The Non-Crisis of Mid-Life Crises

A mid-life crisis is generally defined as a moment during middle age (often between ages thirty and forty) when someone begins to  suddenly question their identity and their own confidence in their life choices. It’s a transition from building, gathering and growing to unwinding and planning out wills, life insurance, and retirement.   Some people begin to struggle with the idea that they haven’t truly experienced everything they could in life and have yet to accomplish the things that matter most to them. So instead they look to things like extravagant spending on flashy clothes or expensive cars, as well as a shift in thinking regarding things like saving or maintaining long-held relationships. People may blow their savings on things they’ve been putting off buying or divorce or cheat on a spouse they’ve been sharing their life with for decades. This is often a sudden shift that can lead family members, friends, and colleagues to feel concerned about the well-being of the person experiencing the mid-life crisis. It can even lead to a deep internal questioning that can feel unsettling.

Defining a Crisis

According to Merriam-Webster, a crisis is defined as “a crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending.” It seems like there are many times in life when adults are trying to determine if the path they are currently on is going to lead them to where they want to be later in life. They are also considering if the goals they may have set for themselves in their late teens and twenties still make sense for them now. For instance, many of us had our life goals set for us by the people and circumstances we grew up seeing. If we were mostly surrounded by married couples with two children who lived in the suburbs and worked in finance, we’re more likely to think of that as “normal,” So we may strive to be part of yet another family of four with two married parents who work in the financial sector.

But if you’ve always wanted to be a painter after taking an art class in high school, copying the kind of lifestyle you grew up seeing would mean sacrificing that dream. And after spending your teens and twenties working hard for something you don’t really want with any level of passion, once you’ve achieved it, you can still remain unfulfilled and lost.This is the point at which a mid-life crisis may creep in.. It often looks odd to people on the outside looking in because it seems like you have an enviable life. Two great kids, a beautiful home, a solid education that fostered a lucrative career, and an adoring spouse. What’s to be upset about?

But if all of these things reflect what someone else wants (your parents, your teachers, etc.) or what you assumed would make you happy, then you haven’t done what you wanted to do with your life. And at this point, you’ve been so focused on what other people wanted, you didn’t pay enough attention to your own desires. Now you’re paying the price for fulfilling someone else’s dream instead of your own.

The “Is This It?” Phenomenon

Not fulfilling your own needs can lead to questioning your life. Asking “Is this it?” when it comes to the place where you landed when you thought you were building a happy existence. Life feels more like something that you settled for instead of something that you dove into creating for yourself.

At later points in our lives, we realize that change is something that goes on forever. But many humans come to a critical time of life when we realize there were certain expectations we had that needed to be met, even though they haven’t been. We don’t yet have the kind of romantic relationship, or career, or finances, or figure that we wanted to have by a certain age. Or, we have what we thought people expected us to have, but not what we wanted. And this revelation happens no matter where you are. Every society across the globe has what’s considered a “traditional” or “desirable” path in life that has been taught to them as children and sticks with them as they grow up.

As we get closer to meeting those traditional expectations, we often find that checking off those characteristics (driving the “right” car or marrying “right” spouse or living in the “right” neighborhood) isn’t satisfying for us. While we’ve accomplished what we thought we were supposed to in order to achieve happiness, we don’t actually know joy and peace within ourselves. So we wonder what else we need, what is missing that we should seek out so that we can know happiness and comfort before we die. We fear that our current life is something we’re trapped in and there’s nothing more available to us in the world.

In order to explore that idea, we may buy things we wouldn’t normally buy, go places we wouldn’t normally go, or do things we wouldn’t normally do, just to shake off the feeling of being confined within a life we never really wanted in the first place. The “decisive change” noted in the definition of a crisis is being played out on a smaller scale as we exercise more direct, contrasting agency over our lives.

True Fulfillment

Most of us have been led to believe that if we do everything we’re “supposed to” do as an adult, we will magically feel at peace and live happily ever after, never regretting or second-guessing any of our life choices.

When we recognize that living a fulfilling life is about liking yourself and surrounding yourself with people who genuinely care about and support you, we start to make changes accordingly. We begin to buy things we want instead of sacrificing what gives us pleasure; reevaluate our social group and romantic choices and make adjustments to better align with our innermost desires; start to shift toward different career paths so that we can be happier in our daily work instead of slogging through workdays like they’re prison sentences.

And, yes, that means our behavior is going to seem “odd” to people who know us. But if it’s the change that we need in order to reduce our stress and regret, isn’t it worth it? Experiencing a mid-life crisis just means realizing that something in our lives needs to change in order for us to feel whole. Most of us aren’t taught that change is an integral part of life and that it goes on forever. Choices are constantly presented to us as if we’ll never need to shift gears because something went wrong. Learning to pivot and make different choices is part of being able to manage change instead of breaking under the weight of it.

If we’d been taught to adapt to change instead of fearing it, we probably wouldn’t see a sudden reevaluation of our lives during middle age as a “bad” or “strange” thing. We would accept it as a normal part of being a human who grows and evolves throughout the decades of life that we get to live.


Lauren Jones is an integrative life, wellness, and executive coach.  Through Lauren Jones Collective, she helps people identify their personal “why” and connect  to their purpose. Before coaching, Jones spent 25 years in the financial services industry, and is an advocate of change as she herself climbed to the top of the corporate ladder and jumped right off of it. She believes that we get “stuck” when we worry about what everyone else thinks and dismiss our desires to follow the path calling out to us.