The middle passage

2013-06-03 00:00

IT was an unlikely setting for a roomful of angst. A quiet classroom at a Scottsville school, bathed in sunshine and deserted for the weekend. Participants for the morning’s session on Managing the Midlife Transition filed in and a curly haired woman told another she’d heard it was “one of those workshops where nothing leaves the room”. I wondered if I should feel nervous.

Psychologist and convenor Shelley Barnsley moved quickly to allay any fears. “This is not a group-therapy session where everyone has to confess,” she joked in her introduction. “My hope is that you’ll start the process of answering the question: who am I besides my roles and history?”

Who, indeed? Midlife, which roughly straddles the ages of 35 to 50, is a stage when most people barely have time to come up for air, as they juggle working and multiple family responsibilities, let alone contemplate existential matters. Yet it’s common knowledge that it can also be a time of major wobbles and life-changing decisions, rash purchases, affairs and face-lifts. So what’s it all about?

We had gone to the workshop to find out, and not just any workshop; this one was voted the best two years ago at a gathering of the Southern African Association for Counselling and Development in Higher Education. During introductions, it was quickly evident that the overwhelmingly female group of 25 was concerned about a range of issues that didn’t seem necessarily to have much to do with the topic.

Some were sandwiched between the needs of ailing parents and growing children, some faced retirement, others were contemplating failed marriages, or offspring leaving home. Several were hard-bitten survivors of a brutal organisational restructuring. Popular culture often depicts the “midlife crisis”, a term first used in 1965 by Elliot Jacques, as ridiculous, but despite nervous laughter, the mood in the room was somewhat sombre by the end of the last story.

“There’s a lot of baggage,” said Barnsley, briskly stepping in. “This is the beginning of the process. We’ll be looking at different life transitions and this workshop is about how to navigate change.”

Barnsley, a former Durbanite, did all her studying at UKZN and now works on the Maritzburg campus as manager of student support in one of the colleges, as well as runs a small private practice. She hit her own midlife crisis after the departure of a “much-loved and idealised” boss.

“I was bereft. I felt profoundly lonely and couldn’t understand why I felt so upset.” Describing how she had all the signs of loss — boredom, no energy or direction — she eventually realised that this man, who she described as a father figure, had represented the father she had lost at the age of 10.

Barnsley clicked to a quote on the screen in front of us by Italian mediaeval poet Dante Alighieri: “Midway along the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood.”

She has been influenced by the teachings of Carl Jung and James Hollis on the midlife changes, and describes it as a period of separation, loss, transition and reintegration, so that a “fuller, more authentic self emerges”. Sometimes, the fault lines in one’s psychological make-up can be deep and this shift of the self can be painful, but it is a necessary growth stage, “like a snake shedding its skin”.

She said that whereas much has been written about the changes adolescents go through as they become adults, the midlife transition is not well-understood. “You have to grapple with it on your own.”

Barnsley believes that it is part of a natural developmental phase of life, which in different cultures plays itself out in various ways. Other crises — such as an extra-marital affair, physical changes, bereavement or work problems — may trigger it. In the case of Annie*, restructuring at work in the wake of the economic downturn saw her once-happy office become a place of uncertainty and unhappiness. “I felt rage, anxiety and complete demotivation. I felt like I couldn’t leave because I knew that jobs in Maritzburg were scarce, but I hated being there.” Thinking about what else she could do set her on the process of examining her life more deeply and considering what she really wanted to do with it. Barnsley says the midlife crisis is “more pervasive, more primary’’ than these contributory events.

“The midlife transition insists on deep and fundamental reflection regarding the path one’s life is taking.”

What drives this change? At this point we broke for tea, but not before being told to select a mask which we were to wear until we returned. Most didn’t, the point being that masks are uncomfortable and require effort to wear. Jung believed that in the first half of life, up until 35, we are becoming adults, taking on social roles and giving up those features that don’t fit this persona or socially determined identity. We put on a mask, developing a “provisional self”, which may not be who we really want to be. This can be dangerous. The bigger the difference between the real and provisional self, the bigger the potential crisis, according to Barnsley.

It’s not all bad; this quandary also represents an opportunity to find your real self. If the first half of life is about meeting the expectations of others and donning a mask, the second half is about rejecting it, figuring out who you are, and adopting more appropriate roles. As well as learning to accept the physical changes that you and your spouse are going through, and making friends with your shadow self —the parts of yourself that you don’t like or haven’t examined.

“This is not a strict sequence of events,” said Barnsley. “For some, it takes longer and for some it’s painful. Often, it’s a period of disruption, grief, anxiety and soul-searching.” Sometimes there’s regression. Where one’s body image or partner has been idealised, for instance. The realisation that they aren’t perfect, or can’t fulfil all your expectations, can lead to the attempt to regain what’s been lost, through measures such as plastic surgery or finding a younger partner.

Change, we discovered, is a complicated process that lumbers through the gamut of emotions, causing bewilderment and paralysis (see box). “To get through this you need a map,” said Barnsley. Knowing what to expect helps, and she recommends seeing a therapist if you’re really having a hard time.

‘’I don’t feel so alone anymore,’’ said the woman sitting next to me as the session was wrapped up. It was time to step out of the dark wood and back into the sunshine.

* Not her real name


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