A midlifer's field guide for when you wonder, "Is this as good as life gets?"
(originally posted on Thrive Global)
Middlescence: It’s the Name of My Band
“A ‘midlife crisis’ happens to other people, not me.” I told myself. Genial, hard working, multi-talented…I could maneuver most situations like a human Swiss Army Knife.
But as I approached 38, I entered into a two-year period I couldn’t maneuver out of.
To call my nadir a crisis wouldn’t be accurate, though. For starters, “midlife crises” happen far less than our common cultural jargon suggests (roughly 10% of people will experience a genuine crisis). Also, mine never felt like an intense, acute burst—we can all summon the clichés: buying that sports car or dating much, much younger people, for starters—nor did it feel like a perceptible brink.
My experience was a slow, pervasive, and unpredictable “unraveling.” In the words of Dr. Brene Brown:
“By definition, you can’t control or manage an unraveling. You can’t cure the midlife unraveling with control any more than the acquisitions, accomplishments, and alpha-parenting of our thirties cured our deep longing for permission to slow down and be imperfect.”
Much of my life appeared standard-issue (like that’s a thing…), with each “event”—black mold exposure, chronic fatigue, a breakup, and ongoing professional insecurity/uncertainty, to name a few—appearing as a stand-alone struggle. Dangerously, this “get up one more time than I fall down” lens allowed me to pretend that everything was okay, and kept me from recognizing the interconnectedness of my experiences, and my thoughts and feelings about them.
Skulking beneath the “everything’s fine” veneer—and doing its darndest to be acknowledged—was a quiet desperation, growing anxiety and depression, and an insidious loss of self-worth/love/confidence/respect/esteem.
But, I’m A Professional: My Journey to Self-Acceptance
Periodically, I’d reach out to loved ones for support. But fear of judgment—“Will they think I’m a phony? I’m supposed to be the wellbeing pro in these parts.”—prevented me from offering the full disclosure I desperately needed to feel seen, heard, known, and cared for.
This cognitive dissonance eroded me, even though I was used to performing. As the youngest child in my family, being the jokester and people-pleaser was how I got attention and praise as a little kid. As years passed, performing well in sports, music, and scholastics was how I gained approval from authority figures. But it was also the source of ridicule from peers. (Where is that sweet spot anyway? The good enough at stuff but also not TOO good at TOO much, and just enough of a rule breaker to be fun. Not that I still think about it.)
At an early age, I’d learned I couldn’t win. A sensitive teen, I chose to bury the hurt, carefully toeing the line between pleasing others and avoiding rejection.
For years this was my armor.
Until one day, I found myself in a showdown with my faith, irritated with family, mourning the end of a relationship, questioning friendships, nursing difficult health issues, and feeling intolerably lonely as I languished at my parents’ lake home during a wave of professional listlessness. Most pressing: I doubted whether I was cut out for this life. Heavy, right?
My unraveling didn’t happen on a schedule. It emerged gradually, gaining momentum until I grew tired of pretending to be fine to please others and avoid rejection. It’s an aching irony that the very things that earned me praise and kept me safe growing up shackled me to such a disempowered version of myself as I entered midlife.
More lost and alone than ever, the Universe gave me multiple “Finally ready to stop squandering your gifts?” kicks in the ass to help me realize my armor wasn’t serving me. At this point, I had a few options:
Ignore the call and march through life in robotic denial.
Buffer—eat, drink, perfect, avoid, spend, eat, avoid, perfect—to circumvent the pain and discomfort.
Embrace this whole experience as a growth opportunity.
Having spent my first two decades of adulthood in some combination of options #1 and #2, I chose option #3. I stepped into the unraveling, embraced its wisdom, and am here today—serving midlifers who are navigating transitions—precisely because of this choice.
Some researchers suggest midlife malaise is about the fear that comes with an unvarnished view of aging and death. Others attribute it to various external events that make us take stock: divorce, job loss, health scares. There’s also the confluence of stressors that can pile into overload: managing children and aging parents, demanding jobs, college tuition, and straight up unhappiness (Have you seen the Happiness U-Curve research?).
Midlife is more than an age bracket—it’s a recognized period of adaptation and growth (like adolescence but without braces and first slow dances). It might not feel easy or seamless, but embracing and exploring your “middlescence” can ultimately be a gift that opens up the rest of your life to new possibilities.
I think of midlife as a rebirth…a renewal. After spending the first half of my life intellectualizing everything (a couple grad degrees and working in higher ed did nothing to suppress this habit) and shutting down my feelings to stop the hurt, I awoke to a fervent need to heal the hurt by opening more fully to the courses and contours that are less about proving myself and more about accepting myself.
Self-acceptance in midlife isn’t easy. We’ve spent several decades reciting old stories and living out old patterns (most often subconsciously).
But self-acceptance in midlife is vital, according to the research:
The habit of self-acceptance is what makes us most happy—even when compared to being positive, learning new things, and being part of something bigger.
Self-acceptance is the cornerstone of our psychological wellbeing, a supportive practice to address depression, anxiety, negative body image, and disordered eating.
While self-acceptance is our most powerful subjective wellbeing (read: life satisfaction) habit, it’s the habit we practice the least.
In my midlife unraveling, my lack of self-acceptance was exposed so I could make room for the practice of self-acceptance. The gift was buried in the muck. Crisis subverted.
Knowing is Half the Battle: What We Can Do With What We Know About Midlife
I’m now convinced that fully accepting ourselves is the most courageous thing we can do.
Too often, we think acceptance comes from accomplishing great things. This provides a temporary boost to our self-esteem, but it’s a poor substitute for authentic and lasting meaning.
We undertake efforts to improve ourselves as the basis for approval and validation. It’s a sneaky form of rejection and a never-ending pursuit. There’ll always be one more thing to fix…one more goal to achieve…one more change to create before we can be free to feel good about ourselves. If only, if only, if only.
We act from the misguided assumption that it’s impossible to accept ourselves and at the same time feel motivated to achieve our goals. This is a false dichotomy—contentment isn’t the antithesis of ambition—that fails to recognize self-acceptance as a lifelong practice (not something to treat then dismiss).
Here’s the truth: self-acceptance isn’t compromise. It isn’t resignation. It isn’t passive.
Self-acceptance is powerful. It’s strength. It’s active.
Self-acceptance is the root of self-worth/love/confidence/respect/esteem. And it has profound effects on our physical and psychological health.
The Universe kicked my ass and took my name, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Yes, I experienced a significant amount of pain...but it was also astoundingly liberating. I’m sharing what I learned, with the hope that you might feel compelled to free yourself, too.
I learned to stop wasting my valuable emotional bandwidth on judgment and self-recrimination that were undermining my ability to grow.
I stopped making my satisfaction and self-worth dependent on the trappings of meeting certain conditions or somebody else’s expectations.
I gained the freedom, the energy, the aspiration, and the opportunity to improve…in ways that hold meaning for me.
I learned to discover and embrace the real, compassionate, courageous, and creative me.
Most importantly, I learned how to accept myself.
Our collective cultural imagination defers to the midlife crisis all too easily. Or, alternatively, suggests a flip “be patient...you’ll see a turnaround in your 50s.” And you will. But this “it gets better” approach also gives short shrift to the agency and potential of a more considered, more empowered fortysomething life that starts with self-acceptance.