Murray Stein, Ph.D.
The Midlife Period In most advanced countries worldwide today the average life expectancy for males extends to their mid- to late seventies and for women to their early to mid-eighties. Of course, this varies from place to place and depends very much on socio-economic factors that fluctuate broadly with world historical events such as revolutions, wars, economic depressions, and so forth. But on the whole and in average circumstances, the midway point of life for both sexes falls in the period between thirty-five and forty-five years of age. Why is this noteworthy, especially for psychotherapists?
Often midlife is a profoundly transformational period in personal identity for both women and men. Sometimes this takes the form of the famous “crisis,” but often it is not something quite so dramatic. I have come to think of it instead as a potential second birth of adult identity, the first having taken place between late adolescence and the thirtieth year. And birth is sometimes traumatic, and so one speaks of it as a “crisis” with justification. But even if not a fullblown crisis, it may signal a subtle transition in a person’s sense of self and identity.
About the timing of this transformation process, one cannot be quite so precisely mathematical. Some people seem to experience this on the early end of the midlife period, and many others on the other end and in their late forties. The timing is quite variable and depends on a number of factors coalescing that bring it to a point. What happened earlier in the person’s line of development out of childhood through adolescence and into adulthood is of importance in this. Generally speaking, the storms of life catch people by surprise, and the midlife tumult is no exception even if people are somewhat prepared to expect something big nowadays due to the extensive press coverage the midlife crisis has received in the decades of the late twentieth century.
It is also the case that some people do not undergo a midlife transformation at any time, any more than that everyone achieves a solid and meaningful adult identity. This is not a given. Some people show serious developmental arrest in early childhood attitudes or in adolescence, for example, and for such people there is no midlife transformation to speak of, but rather a continuous and prolonged identity as a partially adult person with striking childish or adolescent features remaining in place to the end of their lives. For these people, aging is real only in a physical sense but not psychologically, and even at the physical level it can staved off quite well and for a lengthy period of time given enough money for cosmetic surgery and other forms of anti-aging treatment. For people who make the transitions from childhood into adulthood successfully and more or less fully, however, aging is a psychological as well as a physical process. Psychologically, as one gets older one also becomes more complex and – dare we say it? – more mature and perhaps even attains to a level of wisdom in later years. Most importantly, one achieves a defined identity that extends beyond the early one of late adolescence and early adulthood. This later form of adult identity I call the personality’s “imago.” It takes form as the result of one or more transformations in and around the midlife period.
The Two Halves of Life – Achievement of Conventionality, Development of Individuality
The midlife phase of the lifelong psychological developmental process, which in Jungian circles we refer to as individuation, marks the turning point from the first half of life into the second. The lifespan as a whole can be divided into two more or less equal (in duration) parts, a first and a second half. This is an important image to keep in mind when considering the meaning of the midlife transition. Each half of life has its own proper projects, tasks, and challenges, and they are different. The tasks of the first half have to do with growing up physically and mentally and with attaining the social stature of an adult member of one’s community, willing and able to take responsibility for the tasks of adulthood – working, raising a family, paying taxes, preparing to take care of one’s aging parents and able to care for one’s growing children, and so forth. From the psychological perspective, this calls for personal (i.e., ego) development out of a primal state of attachment to mother and parentlike caretakers and and for growing out of a sense of dependency on them in order to gain a felt degree of independence, autonomous functioning, and the ability to contribute to others rather than only to absorb and consume. This has profound moral as well as psychological features.
If all of this goes well, this first stage of development is achieved, of course always within a specific cultural context with its own nuances and collective attitudes, by the time one has lived for thirty-five or forty years. Psychological development in this first stage of life begins with an original state of radical dependence and embededness in the parental and family nexus, a kind of ‘womb.’ It then passes through several discrete stages of separation, often with strong or even violent rebellious movements toward exaggerated independence and autonomy in adolescence with all the anxiety and tortured self-doubt and grasping for peer recognition and acceptance that generally accompanies this. After this it moves to a state of personal identity that provides self and others with a more or less reliable picture of who one is and is not, what one is like and is not, namely into what Jung called identification with a relatively stable social persona. In other words, adaptation to a specific social group is achieved and a specific social role is assumed. This is tantamount to the achievement of conventionality, whatever the social conventions of the particular group or sub-group being adapted to may be.
This arrival at conventionality and a stable persona identity requires the personality to make a selection of features from among the broad range of potentials available in the individual. From the broad specturm of colors offered on the palette of personality, a certain range of colors are selected. One must add that this is not a conscious and deliberate process. Some personality features will be highlighted while others remain recessive, latent, or are actively repressed. The unchosen elements are put aside as not belonging to the self and are often located in others (projection), in the “not me.” This constitutes the development of the persona-shadow complexity, which a person will typically have arrived substantially at by the age of 30 and often quite a bit earlier, perhaps already in early to mid-twenties.
The first half of life asks for the achievement of assuming conventional social roles and carrying them out with comfort and purpose while aborting those features of personality that do not fit into the persona identity selected. The second half of life, by contrast, calls for the achievement of individuality, i.e., one’s innate potential for being an individual with a unique identity. This means stepping beyond the boundaries of the conventional personae offered by one’s immediate social group, by the wider society and culture as well, and taking the risk of becoming truly oneself.
This move may not be without anxiety, and often it comes at a price. Hence, the traumatic features of this second birth into selfhood, into a more distinctive and specific identity based on a wider range of colors drawn from the innate palette.
Change at Midlife –A Transformation Process in Three Phases
When the transformation at midlife sets in with its mild or strong anguish and questioning, a searching review of the identity as so far consolidated takes place. The earlier persona, formed on a conventional framework, may be found wanting, too partial, and not inclusive enough of what are now felt to be essential personality traits that belong to the self, and so a kind of moulting is called for. To describe this process in my book Transformation – Emergence of the Self, which is a sequel to the earlier work, In MidLife, I use the image of the caterpillar turning into a butterfly through the classic metamorphosis. The transformation-of-personality process is metaphorically imaged as beginning with the spinning of a cacoon, which is then entered (withdrawal phase), and this is followed by the dissolving of former structures (liminality phase), which finally transforms the being into a winged creature (reintegration phase) – from caterpillar (the persona identity) to butterfly (the mature, post-midlife identity).
This process can be analyzed into three distinct phases, modelled on the structure of initiation rituals as described by the French anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep – separation, transition, and reincorporation. Each has its own essential challenges, and in each failure is possible. The first phases entails the experience of loss, withdrawal, and grief; the second demands patience and tolerance of ambiguity during the transition from one identity to another; and the third requires a constructive and proactive attitude to participate in building up and consolidating a new sense of identity.
Psychotherapists should be aware of this differentiation of the midlife period and its phases when working with clients in the throes of a midlife transformation. This transition period has incredible potential for growth, but this is not inevitable. It can also result in psychological trauma and damage and end in bitter failure.
I use the term “transformation” to speak about the midlife period because I see it as a potentially valuable period for psychological development toward a more complex and inclusive personal identity based on a greater and more realistic approximation to the whole self. The first approximation to self identity in the form of a social persona identification can function for a time, but it breaks down when the self calls for more breadth and depth in the personality and in life experience than the persona can allow. For this reason, and in order to become whole and stable enough to live successfully into old age, especially if wisdom is to be found in later years, a person must create another type of identity. Midlife is precisely the time when the personality features required for this come to the fore and indeed demand attention. This is also when they become available for integration.
The First Phase – Withdrawal, Separation and Loss
The entry into the midlife transformation is usually through the doorway of loss. This is normal. There is a divorce, or the death of a loved one (a parent, a sibling, a child, a pet), or the loss of a job, or something more subtle like the loss of zest and energy, the loss of a sense of vocation, the loss of idealization in a guiding figure like a boss or a mentor or a priest – in short, there is a loss of direction. “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost,” as Dante writes at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, and a descent begins.
The first task at hand, psychologically speaking, is the emotional work of grieving the past. What has been lost must be recognized as such and deeply mourned. If this is not done, the cover-up will not go away but turn into the stench of rotting corpses. Life will come to an emotional standstill and bitterness will gradually build up. Life will lose it potential for further growth and become bogged down in unfinished business from the past. In MidLife addresses this as “burying the dead.” The old, the lost, the dead must be put away and stored in memory, and this cannot be accomplished without entering into the suffering of grief. This calls for a period of mourning.
What has been lost and needs to be put away is more than the specific object that may have disappeared. It is a phase of life, an era, perhaps formulated as youth itself. The persona that had been adopted for functioning conventionally in the social and cultural mileau, which worked adequately for a time, has now become unable to encompass the reality of the psyche in its fuller incarnation. And so like a snake shedding its old skin, the period of transformation begins with the tearing pain of breakdown. The alchemists spoke of this as the stage of nigredo in their opus. It is a period of opaqueness, depression, and seemingly hopeless suffering, when the prospect of going on in life takes on the perspective of meaningless drudgery and painful boredom. This phase must be endured and worked through, and this is done – perhaps with the help of a psychotherapist – through what is commonly known as “grief work.” It is a work of suffering the loss consciously and without recourse to previous defenses like denial and repression or projection, and this means coming to terms with what the loss means for one’s present and future life, and accepting it.
The Second Phase – Liminality
Alongside this process and often in conjunction with the descent into nigredo, there begin to emerge new elements of the personality that have not held a place in the persona identity before now. These may first appear in the form of dream symbols that can be quite difficult to interpret as such because they may show up as fearful and threatening figures, such as intruders, unsavory animals like snakes, beggars and other marginalized folk, and so forth.
On the other hand, there may be an influx of compensatory exuberance and inflationary energy during this period. Sudden intuitions of the dawning of new possibilities for life feel like the miraculous gift of incredible new freedom to do and be what one has not allowed oneself before. Simultaneous with grieving the loss of the past identity – as husband or wife, as son or daughter, as father or mother, as professional whatever – there arrives a burst of promise of a new life. Usually this is quite premature and should be read as a foreshadowing of distant things to come, energy to be used for new projects in the future, but often the compensatory force of this intrusion of libido is difficult to contain. This is the source of the famous “acting out” that so frequently takes place during the midlife crisis.
I recall a woman telling me about how she broke out of marriage and motherhood at this stage of her midlife transformation and found a whole new set of friends and lifestyle in the company of lesbian women. For a time she went quite wild with her new enthusiasm for intimacy with women. This was going on at the same time that she was having to deal with the loss of her security, financial and interpersonal, and identity in a family structure where she occupied the traditional roles of wife and mother. In another case, a midlife man, upon hearing that he was being sidelined in his company and would not receive the top position, quit his job, left his wife, and took up a relationship with a much idealized woman he had recently met and who had signalled her availability. This came as a great surprise to his spouse and several children. There is a burst of energy as parts of the personality that had been either repressed or carefully tucked away and contained now break out into the light and take advantage of the freedom offered. In retrospect, this often looks premature and irrational. At the time, it seems absolutely correct and inevitable. This release of pent-up energy is hard to contain at this point in the transformation process.
If grieving and accepting loss are the tasks of the first part of the process, the tasks of the second stage include containing and maintaining the freedom to explore widely and deeply and not too quickly settling for the security of new attachments and commitments. In other words, a moratorium on closure is called for, until things become more ordered and clarified. The possibility for a type of defensive maneuver that Jung aptly called “regressive restoration of the persona” leads backwards rather than forwards. In that case, the whole process may try to repeat itself in order to achieve the growth that can result in greater individuation. In the case of the woman mentioned above, this did not happen. She continued her exploration for a considerable period of time and then found herself in a life made up of many relationships but living alone, and finding increasing satisfaction in a new career that more perfectly suited her whole personality. The man mentioned above, on the other hand, made snap decisions, ended the new relationship, returned to his wife, then left her a second time and finally managed to break free into an extended period of exploration that included many new relationships and interests, a period of unemployment, development of offbeat hobbies, and finally a life alone as an independent business consultant who managed his own time and commitments.
The prolonged middle phase of the transformation at midlife is perhaps the most important and difficult phase of the process. In my book, In Midlife, I use the term “liminality” to speak about this phase. The term means “betwixt and between” or “in a threshold.” Psychologically, it indicates being located between firm and fixed identities and in a state of flux with respect to a solid sense of self. It is a period of confusion and ambiguity, but also a time of discovery and potential transformation. The term transformation can be misunderstood in this context. It does not mean to become a different personality, unrecognizable by people who have known the midlifer before. Rather, it means to become more of what a person potentially is, to increase the range of a personality’s expression, of its incarnation into everyday reality, to bring more of the self as a whole into conscious realization. Transformation phases in life are periods of emergence, when features of the personality that have been latent come to the fore and take up a place in the conscious reportoire of intersts, passions, and behaviors. Transformation signals an expansion of selfhood. And just as this is a chaotic period during the years of adolescence when sexuality is coming into play in a new and powerful way, so it is a period of chaos at midlife when what we call “shadow” and “anima” (or “animus” in the case of women) come into play.
The shadow contains features of the personality that have been rejected because they are incompatible with the social persona being constructed during adolescence and early adulthood. Certain personality elements, often quite valuable and potentially enriching in themselves, are repressed because they were found to be objectionable for moral or social reasons. In adolescent terminology, they are not “cool.” Now they clammer for attention. One woman dreamed during her midlife period of descending to a basement and joining a group of men there who were studying alchemy. As a child and youth, her family had forbidden her to read at home in her room, feeling this was potentially pathological. She should be social and go out, not sit alone in her room and read gloomy classics. Being a “nerd” was shadow in her family and in her peer group. If girls were too bright and intellectual, they could not catch a man. When at midlife her intellectual shadow started making demands, she returned to college and finished a degree begun years ealier but broken off to marry and have children. The strangest things, from the later perspective of individuation, can be rendered shadow and thus forced out of the space allowed for life in the earlier stages. This is purely cultural and has little to do with the individual. What happens at midlife is that the unique and distinct individual fights to emerge out of cultural entrapment in a persona.
Jung’s Midlife Journey – The Red Book
Jung’s Red Book is a classic example of the midlife transformation process. Begun in 1913 when Jung was thirty-eight years old and composed intensively over the course of the following years until he left off with it in his early fifties, The Red Book depicts the journey of a man at midlife. Having lost his mentor, Sigmund Freud, he resigns several important professional positions and sets out on his own way in order to find a new and more suitable path in life. The previous persona is put aside in order to make room for new discoveries to find a place in his life. The entries in The Red Book depict Jung’s process of grieving the past, searching for his own depths, and discovering the wealth of the inner world during the liminality phase of the journey. Over a period of three-to-four years, between late 1913 and mid 1916, he engaged in intense dialogues with himself and his imaginal inner figures. This is a sorting process in which the person identifies the alien aspects of the deep personality, takes up relations with them and become familiar with their features, and then creates a sense of self that is apart from them but fully cognizant of their ongoing influences and presence. Jung called it a search for his lost soul.
The reason for this language is that in the first half of his life Jung identified with the part of his personality that was thinking, sceptical, leftbrain, and socially ambitious. This left behind essential aspects of his personality – his poetic self, his artistic self, his faminine self, his wounded and suffering self. All of these make their appearances in his midlife transformation dialogues as reported in The Red Book, and each of them in turn must be engaged and attended to. The product of this engagement is a mythopoetic work that goes beyond scientific rationality, that includes a copious expression of his artistic abilities, that expresses emotion more than abstract thinking, that recovers his capacity for love and self-sacrifice and his powerful spiritual longings and interests. All of this had been squeezed out of the picture of his persona as it took form during his university years, his psychiatric studies, his early psychoanalytic work with Freud, and his highly successful establishment of himself as a world famous professional by the age of thirty-five. The Red Book is perhaps, for Jungians, the best possible example of a deep midlife transformation process imaginable.
The Third Phase – Re-Integration
As the period of liminality draws to a close, a new interest in participating in the social and cultural world, but as a new kind of person, takes hold. In my book Transformation – Emergence of the Self, I call this the emergence and consolidation of the “imago.” This is the butterfly that breaks out of the cacoon at the end of the metamorphosis, which passes from the death of the old structure (a crawling insect) through dissolution (pupal stage) to a new formation (imago). The new imago is the incarnation of the self in a new form, psychologically more complete and whole than the earlier persona identity had allowed or indicated. Aspects of the former persona may in part be taken up into the imago, but it is put into a broader context. Just as Jung, when he emerged from his profound introspective period of withdrawal and liminality, retained his earlier social roles as father, husband, and physician, so the imago personality may carry with it important features of the earlier form. But now this is given a new place within the overarching meaning and purpose of the imago that has taken over the place of central identity. New channels for energy deployment and investment are available, and the old persona features become mere tools of management in the new orientation. In my books, mentioned above, I give examples of this from the biographies of several well known figures – Rembrandt, Picasso, Rilke, and several others. These are persons whose lives have been well studied so there is abundant information about their various phases of development. Each one of them aattains to a unique imago identity after a period of turmoil and uncertainty at midlife, and as their lives go forward they live more and more from their imagos and become thereby absolutely unique and distinct individual personalities.
The achievement of uniqueness is the outcome of the midlife transformation process. One can argue that uniqueness is a God-given feature of every single human being on the planet, and I would not dispute that. But I would also argue that bringing that uniqueness out into the open and into full manifestion in life is not a given. Many people live their lives, even long lives, with much potential remaining in reserve, packed away in the hidden recesses of passive fantasies or buried in the unconscious depths and left there out of fear or ignorance. If their personality development becomes arrested in adolescence or early adulthood, the personas formed there remain in place for the rest of life. In fact, they tend to harden and become more rigid with time. Some people “peak” in school or university and never grow beyond those attainments. There is a steadfast refusal to go further into life, to venture deeper into the uncharted waters of the latent personality, to undergo the chaos of transformation. This is understandable, and the sensitive psychotherapist will sometimes even help a fragile person to reinforce defenses against the invasion of threatening thoughts and feelings lurking in the background of consciousness.
Transformation demands suffering losses, going through chaos and uncertainty for a time (the “dark night of the soul”) and making some difficult choices and decisions about life goals and directions once they become clear to consciousness. Midlife transformation is not for the weak of heart or soul. But for those who venture into and through it, it becomes, as it did for Jung, the source of everything to come by way of the creative expression of thought, feeling, and personality into and through old age.
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