3 Myths About the Midlife Crisis
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3 Myths About the Midlife Crisis

We’ve all heard of the cliche: the middle-aged man with the new sports car and the girlfriend half his age. Classic sign of a midlife crisis, right? Not necessarily, says psychiatrist Aditya Sharma, MD, of Medical City McKinney in Texas.

“If you’re a teenager and you love cars, you badger your parents to get you a subscription to Car and Driver, but you still won’t be able to afford that Ferrari,” he says. “By the time you are able to afford it, you’re in middle life. That’s not a crisis, that’s just something you wanted.”

Read on to bust three more myths, and find out what to do if you or a loved one is in the midst of a midlife crisis.

1. A midlife crisis means you’re unhappy. Sharma takes issue with calling it a crisis. “This is not a crisis, it’s a transition,” he says. Happiness over a lifetime is often depicted as a U-shaped curve: high early in life, falls around mid-life and then rises again. But a study from the University of Alberta in January 2016 found that happiness actually increases in middle age. “That debunked the whole crisis deal,” says Sharma.

Instead, think of the period as “a different set of challenges,” as Sharma puts it. He cites the famous 20th century psychologist Erik Erikson, who says the main challenge of the period between ages 40 and 65 is the “struggle between generativity and stagnation,” according to Sharma. “Are you able to continue to make a difference, or are you not productive anymore?” A midlife crisis, says Sharma, is simply looking for validation that you’re still a productive member of the human race.

2. Midlife crises only affect men. Nope, says Sharma. The signs may be different in men and women, he says, but the underlying need is the same. “It’s about validation that you’ve done a good job, you’re continuing to do a good job, and you’re still productive,” he says. A woman might become obsessed with getting rid of her wrinkles to show she’s still desirable, while a man might chase after that sports car to prove he’s successful. It’s ok to do nice things for yourself, but do them deliberately. No more being impulsive; that’s for 20-year-olds.

“Do we have a plan B or rainy day fund to deal with a crisis?” Sharma says to ask yourself. “If yes, go ahead and get that Corvette. But if buying that dream car will put you back on paycheck-to-paycheck status, think twice.”

Midlife can be a time to take stock in how far you’ve come and reevaluate your goals, says Sharma. “The basic premise is, am I done? Is this over? Will I get better?” These are concerns that affect everyone, male or female.

3. You just have to tough it out on your own. Not only is this not true, but believing it can make the crisis more disruptive to yourself and your family. A midlife crisis “can be disruptive, just as teenage angst can be disruptive to the whole family,” Sharma says.

The keys are to recognize your need for validation—and your loved ones’ needs, too—and to lean on your support system. “Instead of taking this as a crisis, realize what’s needed to navigate the transition, and you’re less likely to end up in disaster,” says Sharma, like a relationship ending or going into debt.

It’s important to realize that you’re probably not alone. Your spouse and your friends are probably “in the same boat and you’ll form each other’s support system,” Sharma says. “There’s no weakness in asking for support.”

See more from Dr. Sharma

What are the needs of families coping with mental illness?

How does vascular cognitive impairment change one’s behavior?

How can community support help a person with mental illness?