How To Prevent Your Career Suffering When You're Going Through a Midlife Crisis

No one is immune to having a midlife crisis. We may think of it as the exclusive domain of older men, but the simple fact is that it can happen to anyone. Generally occurring between the ages of 40-50 (although there is no real limit), a midlife crisis is nothing to sneer at. It can have very real consequences for the person experiencing it, as well as their friends and family. Families can be shattered. Careers can be destroyed. Relationships can be broken.

But there is hope. A midlife crisis - or midlife transition, as some therapists prefer to call it - can be recognized and addressed without permanent damage. You just need to know the “symptoms” and remedies. In order to protect your family and career as you approach “midlife”, keep a keen eye open for these red flags that could signal a midlife crisis waiting to happen.

The Midlife Crisis Red Flags

  • You just turned, or are about to turn, 40 years old. There is no magic number, but 40 still seems to be the “crossover” age for people. You’re no longer young (although that is a subjective definition), and you’re widely considered to be entering the second “half” of your life. Most crises hit around this age.
  • The death of a parent. In a perfect world, our parents would all live to a ripe old age. But as the average age for new parents continues to rise, we see more and more parents passing away when their children are around that 40 threshold. It is perfectly natural - and healthy - to face our own mortality, and the death of a loved one is often a catalyst for that. For many though, it is the start of something negative and lingering.
  • Sudden unhappiness, disappointment, or dissatisfaction with your job, or marriage, or both. If something that you either loved, or at least were comfortable with, sudden takes on strong negative feelings, that should raise some alarms.
  • Sudden feeling that you’re “running out of time”. For what exactly doesn’t really matter. If you wake up tomorrow and feel like it’s too late to learn a new skill, or travel, or get that promotion, or whatever, you may be in the early stages of a crisis.
  • Unusual choices and decisions. Change is not a bad thing (despite our usual animosity towards it), but if you suddenly start making wildly unusual choices, it might be your subconscious trying to jump start your life.
  • Unnecessary and obsessive comparisons. We all do this, but if you find that you’re comparing yourself harshly to friends and colleagues, it could be a symptom of a midlife crisis. It relates back to suddenly being unhappy with things that only yesterday you were fine with, or even loved and found a source of joy and comfort. Looking at a friend from university and thinking they are more successful than you, and dwelling on it, questioning your life choices up to that moment, is cause for concern.
  • Unwarranted feelings of depression or anger. Both of these are sometimes warranted and even necessary. No one is saying you can never feel depressed or angry, but when these feelings hit, slow down and examine why. Is it really worth it?

Again, everyone is different. These symptoms are typical, but by no means exhaustive. Someone going through a midlife crisis may experience all of them, or none of them. They simply serve as a guideline and early warning system.

But what to do if and when you identify a crisis? How can you deal with it without costing your career (or family, for that matter)?

The Midlife Crisis Remedies

  • Recognize it. It’s sounds cliche, but it really is half the battle. If you can recognize that you’re experiencing a midlife crisis (and most people don’t), you can actively work to address it.
  • Remember who’s in charge. You are. Feeling angry, or depressed, or unsatisfied, doesn’t automatically mean you have to do something drastic. Too many people react rashly and quit their job, leave their spouse, or sell everything and move to Costa Rica. You don’t have to do anything. Work through the negative feelings first.
  • Practice gratitude. Look at the good things in your life. Appreciate them. Your job, your paycheck, your colleagues, your family. Remember what it is about each of them that you love. Write it down. Some therapists even recommend keeping a gratitude journal and recording 3-5 things each day - little things - about which you are grateful (it may sound too “touchy feely” for some, but it does seem to work).
  • Set new, but realistic goals. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with your career, set a goal to get that promotion in the next six months. Or to take on new responsibilities in your current position. Make small, achievable, and measurable goals, and then celebrate when you hit them.
  • Find support. No one should have to suffer through a crisis alone. Talk it out with your spouse, your family, your friends, your close colleagues, a therapist, or a spiritual leader. They all want to help you. Talking about a problem - perceived or otherwise - is often enough to make it go away, or at least reduce its influence. Talk. Then talk some more.
  • Time travel. Realistically think about your life a year or two down the road if you go ahead and make that huge change. Thinking of quitting the job you’ve had for 19 years and starting again in an entirely different industry? Put yourself a year down the road. If you even have a position, you’ll be starting at the very bottom. Again. You’ll have less will that affect the rest of your life? Take the time to really visualize the new job. Is it worth it?

The stereotypical image of the 45-year old man driving around in the red convertible sports car with the new 27-year old girlfriend does exist, but many more people go through a midlife crisis without resorting to those tired cliches. But that doesn’t mean they don’t make poor choices. Your career can survive a crisis. Your family, too. You just need to be vigilant so you can catch it early, and work to address it (notice I didn’t say “fix”. You’re not broken). Recognize and address. That’s the way to do it.


Photo Credit: Ryan Melaugh

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