After a professional development retreat, the image of an unlit match came to mind. To my surprise, I realized that this match represented how I was feeling about life. On paper my life looked good. However, with further reflection I acknowledged that I had been living on autopilot. This unlit match felt like a sign that I had not yet been living a life where I felt ignited, fully alive or passionate. This experience became a springboard for deep reflection and resulted in a dramatic course correction in my life. It helped me identify ways in which I had been standing in my own way of taking risks, and living more authentically and adventurously. Years later I have intentionally evaluated every aspect of my life and learned to live in ways more aligned with my values. I have set my unlit match on fire! The experience I had of making a significant course correction in life is quite common. These moments shook my core identity and caused me to evaluate the things I used to believe in about myself and my life. As scary and disruptive the uncertainty can feel, it is a vital phase in human development and our passage of personal growth.
Psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of development described the type of reflection experience I went through as one of the main goals or tasks of middle adulthood. Later, psychologist Elliott Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis.” Interestingly, researchers also found a similar transformation was true for a younger generation and called this a “quarter-life crisis.” This indicates that these periods of deep reflection can occur for anyone, regardless of age, gender or other diversity factors. During this phase of reevaluation, you will take an assessment of your level of happiness, career, personal relationships, and the ways you have lived your life. You may question whether you have a sense of purpose, meaning or passion in your life, and if you have made a positive impact on others.
A catalyst for this personal metamorphosis can be an event, such as a milestone birthday, empty nest, or retirement. Other triggers can include a change in your health, relationship status or the death of someone you care about. These experiences can result in feelings of regret, sadness, anxiety, longing, discontentment and remorse about past behaviors, missed opportunities, or the current state of your life. These strong emotions facilitate the development of new traits, interests and reformation of your life. It can give you the motivation to move forward changing your current lifestyle in both healthy (and sometimes unhealthy) ways as you try on new roles and traits, some of which can be to an opposite extreme of the way you were previously living. The purpose of experimenting with different ways of living is to identify a life path that is more in line with your current values and goals. This can include a commitment to improve your health, such as losing weight or joining a kickball league. Some desire to reclaim their youthfulness, such as going out clubbing or purchasing their dream car or vacation. Others make a significant life change such as moving to another city, ending a relationship, or switching careers. Some learn new skills and hobbies, such as taking photography lessons or auditioning for a musical. Regardless of the action you take to try new behaviors and ways of interacting with others, the reasons are the same – to learn, grow and identify your new sense of self. Though quarter or midlife crises are often viewed negatively, it can be a rewarding experience of self-realization and personal growth.
What activities help us through this period of transition?
- Talk with trusted friends or family who have experienced their own metamorphosis. Having a safe place to share your honest experience can assist you in clarifying values, receiving feedback, normalizing this time of adjustment, and identifying new perspectives.
- Set aside time daily for personal reflection. My favorites include journaling, walking in nature, or sitting in silence and meditating. During her own significant life adjustment, Sarah Trimmer in her TED talk, Start and End Happy, described how using these five journal prompts daily helped her in her growth process: “Today I am grateful for… Today I helped someone by… Something that made me happy today was… Today I learned… Tomorrow I will…”
- Treat yourself with compassion and gentleness. This includes extending yourself the same kindness you would a friend during the moments you are questioning or judging yourself.
- Do activities that support your self care and nourishment. This can involve brewing a cup of tea, snuggling an animal, attending a wellness retreat or exercise class, or including visual reminders of happier times in the past or to come, or notes from friends, in your home or office.
- Honor the grief that will arise. This period of adjustment represents a loss and change of who you used to be. Any loss in our life, even when it is something that we wanted, is a natural reaction to any change. Remembering that grieving is a part of life and that this is just a temporary situation can help you to embrace this emotion with curiosity and kindness.
Though we have focused on the benefits that come from these life changes, for some, this experience of self-reflection can become debilitating, painful and result in you feeling hopeless or alone. It can become so severe that it can cause a disruption in your ability to complete their day to day tasks or function normally, or you may find yourself making unhealthy decisions that can have financial or emotionally painful consequences. Some have termed this stress induced period of mental health symptoms a “nervous breakdown” though that term can be hurtful and have negative connotations attached to it. Symptoms can include prolonged sadness, loss of motivation, worry, racing thoughts, changes in appetite or weight, sleep disturbance, concentration or memory problems. For most, if these symptoms occur they are temporary. However, when is it time to seek professional help from a mental health provider? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I feel stuck or tired of suffering?
- Do I feel out of control or overwhelmed?
- Am I moving in an unhealthy direction with my life?
- Are these emotions or symptoms negatively interfering with my daily life?
- Have my ways of coping proved unhealthy or unhelpful?
- Am I self medicating with distraction, food, alcohol, drugs, or overworking?
- Has someone whose opinion I respect suggested this?
- Am I starting to feel like a danger to myself or others?
Know someone going through a time of transition? Here’s how to help:
Ask in a kind, non-judgmental way how they are doing, such as “I’ve noticed you have seemed more down or stressed lately. Is this something you would like to talk about?” You can then express your care and concern for them. Focus on responding in ways that encourage them to discuss their experience (“Say more” or “How has that been impacting you?”). Avoid responses that may invalidate or minimize their experience (“That sounds hard, but at least you…” or “You’ll get over it. Time heals all wounds.”), try to make them feel “better” or feel a happier emotion (“You’ll find someone even better”), or attempt to “fix” their problem with unsolicited advice. Social worker Dr. Brene Brown says that empathy bridges connection and “conveys a simple acknowledgment, “You’re not alone, I’ve been there.” Do not worry about saying the “perfect” thing, but instead express that they are important to you and you want to support them. Lastly, suggest ways you can help (“When I bring you dinner? Can we go on a walk together?”) rather than asking if they need anything.
A favorite quote from an unknown author says, Something will grow from all you are going through and it will be you. My life transformation was one in which I came out on the other side with an increased sense of empowerment, confidence and trust in myself. I have seen this with many clients and friends and know this can be your experience too! The process will take patience and acceptance of wherever you are at, but this is exactly what is needed to help you move forward to create your own passionate, extraordinary life. Life is a constant work in progress and I wish for you continued evolution and self compassion as you learn to, or continue to, burning brightly.