluctance to venture farther from home, to stop at small-town gas stations, to road-test routes where I have had previous serious dog problems is rooted in the wisdom of lived experience, replacing the perceived invincibility of youth. It is true that I have had many close calls with chasing, even snarling, dogs. I have had bottles thrown at me. I have been run off the road by a semi. I have been blown off the road by wind. It is possible that all this has accumulated into wisdom that has compelled me to shed the perception of invincibility that I carried through my younger adult years. I never really considered myself to be a risk taker, but I have ridden and/or run many thousands of miles alone, often in remote territory and in unfamiliar cities while travelling. For most of my life, this has just been what I have done. But maybe I now recognize the fragility of life, with the accumulation of loss of people and animals over the years, the recognition of how fleeting my son’s childhood is, the sense of foreboding that comes with realizing that I am likely in the last half of my own life. Maybe this translates to wisdom, to taking chances when it is smart and to avoiding them when it makes sense.
  • Hormones. Pedaling and pondering on Sunday morning, the possibility occurred to me that hormonal changes, like lower testosterone (Yes, women produce it, too.) associated with perimenopause could be contributing to my need to minimize risk. (I have been thinking a lot lately about menopause, in general, and plan to do a fairly extensive review of the literature around it, both for myself and for an idea I have for my coaching practice. Stay tuned, if you, too, are a perimenopausal woman.) This is just speculative pondering at this point, but maybe hormonal changes are producing more risk aversion in my life. Or, is that the very definition of losing my edge? Hmm.

I don’t think I have come to any solid conclusions through writing this post, but I believe there is value, not just for myself, in sharing my struggles because I know we all struggle. I know we are all living in a scary, uncertain and previously unimaginable time right now.

I know others are scared of this world, of COVID-19 and of the social and economic changes that it is bringing.

I know others feel the stress of uncertainty. When will we get back to “normal”? What will “normal” look like in the future? Will the kids have school and sports in the fall? Will we be able to take vacations this summer? Will it be safe to see the older adults in our lives or for them to see their grandkids?

I know that I am not the only one who finds it hard to relate to other people from behind a mask that conceals a smile or other facial expressions. I find that people are less inclined to make eye contact while wearing a mask. Is that because of self-consciousness or because we are all scared of each other right now? Maybe it is a little of both.

I know I am not the only one who feels fatigued by the heaviness of this world—the result of fear and uncertainty and accumulated loss. We have all had to give up traditions, vacations and habits that have been deeply engrained in our lives, that we never could have conceived of abandoning so abruptly and in such volume. Something as seemingly small as the Western social convention of shaking hands now sounds dangerous and has a questionable future. Even as we have become desensitized—“Oh, now school is cancelled. Now Biking Across Kansas is cancelled. Now we might not be able to travel to see family. Of course, I can’t get a haircut.”—the losses, both micro and macro, add up and weigh on us.

I also know that many of us do gain wisdom as we live life. Generally, this is good, but it may cause us to rethink long-held patterns and to look back wistfully on a more carefree time. Confucius said, “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” I wrote those words in my very first volume of quotes in 2001, but they feel truer than ever now. Our earned wisdom through lived experience feels unquestionably bittersweet, and sometimes more bitter than sweet.

I also know that I am not the only perimenopausal woman who may be feeling her way in the world, as her body changes and takes her mind and feelings along with it. Men experience hormonal changes, too. Testosterone levels decrease as they age. They may have similar feelings of risk aversion. I have recently determined to take a more proactive and positive approach to menopause, which is why I have planned a campaign for knowledge on the topic and a curation of the fruits of my study to share with others. It feels like I a way that I can contribute, while helping myself.

I am a thinker, so I contemplate these things more than a lot people do. But I believe that others are experiencing similar feelings, and I hope my ponderings can help some of you feel less alone and maybe can help you approach your response to these feelings with compassion, patience and self-love.

One of the reasons I love to read and write nonfiction is that I believe we all have so much to learn and to teach through sharing our struggles and what we learn through them. As I said, I learn and experience so much from my bike saddle that has far broader application in life. The issues I address in this post are not exclusive to the bike. My experience on the bike just helps me analyze and come closer to understanding them and to be able to articulate them in a way that may reach others.

I have noticed risk aversion and weariness and fear when it comes to my business, my job, my relationships, just being out in the world.

If you are experiencing a sense of wanting or needing to hunker down or to stay closer to home or to minimize exposure of any kind in the world, know that you are not alone. Even as I try to tease out the truth from the myth from the excuses, I am also committed to being compassionate, yet disciplined and patient, while still striving for excellence.

Maybe excellence doesn’t have to look the same as it used to look. Or maybe it doesn’t have to look the same right now. Maybe it is okay to pause a bit. Maybe it is okay to put in the miles, even if they are “safer” miles right now. Maybe it is enough to honor that I am not just curling up in a ball and shunning life.

I think all of us are still trying to figure out what this pandemic will mean for us and how our world will change. Maybe that is where the patience should come in.

Do any of these ponderings resonate with you? Have you resolved them in your life? What do you think—is it self-compassion to acknowledge and respond to our fears by taking “safer” action, or is that giving in to fear and losing our edge? I would be interested to know your perspective on this topic.

Let’s stay in touch in these uncertain times. If you haven’t yet joined my email list, please do.  I’ll send you my Plant-based Recipe booklet with 28 of my favorite nourishing and delicious recipes.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

And, if you are not a member of my JustWind Community Facebook group, I invite you to click the link and join us.