The famous psychologist Carl Jung once observed that more people enter therapy around the age of forty-nine than at any other age. My own clinical experience backs up this observation.
The reason people flock to therapy is that the early fifties is often a life and death battle. The battle is between Thanatos (death and destruction) and Eros (the life force). The way that people resolve or avoid this battle determines the rest of their days.
For people who had rotten childhoods this can be a renaissance time; a time to recapture their lives. If one’s childhood was robbed by abuse or neglect, or adolescence was lost through early parenthood or your parent’s death there are genuine opportunities here to heal and renew.
By fifty, one has reached the prime age for stable and consistent growth. What was on the horizon in the previous stage of life now steps on to the main stage. You will have to find a new way of being.
There is a test of courage on offer here. The courageous have the impetus to take risks in life; the timid may briefly recapture the playfulness of earlier years before sinking back into the pedestrian mainstream. Fifty is a really good time to ask yourself: ‘Who do I want to be now I am grown up?’
Some people seem to take on superficial rituals at this time, buying sports cars, getting tattoos or piercings or rekindling old passions.
The most common experience at some stage around your 50th year is complete bafflement, bewilderment and confusion. Your previous ways of coping have passed their use-by date. Many of your ancestors didn’t live much beyond this age.
Rites of passage
What is going on here is a rite of passage. Rites of passage are not minor blimps on the radar of life. They are opportunities when we can re-consider our direction in life and transform ourselves. For many people this is an unsettling time.
The rites of passage that occur throughout our lives are particularly powerful between fifty and fifty-six.
Rites of passage have a sequence of stages:
- Separation from your normal way of living.
- Liminality – this is a stage of being betwixt and between, usually confused and all at sea.
- Return and re-integration.
Rather than seeing this as a time of renewal and reinvention, we either send people off for therapy or medicate liminality as depression. Our lack of understanding of this process results in some people blaming those closest to them for their disturbed loss of meaning.
Certainly some relationships have run out of puff by this time of life and separation may be inevitable. Even so, it is awfully easy to blame someone close to you for your own unsettled feelings and to ignore the need to do the inner work needed to create a new you. The way out, is in.
Liminality is sacred space. If used well it has enormous power and opportunity. People who
can tolerate a time of ambiguity and uncertainty often discover new interests that fulfil them. If ignored, medicated or trivialised, a great possibility for your future is missed.
The final stage is return or re-integration. This is about making sense of the experience and finding a new you. The entire process of a rite of passage varies in length – for some people it can occur swiftly, for others the process can take years.
The revolution within
For people going through a rite of passage at this time, there are three vital pieces of advice:
- Do not pretend to know who you are, rather, allow who you are to emerge. Guard your soul. Life will be intolerant of your uncertainties. It will want you to fix yourself. Take ‘you’ time.
- Preserve your flexibility. This is a time to let ideas simmer. If life at this age is a race between the hare and the tortoise, practise being the tortoise.
- Old maps don’t help you to travel over new territories. The old strategies are not going to work. You are actually going to have to work out a new way to live your life.