Mid Life Crisis and the Great American Dream
One of the mainstays of American culture is the "Great American Dream". Immigrants would uproot their families and leave their homeland in the hopes of experiencing the freedom and opportunity that awaits them in America. While it is true that our Declaration of Independence states, "we are endowed by our creator with certain alienable rights and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", it was probably Horatio Alger who did more to popularize the "American Dream". He wrote more than 134 successful short novels targeting the rags - to - riches theme. His theme was that if you were honest, worked hard, had a strong determination, did your best and always tried to do the right thing, you would succeed. Alger captured the essence, emotion, soul and especially the spirit of an emerging America. The association between happiness and success was taking root in American culture.
As individuals we dream of becoming someone special or important in society. We want to be successful and lead lives filled with happiness and love. Our parents have instilled in us that we could be anything we wanted to be. This process of dreaming is healthy to our human development and helps stimulate us to become productive members of society. It is also what separates us from the other animals on the planet. We are the only specie with the ability to think, rationalize and dream. Animals when born, have encoded in their genes a very sharp instinct for survival. When an animal senses the approach of danger a deeply embedded instinct called the startle reflex is engaged. Once the animal decides the danger has passed they release the response and return to a relaxed natural state.
We as humans are equipped the same way with one exception, our ability to imagine. We can imagine worlds in our minds that may not yet or ever exist. In other words, we can dream of the future. A dream is imagination coupled with desire and projected into the future. We can protract worlds of bliss, success, happiness or whatever we choose including danger and fear. Dreaming comes natural to us. Each day of our lives we are in pursuit of some dream.
Through our imagination we can engage our startle reflex as well. Like a real event, whether we deem it to be positive or negative, it can motivate or engage us to respond. Unfortunately, we tend not to release our startle reflex and return to a relaxed state especially where are imaginations are concerned. We can allow our thoughts to be replayed over and over. Our imaginations can run wild. On the positive side, when we imagine or dream about our life's purposes or goals we are able to relentlessly strive towards their fulfillment. However, the more the dream is replayed, the more detailed it gets and the more control it has of us.
So, what does the "American Dream" have to do with a mid life crisis? Well that same positive imagination or dream can trick us. Paul Tripp in his book, "Lost in the Middle" states, "I have become convinced that life without the dream would become unthinkable and unlivable. My sense of identity, purpose, well-being, contentment, and satisfaction becomes directly connected to the realization of the dream." As an ontological coach I would say we are not having the dream; the dream is having us. What happens in a mid life transition is something, often an event, creates a break in the routine or busyness of our lives. This event could be traumatic such as the death of a family member or friend, a sudden illness or loss of a job. It could also be subtle like the children leaving to go off to college or to live on their own. Regardless, this break will often cause in us a time of reflection.
As humans, we have to attribute meaning to our lives and quite naturally we begin to reflect on the first half of our life. Being rational and logical human beings we do the one thing that makes the most sense, we pull out our dreams and expectations (ours and others) for our life and begin to compare them to the actual results. This is where reality intersects or collides with our imagination. We make an interpretation or an assessment of how well we have done. For some this reflection is very positive and they will move into the second halves of their lives with peace and hope. For others it can be very disorienting and unsettling. They suffer from the collision of a powerful awareness or interruption in the busyness or drift of their life coupled with a powerful interpretation about where they imagined or dreamed they should be in life versus reality. This defines a mid life crisis.
So what can we do to help process this mid life crisis? Well obviously each person is unique and the severity of a traumatic experience plays a crucial role. However, as an ontological coach I would at least begin by pursuing one critical element - language. There are a few pieces to look at when as humans we decide to make assessments of ourselves or give permission to others to make assessments for us.
First, it is important to look at the difference between an assessment and an assertion. In simplistic terms, an assertion is a linguistic act or element of speech that can be verified or accepted as true or false. In addition, if required we should be able to produce evidence or substantiate our statement. An assessment is our opinion or judgment. An example of an assertion is John works for the Microsoft Co. If we deem this to be true than we accept it as such or we could ask John to verify his employment. If he produces that evidence we know the statement to be true. An assessment would be that John works for the best software company in the world, Microsoft. True he works for Microsoft but whether it is the best software company in the world is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, it is an opinion or judgment. The problem occurs when we start to accept assessments as assertions. Not only do we treat our own assessments in this manner but also we grant authority to others' assessments in the same way. They become the standards by which we judge our self-worth and value in our world. This is not to say assessments are not important. They are a fundamental means by which we create a sense of order and certainty. They enable us to develop a consistency in our observing and remove us from the anxiety that can accompany uncertainty or a lack of predictability in our lives. However, we must remember they are judgments or opinions and need to be grounded as such. Grounding is a method for establishing whether an assessment can be substantiated or justified.
Thus the second thing is to ground the assessments we make or others make about our lives. As far as a mid life crisis is concerned this process should at least help us to gain a perspective or softening of the collision between our dreams and reality. This is a five-step process and can be attributed to the many pioneers in the field of ontological coaching.
The first step is to ask yourself for what future purpose do I hold these assessments or give them credence in my life. Whether negative or positive how am I taking care of myself by making or accepting this assessment? I personally held an assessment about myself that I was not good enough. When I examined this statement from the purpose of my future I realized it helped me deal with my fear of success and failure. In other words, it made it convenient to say why try since I know I am not good enough. It became an excuse not to step out of my comfort zone and engage my gifts and talents.
The second question is in which particular domain of action or specific area of our life are we referring too when we make the assessment? Is it in your role as parent, employee/ employer, spouse, volunteer, etc? In my case I did not isolate my assessment that I was not good enough to a particular domain. I simply globalized it to my entire life. I was not good enough at anything I do as a person. This would be the same as taking one piano lesson and then declaring you are ready to perform at Carnegie Hall and then when you are not invited to play simply conclude that you are not good enough at anything you do.
The third part of the process is to ask by what or whose standards do I make this assessment? Assessments always involve a comparison to something. Often this comparison is made and we are not even aware of it. The bigger issue here is not whether we are making comparisons but how relevant or applicable are the standards we choose. When we explore our standards, we often find them rooted in our past history or culture. As in the case of a mid life crisis we may find them rooted in our dreams or imagination. The standards themselves can become mere judgments or opinions. I can trace my assessment of being not good enough back to when I was a ten-year-old boy. I was terrified and thought the world was coming to an end during the US's showdown with the USSR over the deployment of missiles to Cuba. I remember looking around and wondering why no one else seemed as terrified as I was about this event. In reality they probably were all terrified but rather than ask I thought I was the only one who was scared. That set a standard for me that lasted until I was 52 years old and the result was an assessment that I accepted as an assertion about myself. The next step is to list what true assertions support the assessment. This step was one of the most helpful for me. Before taking this and the final step it would be helpful to develop a biography of assertions about your life. By this I mean listing only those events that have occurred, both positive and negative but only list them by the facts not interpretations. For instance, I was born on such date. I graduated from high school on this date. I achieved this goal I set for myself. If you don't know the exact date just estimate it. If you have been fired from a job just list I was fired and provide any evidence that could be substantiated, no opinions by others or yourself. The key is to bring reality into your life. In my case, because I deemed myself not good enough I was always striving to prove this assessment wrong. The problem was no matter what I did it did not, in my opinion, prove good enough. When I looked at my biography of assertions I could not find one assertion that supported my assessment. I was overwhelmed and in tears over what I had truly accomplished in my life.
Can this method of grounding assessments lift you from the throes of a mid life crisis? Chances are, depending on your circumstances; a lot more work is going to be required. However, it can start to bring some reality back into your life and allow the process of transition move forward. On the other hand, it certainly broke me out of a life long belief that dictated my interaction with the world around me.