In her classic book, Awakening at Midlife, Jungian analyst Kathleen Brehony tells the story of a successful attorney, who at 39, relates that he’s not actively unhappy, he just feels empty, that something is missing. Soon after, he experiences a heart pounding anxiety attack, and can’t understand what happened to his successful and ordered life. Brehony undertakes to unravel this story through a Jungian lens, asking, and answering: What is a midlife crisis? Why does it occur? And especially, why do the symptoms often appear in the “prime” of life, at a time when we have finally achieved so many of the things we’ve worked so hard for?

A protege of Freud, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s thinking diverged towards a belief in a spiritual unfolding in human development. He saw midlife as a natural and necessary passage to becoming a whole human being. He described it as the emergence of our shadow, or our ‘unlived selves’, that are built into the structure of the personality and the Self. Generally occurring between 35 and 50, and often experienced as a crisis, Jung cast the upheaval of midlife in a new light, suggesting that it need not be a crisis, as it offers a unique opportunity for growth. Indeed, if we understand its spiritual purpose and navigate it accordingly, then unparalleled psychological and spiritual transformation and fulfillment is possible.

For Jung, individuation is the heart and meaning of midlife transition, a process of letting go of who we are in order to become who we are supposed to be. It’s essentially an identity crisis of the ego. The carefully crafted public masks, or persona, we’ve spent a lifetime assembling, begin to crumble and are laid bare as our ‘shadow’ – beliefs, preferences, behaviors, and so on repressed through social conditioning – seek release and authentic expression. The poet Robert Bly who wrote The Little Book of the Human Shadow, notes that we spend half our lives putting parts of ourselves into the shadow and the other half trying to take them out again. Combine these unexpected ‘eruptions’ of unconscious parts of ourselves, with changing roles as children leave home, career pressures, the fact that our self-perception as well others’ perceptions of us change as we age, and a deeper awareness of mortality and death, and its no surprise that lives carefully built on hollow or false foundations begin to collapse and dramatically upset our balance of relationships, work and all areas of our lives!

When Awakening at Midlife was published just over a decade ago, it was the first to deconstruct Jung’s ideas about adult development as a time of spiritual growth and transformation. It’s still a valuable guide, as midlife still catches most of us by surprise, and is often misdiagnosed and misjudged. Therapists who fail to recognize its complexity may focus on random symptoms, treating midlife depression with Prozac for example, without understanding it as a necessary part of the journey to individual growth.

Instead, this book offers a holistic viewpoint of midlife as a search for wholeness, meaning and renewed purpose, with concrete suggestions to navigate the unfamiliar terrain, including exercises for self-reflection, building and drawing on support systems, and using creative expression, like drawing and journaling, to give heretofore unexpressed parts of yourself a voice.

Hearing these voices is a good first step. After that, of course, the question is, what choices will we make? From my point of view, the good news is that midlife requires only three things of us: integrity, trust, and courage. If I were to venture a bite-sized prescription of how to navigate the passage smoothly, perhaps even joyfully, it might be summed up as: Act in alignment with your insights.

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