Psychological Tricks for Handling a Midlife Crisis

Photo: DNY59/Getty Images

How to feel less bummed and more grateful as you age

My husband and I went for our annual eye checkup, and I was told I needed reading glasses. My husband, who is 10 years older than me, smiled and said, “Darling, this isjust the beginning.”

I glared at him. The beginning of what exactly? The end?

I turn 43 this year, and I am officially having a midlife crisis.

I’m in the middle. The beginning is over. The next stop is “the End.”

I am looking at my life — my wonderful life. I have loving husband, who is my best friend, personal masseur, and chef; a fulfilling career as a well-paid freelance journalist, copywriter, biographer, and fiction writer who can work every day in her pajamas; a budding second career as a cognitive behavioral hypnotherapist; a clean and very hygge rented apartment with stunning views of the Hong Kong city skyline, harbor, and mountains; warm and loving relationships with my parents and grandmother maintained through weekly phone calls after morning hikes through a peaceful nature park that’s just a 15-minute walk from home; and weekly lunches and heart-to-heart convos with my terrific gal pals.

Despite all this, I feel… blah. I think to myself, “So what? This is a small and mediocre life, compared to…”

I’m looking at all these relationships and success that I have, but I don’t really see them. What I see, instead, are the things that Idon’t have.

  • I don’t have a car and I never got a driver’s license.
  • I don’t have a child.
  • I don’t have enough sex (maybe that’s why I don’t have a child).
  • I don’t have a dog or a cat.
  • I don’t own a house with a garden.
  • I haven’t published a bestselling book.
  • I don’t have artwork hanging on my walls.

At 43, I shouldhave all these things. But I could never be arsed to get them before, and now it’s too late. I just don’t have the energy to make it all happen. What I’m feeling is resignation—and mild depression.

When you’re in your thirties, all the things you want from life are still possibilities. But when you enter your forties, the things you don’t have suddenly become the things you most likely will never have.

It’s not that I regret not having ticked these items off my list. I don’t think “regret” is the right word because it implies I’m sorry I didn’t go after those things. I’m not sorry (well not now at least, but at the rate I’m going, I might be buried in regret by the time I’m 50).

I don’t have—and have never had — a strong enough desire for any of the items on the list to take the necessary steps to attain them.

  • I like the idea of driving, but I like walking better. I’ve always lived in cities where parking is expensive and public transport networks are excellent so I’ve never needed a car.
  • I like the idea of happy family, and my parents having grandchildren, but thoughts of cradling a baby, arranging play dates, and figuring out early education and teenage angst bore me.
  • In my late teens, twenties, and early thirties, I would cross oceans and deserts for good sex. But by the time I hit forty, the idea of sex began to feel icky and my privates started feeling sensitive in a “no fondling please” way. (Don’t judge me. It happens.)
  • I love the idea of petting a dog or a cat, but I’m put off by anything that involves me having close contact with another creature’s urine and feces.
  • The idea of that big house with the garden is great, but all the vacuuming, weeding, pest control, plumbing, and maintenance work isn’t.
  • I want to write a good book that I can be proud of and that some people might enjoy reading (and I have, my book Without: Stories of Lack and Longing), but I’ve never been all that turned on by the idea of selling millions—or even thousands—of copies. I don’t feel compelled to write what appeals to the masses.
  • I like the idea of large pieces of artwork hanging in my home, but because I’ve always rented, I can’t drill holes in the walls.

Of course, if I heard some idiot go on and on like this, I might tell them, “Get off your pity pot and focus on what you’ve got. Just be grateful.” I know better than to make myself miserable by dwelling on things I don’t have. Yet, I can’t seem to help myself.

Right now, I’m working toward my master’s degree in psychology, and some of the things I’m learning are saving me from falling into the rabbit hole of midlife darkness and despair. Here are some examples:

Counterfactual thinking

As part of my cognitive psychology module, I discovered something called “counterfactual thinking.” Counterfactuals are thoughts about unactualized states, about things that might have been. We all have an innate tendency to fantasize about “possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred,” and it’s something most people learn to do very early in life (usually by the age of two).

Counterfactual thinking — thinking counter to the facts — is supposed to be helpful. It’s supposed to help us learn from mistakes and set goals or change behaviors to improve our lives. But depressive types can engage in what psychologists term “upward counterfactual thinking.” Upward counterfactuals are thoughts about idealized states and scenarios. Like those we see in advertising images:

  • A woman driving a convertible down a coastal highway with the wind blowing in her hair.
  • Christmas — a happy family complete with two adorable tots and grandparents sitting at a table with lots of yummy food.
  • A clean, poop-free, well-behaved dog sitting by your feet as you watch TV on your sofa, or a kitty on your lap as you sit in front of a roaring fire.
  • A fit couple with a wild glow in their eyes, tossing their hair back and devouring each other while making animal noises.
  • An opulent mansion furnished by an interior designer and landscaped and cleaned by a professional crew.
  • Bestselling authors making the rounds of all the best daytime talk shows.
  • A woman eating breakfast in a grand dining room with a painting of “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth hanging on the wall behind her.

If we think too much about “advertisement-like” life scenarios (that is, upward counterfactuals) or actively seek them out on other people’s Instagram and Facebook pages, we can find ourselves dissatisfied with our own, by comparison, boring and mundane lives.

Upward counterfactuals evoke what I call “positive peak experience memories”: emotionally charged memories of pleasurable events and situations many of us have experienced that are similar to our upward counterfactuals (for example, driving on a tranquil country road with the windows down on a college road trip or attending a convivial, extended family gathering with young and old, lots of games, good food, wine, and laughter).

By midlife, we’ve accumulated enough positive peak experience memories and seen enough positive peak experience imagery (on billboards, television and films, and those carefully curated Instagram pages) that we come to associate certain scenarios with good feelings. At the same time, we’re becoming more and more aware that we have a finite amount of time to pack in more such experiences before we clock out. This creates existential tension. We start thinking, “If the countdown has begun, then shouldn’t my here and now be more like a Maserati-Burberry-Davidoff Cool Water ad?”

Knowing all this, if I want to feel less bummed and more grateful as I age, it would be wise to spend less time fantasizing about might-have-been lives and more time fully living in this one.

Preferences, not demands

Psychologist and psychotherapist Albert Ellis’ theory of irrational beliefs proposes that the unrealistic demands we place on ourselves contribute to psychological dysfunction. According to the Albert Ellis Institute, “Demands can be conceptualised as rules of life that include inferences, evaluations, and/or philosophical beliefs with words related to ‘should,’ ‘ought,’ or ‘must.’” Further, these demands “are considered the primary irrational beliefs that contribute to psychological distress.” Malek Mneimne continues:

Demands can be irrational for several reasons. First, by virtue of its definition as a necessary imperative, there is often no reason that we, others, or the world absolutely must do anything other than the basic functions necessary for survival and/or contentment. Beyond basic biological functions, which must be carried out if we wish to survive, there is hardly a problem for which there is or has been only one solution that must be done.

Through his psychotherapeutic approach of rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT), Ellis pioneered a solution to this unhelpful way of evaluating our quality of life. He suggests that we reframe our conceptualized “rules of life” as preferences rather than demands. Mneimne expounds: “Changing a ‘should’ to ‘want/can… but don’t have to…’ often reveals that demands contain an individual’s opinions and/or values.”

“It is not fate but the consequences of deliberate, personal choices that guide us.”

By reframing demands—imposed by ourselves or by society—as preferences, REBT replaces thoughts and feelings of “I messed up” or “I didn’t do it right” or “I didn’t do enough” with thoughts and feelings related to personal choice and agency. This perspective on demands versus preferences reminds us that it is not fate but the consequences of deliberate, personal choices that guide us. This shifts attention away from wistful, wishful thinking and toward the reasons for our decisions in the first place.

With this attentional shift, we can see how the choices we’ve made (rather than the ones we could have made but didn’t) have been rational, functional, and appropriate for who we are as unique individuals(for example, I don’t want to go near fecal matter that isn’t my own — hence, no baby and no pet). When we can be honest about what we want and what we don’t, then we can see that our lives have probably unfolded in a way that best suits the type of person we are.

I’m picking up my new reading glasses — the token of my rite of passage into midlife — next week.

There are two things I can do with them: I can read the chapters of my past and try to revise all the things I felt I should have done differently. Or, I can read the page in front of me and fill up the pages that come after with stories that make the most sense to me.

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