Midlife Crisis or Identity Crisis?

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In the book Switch, bestselling authors Chip and Dan Heath share the story of the St. Lucia Parrot. In 1977, less than a hundred parrots still existed on the island. This striking bird with a turquoise blue face, lime green wings, and a red chest was all but extinct due to habitat destruction, hunters, and people who trapped them for pets. A recent college graduate, Paul Butler, was hired by the St. Lucia forestry department to help save this endangered species.

Most St. Lucians didn’t care if the bird disappeared entirely, so Butler had to come up with a way to convince them that they were the kind of people who protected their own. Since the parrot was exclusive to the island of St. Lucia, this creative 21-year-old devised a public relations campaign promoting the St. Lucia Parrot as part of their national identity. Public support for the new anti-poaching laws rose considerably and hundreds of these beautiful and distinctive parrots now exist in St. Lucia.

Reading this made me think about what happens to men and women as they approach midlife. They suddenly don’t know who they are as a person – or they aren’t comfortable with the identity they’ve created for themselves. So they start experimenting with new identities.

What would a successful 40-something year old man look like? How would he dress? What kind of car would he drive? What kind of woman would he be in a relationship with? He gets a vision for what he thinks he wants his identity to look like and realizes that it’s a far cry from reality. He starts making changes to close the gap between reality and the identity he perceives to be his ideal.

Men aren’t the only ones trapped by this discontentment with the life they are living. Women, many of whom have chosen to stay home to raise their children for the previous two decades, are seeing the fashionable, physically fit, sexually attractive women staring back at them from the pages of magazines and the TV screen and realizing that they don’t fit this identity any more than their male counterpart. She starts hitting the gym, buying a new wardrobe, getting a nip and a tuck – why? All to fit into what she envisions a woman living an exciting life would look like. She may join her new single friends at the club to go dancing or take an all-female Caribbean vacation to enjoy the attention of male admirers without the cumbersome jealousy this inevitably arouses in their husbands.

A midlife crisis is in essence an identity crisis. It’s a complete paradigm change in how we make decisions.

Back to the St. Lucia Parrot, the Heaths describe two models of decision making. The first is the Consequence Model which assumes that when we have a decision to make, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. It’s a rational, analytical approach. But this is not the model that men and women use when deciding whether or not to end their marriage in pursuit of a more exciting mate and thus, they believe, a more exciting personal identity.

The second model the authors describe is the Identity Model. In this model, we essentially ask ourselves, “Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?” No calculation of the costs and benefits is involved. Butler appealed to the islanders’ sense of pride and helped them to see the beautiful bird as part of their national identity. I’d like to propose that those of us in midlife see ourselves as the kind of people that honor our commitments and explore ways to grow and develop within our marriages.

Take some time and write down a page of words describing your identity. It’s perfectly okay (and even desirable at times) to update your image…to change your identity when it pertains to personal growth, living with a positive attitude, helping those around you, and pursuing deeper relationships. But be very cautious when making decisions based solely on feelings that are incongruent with your deepest held core values.

An image of an elderly couple is circulating around Facebook with the caption, “We were married in a time where if something was broken, you fixed it. You didn’t throw it away.” That belief is part of their identity.

As you face the next season of your life, what core beliefs are part of your identity?

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