New Challenges in Our Middle Years

What are some of the challenges in midlife that can contribute to experiencing anxiety, dissatisfaction, or perhaps even despair? Well, there are many challenges unique to being in our middle years… and most of us will encounter multiple issues in various combinations and at different times. Here are some of fairly common issues we’re likely to face more often, or in a different context, during midlife.

Anxiety and Fears

Fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear for security – these all tend to become more present as issues of middle age assert themselves. Some of the events and changes that can trigger fear include:

  • Empty nest as children move into their independent lives
  • Impending retirement with loss of status or identity
  • Redefining our primary relationships into their new form or stage
  • Illness and decline or loss of physical attributes and abilities
  • Possibility of being lonely or without companions
  • Confusion from feeling less confident about ourselves or our certainty in our guiding beliefs

Grief and Loss

Our exposure to grief increases as we reach midlife, because grief is associated with loss and we will naturally encounter more losses. Even “good changes” can sometimes have an element of loss. Some common losses in middle years include:

  • Dreams or aspirations we realize will never be fulfilled
  • Children no longer being a daily part of our lives
  • Decreased ability to engage in physical activities in the same way
  • Death of parents or other loved ones
  • Letting go of roles, activities, people that have long been part of our lives and our sense of identity
  • Doors closing on various options in life that there would ‘be time for later’

Stress and Responsibilities

During middle age we are often literally “in the middle” of many situations and stages. We often no longer have the youthful optimism or passion to carry us through challenges as easily, yet we are likely to still have many challenges and obligations in this time of life. Some common stressors at this time include:

  • Being sandwiched between children who are not yet independent and parents becoming more dependent on us
  • Having worked many years, but not yet financially secure
  • Having created a home, but not owning the house
  • Desiring more time with family, but needing to work more hours
  • Planning for retirement, but not seeing the means to get there
  • Feeling trapped or stuck in a rut due to ongoing obligations

Self Identity, Significance, and Values

As we experience the changes of middle life quite often both practical and existential questions begin to emerge. “Who am I really?” “What have I accomplished?” “Am I still important?” “Am I doing anything of significance?” We begin to become aware that roles we’ve held for several years and that have become part of our self identity will not last forever; and also that we have less time remaining to do things we consider important. Areas related to this include:

  • The loss of passion in our work
  • The need to make a change in profession
  • No longer being “needed” as a parent
  • Questioning or having less certainty in long held beliefs and values
  • Falling behind in areas where we’ve been proficient or expert
  • Recognition that we may have already reached the zenith of our career
  • The desire to be relevant and contributing, but dissatisfied with our accomplishments
  • Health, Ability, and Mortality

    Usually in our middle years, if it has not occurred before, we begin to have an increased awareness of our mortality. We make a shift from “there will be time later” to wondering how much time we actually have left. Choices and decisions in our life tend to feel more important and require a higher degree of prioritizing, as we realize we really can’t get to all of them. Events that contribute to this include:

    • Death or loss of functioning in our parents or peers
    • Seeing seniors as “who I will soon be”
    • Starting to need assistance to do things we’ve always done independently
    • Taking longer to recuperate from an illness or injury
    • Developing chronic health issues and making undesired adjustments