This week our Writer at Large went to interview the renowned psychotherapist Andrew Jamieson about his latest book exploring how a midlife crisis is actually good for you. Soon, though, he found himself on the couch, discovering more than he bargained for…
OSTENSIBLY, I’m here to interview the renowned psychotherapist Andrew Jamieson about his latest book which sets out a paradigm-shifting take on the infamous midlife crisis.
Not only is the midlife crisis good for you, Jamieson contends, it is actually an essential part of the human story, and the definitive path to making us all better people.
However, the conversation soon takes a turn towards my life, and Jamieson begins analysing me. I mention that his book, Midlife: Humanity’s Secret Weapon, really chimed with me. I saw echoes in my own life.
An hour later and I have learned that I have gone through my own midlife crisis and didn’t even know it. I’m 52 but over recent years I have basically ticked off much of the midlife crisis checklist.
Quit a job unexpectedly? Tick: resigned as a newspaper editor. Health scare? Tick: hospitalised with kidney problems that nearly finished me off. Psychological upset? Tick: diagnosed with PTSD related to a mock execution that happened when I was a reporter in Northern Ireland. Changes in personal circumstances? Tick: purged people who I felt were toxic to be around. Lifestyle change? Tick: I no longer smoke, hardly drink after years of overindulgence and, despite a lifetime of indolence, now regularly exercise.
Changing opinions? Tick: I’m more mellow politically and hopefully more empathetic. Even my cultural tastes have altered. I no longer gorge on dark TV, horror movies, extreme fiction and angry music. I’m now more likely to be found listening to Classic FM or contentedly watching Paddington movies. Have I become a bit boring? Probably. Am I happier? Yes, 100 per cent.
Forget the Harley
THE key to understanding Jamieson’s thoughts on midlife crisis is this: it’s not about some 50-year-old buying a Harley-Davidson and running off with the au pair or plumber. It’s about reaching a mature stage in life, and realising – probably subconsciously – that you haven’t been the person you could be: the “best you”.
From there, you start changing in significant, sometimes very hard ways, which bring about enough of an alteration in how you live your life that you become closer to the person you always wanted to be. It’s not magic: you don’t suddenly stop picking your nose or become Jesus. You are still a flawed, imperfect, foolish human – you just learn to be more comfortable in your skin, after taking honest stock of who you are and how you can be better.
First world problems, some would say. Certainly, there is truth in that. If you are hungry or at war, there is no time or energy to work on whatever “new version” of you needs to be created. But we live in the developed world, we are humans made of flesh and blood, and if we can improve ourselves without hurting others, why not?
So, what is a midlife crisis? “The curve of life goes through a series of stable patches, interrupted by a sudden unstable phase when suddenly everything seems out of kilter and wrong,” Jamieson says.
A midlife crisis can take place anywhere between the late 20s and the end of life although old age is the worst time to experience these upheavals, as there are few years left to enjoy the benefits of change.
The peak period, though, is from the late 30s to the early 50s, when perhaps boredom has set in around work or relationships, children have grown up, and there’s a sense of time ticking away. Death looms in the imagination.
Killer whale theory
BASICALLY, a midlife crisis is like a boil on the body. Years of psychological pressures from childhood to the present day just build up and have to pop, otherwise you will be poisoned.
Jamieson notes that “only two species of mammal” experience midlife and “have a post-reproductive life that lasts longer than their reproductive life”: killer whales and humans.
Orcas are led by older, wiser females who have been through every challenge the seas can throw at them and know the best hunting grounds to keep their pod alive. In humans, midlife crisis, Jamieson posits, also creates older, wiser members of the group who provide a “balance between the energy, vigour and competitiveness of those in the first half of life, and the experience, dignity and wisdom of those in the second”.
The power of midlife is most evidenced in tribal societies where age is still venerated, unlike in the West where youth is idolised. In tribal societies, elders who have lived hard lives and come through are “guardians of the ethical approach to life”. A society which simply “follows the young warrior class is doomed”.
In other words, for human society to be its best, it needs both youthful energy and older knowledge.
Midlife provides the bridge. Jamieson’s theories make intuitively good sense – though not for a minute am I claiming to have suddenly become a sage.
I’m just less wild and more comfortable “being me”.
Cuban missle test
JAMIESON notes how in moments of group crisis, it is often older people – who have crucially gone through the rigours of midlife and emerged in better shape than when they went in – who come to the fore offering wise counsel.
The US diplomat Adlai Stevenson, he says, experienced intense distress in midlife, leading to the collapse of his marriage. He was central, though, to providing the patience and calm needed to shepherd a still youthful John F Kennedy through the Cuban missile crisis, averting “armageddon”.
Humans, however, have a strange relationship to both midlife and midlife crisis. Often older people – particularly women – are sidelined, yet we seek the counsel of elders in moments of extremis. Humanity both fears and mocks midlife – just look at movies like American Beauty or Falling Down. However a cursory perusal of world culture shows we have always known just how important it is: Homer’s Odyssey tells the story of a man who goes through intense torment in midlife before becoming older and wiser.
The Divine Comedy begins with Dante writing these lines: “Midway upon the journey of life, I found myself within a dark forest, for the straightforward path had been lost, Oh how hard a thing it is to say.” Dante literally goes to hell, bides a while in purgatory, then discovers paradise. The midlife crisis, Jamieson says, always comes with a “liminal” stage – a period of waiting between dark crisis and positive change, just like purgatory.
Midlife crisis, he says, “is an evolutionary move to produce a cadre of elders” who keep society in balance. Each and everyone one of us will experience midlife crisis. It’s how we deal – or don’t deal – with it that matters.
So, Jamieson notes the life of Mary Ann Evans, the Victorian writer who experienced enormous upheaval and shame in her 30s over an adulterous relationship. She quite literally reinvented herself post-crisis, and is better known today as George Eliot.
The Trump factor
HOWEVER, for every Adlai Stevenson and George Eliot there’s a Trump or Putin. “They just stick,” says Jamieson. They either can’t or won’t change in midlife. The fact so many of these types – nearly all men – display narcissistic traits probably explains the refusal to reevaluate their lives. And tackling “ego” is, as Jamieson says, central to navigating midlife successfully.
Horribly, not dealing with a midlife crisis can potentially have devastating consequences. One of Jamieson’s clients stopped therapy mid-crisis and later killed herself.
Most of our psychological troubles lie, as we know, in childhood. Clearly, the process of birth is intensely traumatic. We might not remember it but as newborns, Jamieson explains, we’re flooded with fear and anxiety hormones. As babies, it is impossible to deal with such trauma. Much of early childhood also remains intensely traumatic.
As infants, we are completely dependent on our parents, especially our mothers whom we bond most closely with. Any sense of abandonment – mum or dad going to work, say – drenches us again in fear and anxiety. This all leaves an indelible “wound”, Jamieson explains.
All of us grow up creating psychological mechanisms to protect us from fears like abandonment. To heal ourselves, we sublimate our fears, hiding from our true feelings – we build up a tough outer shell that is essentially fake. This all makes for a toxic egotistical mix of “narcissism and grandiosity”, says Jamieson. These “defences” are a “great pool of dysfunctionality … projection, denial, regression and deflection”, he adds.
THAT means “our true self” is pushed down – hidden. In essence, we wear a mask – “a persona” – that helps us get through this cruel world we all live in. But no one can live inside a mask forever. If the mask eventually comes off, says Jamieson, quoting Abraham Lincoln, then we free “the better angels of our nature”.
The Lincoln quote is crucial: Lincoln also went through intense agonies in midlife, seeing himself as a complete failure only to emerge as one of the wisest presidents in American history. Fundamentally, a midlife crisis is about finding a way to become less “ego-orientated” and therefore of more use to society through being our “true selves”.
Jamieson lived through his own midlife crisis. Until his 40s, he was a successful promoter of classical music concerts, then life caught up with him and he “just collapsed completely”. He was tended to by a psychotherapist who had been a patient of Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychiatry. When he recovered, Jamieson, now 71, recreated himself: he retrained as a psychotherapist and became the successful practitioner he is today. “I found a second life,” he says. “But there’s always a wound which creates the turmoil of midlife crisis.” Ironically, that wound is, he says, “an enormous potential gift”.
Jamieson’s “wound” lay deep in childhood. His mother adored her father – Jamieson’s grandfather. After Jamieson was born, she returned to her parental home. Jamieson’s father, a naval officer, was at sea. However, within days of Jamieson’s mother returning, her beloved father died.
Her grief gravely disrupted her ability to parent. So, there Jamieson was, a baby who grew into a child, flooded with feelings of fear, anxiety and abandonment. As an adult, his intense workaholic existence was a perfect way to hide from all those issues. Eventually, though, life – the past, childhood – caught up with him and emotionally he was knocked for six.
SOCIETY, school and work reinforce all these negative aspects of our characters. School and work demand both conformity and a form of ego-driven narcissism to succeed. Teachers and bosses don’t care about your feelings. “To survive, you must be extremely selfish.”
And without conformity, “you’re not going to make progress”, Jamieson says. But these “defences corrupt your true nature” – they suffocate the person you could be.
Counterintuitively, success can often trigger midlife crisis. “People get to the top and then realise they’ve used the wrong ladder,” he explains. “They have lived lives that don’t suit them and they need to reverse. That’s why crisis and opportunity go hand in hand. You’ve got to reconfigure your life without causing too much collateral damage.”
Clearly, though, if handled wrong, midlife crisis can end in divorce and family rupture.
However, if you navigate it right, a midlife crisis, says Jamieson, will leave you without “constant past regrets that hound you, and without fear of the future”. Psychotherapists call this process “individuation”. If a midlife crisis is properly “explored, examined and overcome”, Jamieson adds, “the real self comes out – our anxieties and depression will lift”.
He adds: “The manner in which we conduct our closest relationships will be transformed. Our compassion will deepen as our self-centredness diminishes. Our capacity for humility will be extended. Our concerns about our mortality will diminish.
“Elements of our creativity which have lain dormant for years will be revealed. Our sense of soulfulness and our interest in spirituality will emerge. Such is the power of the kind of self-realisation … which can be the eventual consequence of the midlife crisis.”
JAMIESON says you can often spot someone who has come out the other side of a midlife crisis, as the changes in their character are so marked. A little suffering means you are more likely to feel empathy for others.
“That’s what we should all be aiming for,” he says. It’s about looking inward and confronting the darkest aspects of your nature – “the shadow”, as Jamieson calls it. It is not about “killing off” the shadow, but “integrating” it, and coming to terms with the fact it exists.
That means facing our worst flaws, especially ones we deliberately shy away from: rage, sexuality, or weakness. Jamieson says we all know these truths deep within us even if we fear to act on them. It is no coincidence that one of the earliest philosophical maxims came from the elderly Socrates before his death: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
JAMIESON notes the life of Angela Merkel, a woman intensely conflicted between her upbringing in communist East Germany and her personal Christianity. Merkel’s greatest act was opening her country’s doors to one million Syrian refugees – almost as if she was “atoning for the terrible things Germany did in the past”. In Germany, she’s nicknamed Mutti Merkel – Mummy Merkel: the ultimate moniker for a wise, kind, older woman.
Boris Johnson, he suggests, shows all the characteristics of a man going through an unresolved midlife crisis. He has early childhood trauma – his mother had mental health problems and his father was allegedly violent. He grew up intensely narcissistic – the infamous “world king” quote seems to sum that up – plus he has been through marriage break-up and just lost a top job. If Johnson worked on the crisis he is going through, Jamieson suggests, he would be “transformed”.
In some ways, Jamieson contends, the entire human race might be undergoing a midlife crisis. We have had our terrifying infancy – all that scrabbling for survival as hunter-gatherers; our lonely, confused childhood that staggered on until the medieval period; our successful ego-driven adulthood that took us past the Industrial Revolution and into the 20th century; and now, from maybe 1914 onwards, we are in an intense crisis which, if not handled correctly, could destroy us.
Nuclear war and climate change might, metaphorically, be the Harley-Davidson and stupid affair that brings us to our knees.
Humanity, Jamieson suggests, needs to find the “emotional intelligence” which comes from successfully navigating midlife. “If we don’t we’re in trouble.” Midlife, therefore, is “an evolutionary” issue. “To survive, we must make cultural changes towards empathy and compassion.” If humanity has a collective consciousness, then war is simply the lashing out of an angry, stupid adult who never grew up and discovered how to manage conflict.
The carving knife
THE process of resolving a midlife crisis can be deeply traumatic. Some of Jamieson’s clients “fantasise about burying a carving knife in their parents’ chest”. Many negative feelings link back to childhood and that fear of abandonment or the sense that parents are the ones responsible for someone’s “low self-esteem”.
After his own midlife crisis, Jamieson resolved his problems with his mother. One of the key triggers for midlife crisis is our sense of imminent mortality – that come 40 or 50, we’re closer to death. “We’ve just a handful of decades, time is so bloody short,” Jamieson says. Resolving our psychological problems in midlife allows us to better spend “the time that remains to us … and enjoy the fruits of this transformatory experience”.
Carl Jung, who formulated many of the psychological ideas Jamieson follows, also went through a midlife crisis. A successful, highly ambitious young man, he crashed in midlife, breaking friendships and cheating on his wife. Jung emerged from a deep depression to do his greatest work. “He killed his ego,” Jamieson says.
Jung is a perfect example of the “break it to create it” aspect of midlife crisis. Self-sabotage is often a precursor: that’s why the midlife crisis is so linked to that notion of the Harley-Davidson or stupid affair in the popular imagination.
Midlife, he says, is a “thrust towards self-realisation … we exist in order to develop”, adding: “Yet this development can only be achieved through much exacting and painful experience, including the key phase in our middle years that we’ve come to call the midlife crisis.”
Despite the agony, “it always brings happy endings if it’s worked out properly. If you’re prepared to take on the challenge, you’ll be transformed”.
We finish our conversation and Jamieson invites me to meet him again next week, to take our discussions further. I’d be a fool not to accept. Nobody turns their back on synchronicity – and there’s definitely much work still to do.
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