The Mid-Life Experience
Written by: Dr. Marie Kerns, Psy.D., LMFT
“A woman who reaches age 50 today-and remains free of cancer and heart disease-can expect to see her ninety-second birthday” (Sheehy, 1995, p. 6).
Mid-life women of today are journeying through the lifespan, with possibilities that were unimaginable in previous decades. There is a dynamic energy flowing through mid-life women of today. These women will live to be much older than women of previous generations, and they desire an existence that brings meaning and fulfills their potential. Some of these women may have previously decided on a traditional home life raising children, ignoring their own need for personal development. Some may have achieved a rewarding career chosen when they were in their 20’s, and now, due to different interests, physical limitations, and changing life circumstances, it may be time for a change in career direction.
Women come into therapy at this liminal time of transition, looking for hope with feelings of confusion over possible regrets and fears of growing older that eventually lead to their physical death.
A Mid-life Transition includes three liminal phases. In the pre-liminal phase a woman experiences the loss of her previous identity. She may complain that she feels forgetful, depressed, and that her perceptions are off. She may not trust her decisions, and may no longer be interested in her job or her marriage.
The 2nd phase is the liminal phase. A woman realizes she no longer has the identity of her younger adulthood, and is temporarily held in an ambiguous place, not really sure of her identity. “The structural ‘invisibility’ of the liminal personae has a twofold character. They are at once no longer classified and not yet classified” (Mahdi, 1987, p 5).
The 3rd phase, is the post-liminal phase of reincorporation. In this third phase, a mid-life woman adjusts to her new identity. She will have integrated her past, mourned her youth, and she accepts that she will move ahead with new challenges. Once fully reincorporated she may actually thrive in this new Mid-life identity.
Shellenbarger (2004) points out that liminality is often displayed by extremes of emotion and behavior. She describes that being overwhelmed by sexual fantasies is an indicator of entering liminality. The goal for a woman who is being overwhelmed by sexual fantasies would be to balance between restraint and exploration, as she tries to integrate these regained passions. Women in this phase need to integrate their new passion in a way that does not destroy the parts of her life that are valuable. Finding a new relationship to women’s renewed surge of needs and desires is at the core of this liminal phase of transition.
Having outgrown her prior identity, the mid-life woman, who is her liminal phase of transition, is in the process of establishing a new identity. The changes she experience as part of the aging process may leave her dismayed. Marion Woodman, a Jungian Analyst, likens the fall season to the aging process. She believes that women, who cannot accept the mature beauty of autumn, go into mid-life feeling the agony of their aging bodies. She describes how women possibly see themselves with wrinkles that harden into lines, and the daily arrival of new liver spots. As this occurs, Woodman believes, a mellowing in the soul could compensate for women’s physical progression into mid-life (1985). A search for life’s purpose, in the therapy process might help a mid-life woman uncover the potential her life has to offer.
One may question the alternatives available to help women identify “the mature beauty of autumn” in their personal lives. Woodman suggests that if women mellow their soul, they may be able to cancel out the negative appraisal of the aging process. Studies of the literature suggest that a negative appraisal of the aging process could lead women into depression. Our society, up to this time has focused on youth, neglecting to find admiration and appreciation in old age. These standards of beauty have been defined in our culture by the current media portrayal of very young, thin, and sexy women as beautiful, and in most fairy tales that depict older women as witches and hags.
This is a time that many women change careers, or go back to school. This may be brought on by the death of a parent or a child leaving home. This change in family structure could begin a women’s search, leading to a change in direction, in their journey through life. This change redefines who they are. What women are experiencing at this time is a change in perspective.
Murray Stein, a Jungian Analyst, believes this shift in perspective has religious and psychological implications. “Mid-life is a crisis of the spirit…old selves are lost and new ones come into being” (Stein, 1983, p.3). A women in the mid-life transition does not have the identity of her young adulthood, and for awhile is held in an ambiguous period, not really sure of her identity. This liminal phase of transition holds the potential for new discoveries as mid-life women seek their destiny.
At mid-life, women benefit most from a form of therapy that brings meaning and symbolic value to their life. Mid-life issues are not about fixing problems and relieving symptoms as quickly as possible (Brehony, 1996). Jungian theory offers a mid-life woman a way to discover her purpose in life as she enters the second half of life, gaining a deeper awareness of the unconscious forces that have previously blocked her growth.
Carl G. Jung and his followers have written extensively on the development of he personality through the life cycle, and how spirituality is involved in the process of mid-life transition. His theory includes the conscious mind to include the ego, the personal unconscious, which includes the complexes, and the collective unconscious, which includes many archetypes such as the anima/animus, the shadow, and the Self. He also worked with dreams, myths, and symbols, and how they impact personal development in the process of therapy.
Jung referred to midlife as the optimal time to reflect on a person’s inner world. (Gollnick, 2005). He discusses that the ultimate goal in a person’s life is individuation through the process of transformation, and through this process individuals develop and differentiate from others.
Individuation involves becoming conscious of one’s unconscious and developing an ongoing dialogue between the two levels of awareness. To reach the unconscious mind, Jung and his followers guide individuals in attending to their dreams, intuitions, and emotional states (Gollnick, 2005). “Individuation is our waking up to our total selves, allowing our conscious personalities to develop until they include all the basic elements that are inherent in each of us at the preconscious level” (Johnson, 1986, p. 11).
Connie Zweig (1997), a Jungian Analyst, also believes that the issues at mid-life are the call of the Self to begin an unlived life. She believes the symptom of depression that many women experience at midlife is the liminal time between one archetypal pattern shifting into another archetypal pattern, and it is the shadow that forces mid-life women to face their unlived life with its limited choices, as the ego is destabilized and the sense of identity is shattered.
Recognizing the shadow usually follows the unmasking of the persona. As this process continues deeper parts of the unconscious become attainable to the ego (Singer, 1972). Shadow elements are incompatible with the conscious wholeness (Weinrib, 2004). The shadow consists of qualities of a person that are distasteful and unacceptable to their conscious mind, but are not always negative. There are situations where the conscious attitude is negative, while a positive shadow projection could be activated by an admired outer object (Papadopoulos, 2006).
The shadow work that must be dealt with at mid-life includes acknowledging envy, greed, laziness, aggression, and jealousy. Jung realized that what he advocated as part of analysis was a rediscovery of an ancient truth regarding the healing power of catharsis, when as a result of analytic shadow work; the client becomes aware of their darker side and confesses to it. Jung identified the confessional as the prototype for soul work (Papadopoulos, 2006).
As the persona begins to be unmasked, the shadow is recognized; next the anima/animas will begin to appear in dreams and in projections onto other people (Singer, 1972). In the case of a woman who dreams of a sexual union with her boss, an inner psychological meaning is missed if this dream is taken literally. “In dreams, sexual union frequently represents the tendency of some part of us to unite itself with our conscious personality” (Sanford, 1980, p.26). When properly understood, this dream symbolizes an awakening of this woman’s creative powers. She is projecting her creative powers onto her boss, and if taken literally she could mistakenly have an affair leading to negative consequences in her life.
Brehony (1996) outlines Marie-Louise von Franz’s five stages of projection and the withdrawal of projection in Awakening at midlife. Projection begins when an individual believes that an unconscious, inner understanding is reality. In the second stage, differentiation happens when the individual realizes the discrepancy between the projection and the reality of the situation. The third stage requires that the individual bring this discrepancy to consciousness and accept the difference between the projection and the reality. In the fourth stage, the individual comes to the conclusion that what they originally believed was an illusion. In the final stage, the individual must look inwards for the origin of the projected energy.
Aziz (1990) points out that the withdrawing of projections is important for two reasons:
1. Projections give a false impression of the object.
2. Projections contain elements that are naturally part of the person’s
personality and need to be consciously integrated.
When the persona is unmasked, the shadow integrates, and the anima and animas projections are withdrawn, the self emerges. “The Self is the goal towards which the process of individuation strives. It represents psychic wholeness and the process by which self-division may be healed” (Papadopoulos, 2006, p.153).
For References Contact Dr. Kerns at 949-285-5199