Awakening at midlife

Psychologist alumna parlays midlife crisis into guide for re-creating your life

by Su Clauson-Wicker

"Midway upon the journey of my life I found myself in a dark wood, where the right of way was lost." Dante's The Divine Comedy

For Kathleen Brehony (Psych M.S. '77, Ph.D. '81), turning 40 meant just another occasion for a great time surrounded by friends, music, and lots of food. The black, "over the hill" balloons were a joke, symbolizing out-moded ideas about middle age.

But she'd been having vague, indescribable feelings for a year, and, within a month, life as Brehony knew it began to disintegrate. She fell in love with someone new, yet anguished over leaving a long-term relationship with someone she also loved. Brehony also lost her unsatisfying but extremely lucrative job at this time. She found herself economically devastated, with a hefty mortgage on the house she had just purchased.

Brehony had grown up in an extremely extroverted family and, like most people, had always been focused on the outer world: creating a loving relationship, completing her education, building a career, and establishing a system of good friends. ("Even as a graduate student, when I went to a psychology conference, I didn't just give one paper; I gave nine," she says.) Now, at 40, she was asking herself age-old questions: "Where am I going with the rest of my life?" "Who am I?"

"I didn't have a clue as to who I really was, short of the roles and expectations I'd so vigorously embraced," she says.

Brehony, a clinical psychologist, says she felt like she was going crazy. Long ignored parts of herself seemed to be demanding expression, making her feel split. As she spent more time alone, Brehony realized she'd been estranged from some of the deepest, most authentic aspects of her personality. The road back to herself has taken the better part of six years and resulted in a book, Awakening at Midlife -- one of the few that address both the turmoil and the opportunities at midlife.

Midlife can bring a crisis of spirit

Although not everyone experiences a true crisis at midlife, most notice subtle changes in the way they feel about their lives, how they relate to others -- especially their spouses/partners -- or how fulfilling or unfulfilling their work is to them. While for some, the passage at midlife will not involve a 90-degree turn, none will remain untouched by change at this time, Brehony says.

At midlife, she believes, undeveloped parts of yourself come screaming out for expression as your personality strives for wholeness. Even if these signs are subtle, mid-lifers often experience impulsive desires and feelings of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Maybe there's a more feminine, more masculine, more daring, or more fun-loving side of you that needs expression. Robert Waller's doctor observed Waller's panic attack and told the former business professor that his inner poet was fighting with his other life; several years later Waller took an academic leave and published the best-selling novel, The Bridges of Madison County.

For some, the missing part of themselves is the spiritual side. At midlife, Brehony sees many people questioning their relationship to the sacred and pondering the meaning of their existence. Many of us live disconnected from a true relationship with anything larger than ourselves, she says. At midlife, we often search for something more to help us deal with death and the changes that come as we age. The psychologist Carl Jung once said that he had never seen a patient past the age of 35 whose fundamental problem was not "that of finding a religious outlook on life."

"Midlife is a crisis of the spirit," Brehony says, "a gut-level awareness that life in its second half will be different from its first half. But in crisis and change lie the potential for growth."

In 1996, Brehony wrote Awakening at Midlife, the book she wished she could have found to guide her through her own midlife struggles. Her publisher, Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin/Putnam), describes it as "a guide to reviving our enthusiasm for life, offering stories, strategies, and exercises to enrich our ongoing search for wholeness."

As one-third of the U.S. population enters the 35-50 midlife age-range, Brehony's book seems to strike a chord. Emerging at Midlife was recently re-issued in paperback, and readers around the nation have organized discussion groups around the book. Last spring Brehony also hosted a PBS television show, "A Midlife Survival Guide."

Brehony's work is heavily influenced by her background as a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist, especially the belief that the purpose of life is the unfolding of the unique, individual, inner core or self that is inherent in every person. This is what she calls individuation.

Coming home to the self

The process of individuation, or "coming home to the self," can occur at any age, especially if triggered by unsettling life events.

"Actress Debra Winger went through it at 19. She was going to business school and working for the circus in the summers. Then she fell off a truck and was in a coma for two weeks. When she woke up, she said, 'I'm not doing that anymore,' and completely changed the direction of her life," Brehony says.

"My father, on the other hand, didn't go through this inner exploration until my mother died when he was 66 years old. He was a successful outer directed person, and he didn't need to explore the questions that I think make life worth living until he had the pins knocked out from under him.

"But for most of us," she continues, "powerful unconscious forces reach a critical mass at midlife." One force is the dawning awareness that life is very finite -- that we will lose our parents, our friends, and, inevitably, our own lives to death, and these events are not as far off as we had once thought.

Sometimes the awareness is of the death or loss of an important aspect of yourself -- the loss of youth, the loss of physical abilities, the loss of dreams and ideals. Many of us at midlife will grieve for the roads not taken, the relationship that didn't work out, the baby that was never born, the career that never happened, the dreams that never will be realized. "At the center of the crisis is the loss of who we think we're supposed to be," Brehony says.

"By midlife, we're usually missing parts of ourselves. To be whole," she says, "we must embrace those long-forgotten aspects. At midlife, we realize that if we are ever going to become who we are in the deepest recesses of our being, we have to begin now."

A red sports car is probably not the answer

The key to successfully negotiating midlife's sometimes choppy waters is self exploration and understanding. The impulse is to do something quickly to alleviate the pain, dissatisfaction, and tension -- if you're unhappy with marriage, marry someone else; if the job's the problem, quit it; if you want excitement, buy a red sports car. We live in a culture that insists on defining goals and moving swiftly toward them. If our decisions are rash and unconscious, they aren't likely to give us happiness over the long haul.

Some can try to ignore midlife's troubling questions and vague, empty feelings by staying busier and drinking an extra Scotch at night, Brehony says. Some seek an instant sense of spirituality (she calls it "Spirituality Lite") to deal with the demands of life's second half.

"There's no doubt about it -- growth is hard work," Brehony says. "But you are fooling yourself if you think you can make brilliant, conscious decisions about the rest of your life without even knowing yourself. Finding balance, depth, and passion takes work and patience."

As we try to balance ourselves, especially those parts Brehony refers to as our "shadow" side -- parts of ourselves that contain anger, sexuality, spontaneity, joy, and unrealized creative forces -- we encounter resistance and anxiety. This puts us in a quandary. If we do not honor the shadow and the unlived parts of ourselves, we cannot move toward individuation, and we spend psychic energy controlling our impulses.

On the other hand, we cannot all abandon our careers, relationships, or roles in society.

The conflict between the demands of the conscious mind and the unconscious (shadow) generates tremendous psychological tension and psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Holding this tension is an agonizing task. And yet this holding, exploration, and balancing of opposites is exactly what the psyche demands in order to move toward a higher level of self-knowledge, consciousness, and a new identity.

Among Brehony's arsenal of tools for making the most of the midlife journey is the daily practice of journaling -- a way of finding out what war is going on inside, what you believe, and how you feel about it.

Brehony also recommends developing forms of creative expression, putting aside time for reflection and prayer, developing one's physical side, and keeping a dream journal. "Our unconscious gives us important information every night," she says. "Our society is different from many others in that we dismiss this source of knowledge."

If it makes you more conscious it helps, she says.

For Brehony, life is intentionally quieter, more introspective than before midlife. "That little girl who liked to go out on her own and watch birds is back in my life," she says. She also practices tai chi, plays guitar, takes long walks, and sees a Jungian analyst as her "jazzercise for the soul."

Although she still has a psychotherapy practice, Brehony is becoming more heavily involved in writing. She has two "campy, fun" screenplays under consideration by a producer and two more book proposals with her agent -- one on spiritual chanting practices; the other a collection of essays on living with passion. Another book, Ordinary Grace, is due out next winter.

"I've always thought that we see what we expect to see," she says. "And if you chose to tune into a world view that says it's a dog-eat-dog business, that's what you'll see. But I believe for every horrific act of violence you see on the television, there are thousands of acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion going on quietly in the background. This book is a collection of those stories."

At 48, Brehony says the most painful part of the midlife passage is behind her. "Suffering hurts too much not to use it for growth," she says. "I have learned during the middle part of my life, to take meaning where I find it, and I'm finding it more often these days in small moments that touch my heart."

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