Midlife Matters

A time to balance previously opposing attitudes and ways of being

by Dr Robyn Vickers-Willis
Winter 2015, Living Well Magazine

It all started in my mid thirties. I was angry, depressed, and lethargic with swinging energy levels, increasing muscle tension, gynaecological problems and thoughts that aspects of my life were no longer meaningful. I was bewildered. What was happening to me? On the surface all looked fine. I was married to a hard working man, had three healthy children, was financially secure, had a lovely home and a career as a psychologist.

A gynaecologist suggested I take Hormone Replacement Therapy, however, with my mother’s history of breast cancer in her early forties I knew this was not wise. There were continual visits to the doctor, and then referral to a psychiatrist who subscribed anti-depressants which numbed my feelings while the concurrent counseling encouraged me to ‘fit in’ to my present life structure. Then I was referred to a psychologist in whom I had no confidence, but I felt too desperate to stop going.

Finally it all came to a head on my fortieth birthday. I remember walking down the passage and in to the dining room where the well wishers were. I was numb with despair. I was dumb with terror. Did they notice? I attempted a smile. I moved through the room. I was a skin with nothing inside. I had to keep going through the motions. I couldn’t let anybody know. Could they see my emptiness? Could they sense my emptiness? Could I keep it up? How long could this go on?

The following day I was referred to another health professional. He helped me to accept and explore my anger, sadness and lethargy and desire for change. I started navigating what I now regard as the most significant psychological journey in a person’s life – midlife transition. Soon my health problems started to improve and eventually disappeared.

Since that time over two decades ago I have carried out extensive research on the psychology of midlife. I found that our psyche encourages us to go on a psychological and spiritual journey at midlife to gain a fuller understanding of our true nature and to create a way of living that supports this nature. As we navigate this journey we create balance between previously opposing attitudes and ways of being and this fosters our health and wellbeing as we age.

When I now look back I know my turbulent feelings and thoughts were encouraging me to make the necessary changes to create a second half of life centered round a fuller understanding of my nature. I experienced lethargy as my psyche encouraged me to slow down, spend time with myself and go within; I felt sadness as I grieved my first half of life including all those things I now knew would never be; and I felt anger and frustration as I became restless to find ways in my life to express an increased understanding of who I was.

During midlife I learnt to value the guidance that came from my feeling world; challenge messages sent to me when young; make time to ‘be’ with myself through meditation, yoga, journaling and walking in nature; developed my assertiveness so I could say ‘no’ to activities that no longer engaged me which created space for the new activities I now recognized nurtured me.

There was nothing in my training as a psychologist about these understandings related to midlife psychological development. My research suggests that most health professionals are still ill-informed about this stage of life and as a result give faulty advice. Yet if we engage constructively with our inner turmoil at midlife and develop self-empowering strategies to assist our personal growth at this stage of life we foster our health and wellbeing as we transform our self, our relationships and our life.

Dr Robyn Vickers-Willis
Dr Robyn Vickers-Willis, a psychologist, is author of Navigating Midlife: Women Becoming Themselves (2002), Men Navigating Midlife (2004), and Navigating the Empty Nest: Recreating Relationships (2008). Robyn is facilitating her weekend retreat Navigating Midlife and Beyond from 17-19 July and her new midweek retreat Midlife Matters from 21-25 September at the Yarra Valley Living Centre.