The British comedian Armando Iannucci once performed a sketch in which a group of middle-aged men are herded into a care home. A straight-talking nurse then lays out a few painful truths: that they look absurd in denim jeans, that young women no longer find them attractive, and so on. But, amusing as such sketches may be, they trivialize a dangerous phase of life. For those actually enduring a midlife crisis, bald patches and milestone birthdays are no joke; on the contrary, they can lead to affairs, mental illness, and even suicide.
The Midlife Crisis
The phrase “midlife crisis” is a vague one, meaning different things to different people. And it can strike at any age. The actor and comedian Eddie Izzard once remarked that he was spared a midlife crisis in his forties because he’d already endured one in his twenties! And Izzard is not alone. The poet Byron also underwent something like a midlife crisis at 25, while another poet, Philip Larkin, felt old and washed up at 35. On the other hand, some never experience one at all. Indeed, many embrace middle-age, feeling comfortable in their own skin for the first time.
In general, however, people reach their late 30s and early 40s with a sense of disbelief. One minute they were racing around the neighborhood on their bike, then they were at college, and now they are middle-aged! To make matters worse, time seems to be speeding up, and yet what do they have to show for it? The more they dwell on the subject, the more they find to regret.
Many also feel trapped. Here I am, they think, imprisoned by debt, children, and work, watching my life zoom by at an ever-increasing speed. The “crisis” is one of acceptance: the individual must accept the fact that his youth is over and a new generation is replacing him and his friends. Just a few years ago they were the cool ones, into the latest British bands and French philosophers. And though most do accept the reality of their situation, they do so grudgingly, never really making their peace with it.
In middle age you realize that life is no longer all ahead of you: a bright, sparkling future filled with opportunity. Instead, this is it, here and now. You are in your life, rather than waiting for it to begin; and for many, the life they are in is far from satisfactory. People find themselves repeating clichés, like “what happened?,” “where did the time go?” etc., and taking out their frustration on the young, assuring them they’ve got no idea what lies ahead.
The Effect on Self-Esteem
First, of course, there are the physical effects of ageing: the aches and pains, the loss of energy, the declining libido, and the fading looks. For some, it takes time to recognize all this. Others have a sort of epiphany. Rather than a gradually dawning realization, their midlife crisis begins suddenly. For example, a man may be horrified to see a bald patch in his hairdresser’s mirror, or a woman may catch sight of her pale, haggard face in a shop window as she staggers home from the supermarket. In reality, others often find you just as attractive as ever, but what matters is how you feel about yourself.
The problem many people have is that the things that once gave them self-esteem no longer exist. Those who were attractive, for example, wonder who or what they really are. For so long they were “the pretty one,” “the cute one,” the one who turned heads walking down the street. Their looks defined them, and now those looks have gone.
Or maybe they struck a rebellious pose in their adolescence or college years. In their 20s, they lived among artists and musicians in some trendy part of New York or London. And yet now they live among tedious commuters in a respectable suburban neighborhood. Once, their life revolved around cool parties and the search for the next big thing; now, the highlight of their week is a trip to the local garden center for a coffee and a bargain-priced lawnmower.
Dangers and Consequences
There is no denying that many regard the midlife crisis as a joke. Indeed, the middle-aged, especially middle-aged men, are considered inherently comic. No one would laugh at a self-harming teen or a suicidal twenty-something, just as no one would laugh at a lonely and bereaved old woman. And yet a depressed middle-aged man is somehow absurd.
You can see this attitude reflected in popular culture. The character David Brent in the comedy show The Office, for example, is a deluded 40-year-old on the edge of a nervous breakdown – and that in itself is funny. The same is true of a character like Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, Alan Harper in Two and A Half Men, and numerous other sitcoms. Even stand-ups exploit this. The American comedian Louis C. K. builds his whole routine around middle-age gloom.
It is also reflected in the way the young behave towards their parents’ generation. While it is taboo to mock the elderly, it is OK to ridicule a middle-aged man who dyes his hair, or a middle-aged woman who takes a younger lover. The American novelist Charles Bukowski once wrote a short story in which a middle-aged man is mocked by a group of teenagers, as they flirt and drink on his local beach. The man returns home, eats some soup, and then lays on his bed and dies – presumably of a broken heart.
One of the problems with the midlife crisis is that such ridicule makes serious discussion impossible. No man would walk into his local bar and announce to his friends “I’m having a midlife crisis and need your help.” If they did use the phrase, it would have to be smothered in jokes and smiles. If he said it with a serious or troubled expression, his friends, and even his partner and family, would probably burst out laughing.
But, though people may treat it as a joke, the reality can be anything but funny. Men in their 40s and early 50s are more likely to kill themselves than any other group. And though the majority never take things that far, they often do commit stupid, dangerous, self-destructive acts. Most obviously, people have affairs. And you do not need to be a therapist to understand why. By having an affair, they reassure themselves that others still find them attractive. Not only does the individual thus wreck their marriage, they alienate their children, create terrible financial problems, and often end up alone in an apartment on the wrong side of town.
But an affair isn’t the only foolish mistake people make. Hoping to boost their self-esteem, people abandon their career and seek to fulfil some hidden ambition “before it’s too late.” For example, they decide to write a great novel or become a famous actor. Unfortunately, so do lots of other people – and most fail.
Updating the Self
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider just what we mean by the phrase “low self-esteem.” In essence, it refers to how we value the self. Some people never really think about such things. They never pause to reflect because they are too busy living. In other words, they never step back and look at themselves from the outside. Those who do, however, may dislike what they see.
If you have reached middle-age and watched your self-esteem collapse, you may simply need to update your sense of self. Instead, people continue to judge themselves by the standards of a 25-year-old. So, for example, a 48-year-old woman who was stunningly beautiful in her 20s may refuse to accept that her looks have faded. Instead, she continues to go to fashionable clubs, flirt with younger guys, and dress in the sorts of clothes she wore in her youth.
Eventually, some incident occurs: she flirts with the boyfriend of a younger woman, for example, who then flies into a rage and tells her that she is absurd, that everyone laughs at her behind her back, and so on. Or maybe she returns home from a party, drunk and emotional, puts on the bathroom light and is shocked by what she sees.
The key is to derive your self-esteem from a new and more realistic source. The young tend to be impressed by surface dazzle: by who wears the coolest clothes, seems the most confident, and listens to the right music. As people age, they look for substance and depth, and are even inclined to ridicule such posing.
Now is the time to deepen and enrich your inner life. How about starting a college degree, or even trying for that MA or PhD? If you haven’t the time or money to take such a course, you could still draw up a reading list and tick them off as you go. Or you could simply follow Harold Bloom’s famous reading list. Learning something new will also improve the way you feel about yourself. Maybe you could take up a musical instrument, for example, or learn a new language. Rather than flitting from one thing to another, try devoting yourself wholeheartedly to mastering some new passion.
It is also important to update your style. You needn’t “give up,” or “let yourself go.” It is simply a matter of dressing in an age-appropriate way. Do that and you will feel more, not less, attractive.
Finally, you could undertake a course of therapy. Through such self-exploration, you might identify negative beliefs or patterns of behavior that have been holding you back for decades. Along with therapy, you could try meditation or some other kind of spiritual practice.
Middle-age need not mean a collapse in self-esteem. They are not synonymous. As with so many things in life, your experience will be shaped by your attitude and your willingness to adapt.