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Midlife can feel like a series of losses: kids leave home, careers plateau, hair recedes, and waistlines can disappear.
It’s not uncommon for people over 40 to experience a midlife crisis and look for ways to distract themselves from these uncomfortable feelings through externalities such as affairs, drastic cosmetic surgery procedures, or buying an expensive sports car.
Psychiatry and psychology pioneer, Carl Jung, identified that much of the reason for midlife discontent is that the identities and behaviour patterns we’ve relied on for decades no longer resonate with our more mature selves. Perhaps, we’ve identified as a stay-at-home mom for years, but that identity no longer makes sense once the kids have left the nest. Perhaps, we’ve identified closely with our career advancement and feel lost when we reach a plateau.
Our old ways of being no longer seem to fit.
Jung believed that the cure for the midlife crisis lies in an exploration of archetypes: universal patterns of human behaviour that have been documented in stories and myths throughout history.
He also believed that these archetypes represent different aspects of the human psyche. He suggested that when we’ve relied heavily on certain archetypes for a long time, they no longer work for us the way they once did, and we grow dissatisfied with our lives.
The solution is to explore lesser-used or hidden archetypes and their associated behaviours. If, in midlife, the mother archetype is no longer resonating, perhaps you can explore the wise older women and step into more of a matriarch role. This reframes the loss of one’s children leaving home as the gain of a new identity and life purpose.
Archetypes should not be confused with stereotypes.
Stereotypes are limiting and reductive and tend to end any further exploration, such as “she’s a Stepford wife” or “he’s a tech bro.” It’s a shorthand of the entire story.
Archetypes, on the other hand, are expansive and open us up to possibilities and new perspectives. There is an endless number of archetypes. Caroline Myss has documented dozens of them in her books, Sacred Contracts and Archetypes.
Carol S. Pearson identifies 12 key archetypes in her books, Awakening the Heroes Within and What Stories Are You Living? Pearson’s 12 archetypes were shaped by the work of Jung and Joseph Campbell. She offers the Idealist, Realist, Warrior, Caregiver, Seeker, Lover, Revolutionary, Creator, Ruler, Magician, Sage, and Jester as archetypes one can draw upon when needed.
As a coach, I use eight archetypes that represent identities many midlife women want to explore as an expansion of the ancient concepts of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. I invite midlife women to explore their inner Matriarch, Advocate, Socialite, Doyenne, Sage, Athlete, Hedonist, and Maven as they figure out their identity and life purpose.
Archetypes can be tried on for fit like a piece of clothing. There are no bad archetypes so one can feel free to explore them in a shame-and judgement-free way.
If you’ve poured yourself into work and are a burned-out Ruler, you might want to explore the inner Jester and sign up for a comedy open mic night. If you’ve been a hands-on Caregiver and are exhausted, you might want to explore your inner Creator and take up painting to relax. Many midlife people explore their inner Seeker and return to school or start a spiritual journey.
Archetype exploration involves more work than buying a sports car but leads to a deeper sense of joy and purpose.
Archetype work can help you breathe new energy into your dreams, plans, and goals for the future, and it’s a helpful tool whenever you are feeling stuck.
If you are interested in exploring this further, I’d invite you to think about or journal some of the ideas below:
>> Identify who makes you feel jealous.
Feelings of jealousy indicate areas of lack in our own lives. If you are jealous of an acquaintance who has published a book, you might want to explore your own Creator. If you find yourself irritated by the woman at the coffee shop with the toned arms, you might want to explore your inner Athlete.
>> Name your regrets.
Midlife crisis often focuses on the road not taken. If you wish you’d started your own business when you were younger, midlife can be a great time to become an entrepreneur. If you wish you’d taken that job in Hawaii, perhaps you can travel more or move to the beach.
>> Consider the fictional characters with whom you identify.
Archetypal characters are common in movies and TV (think “Star Wars” or “The Breakfast Club”), and the characters who appeal to you can give you insights into what you really want. One of my favourite characters is “Killing Eve’s” Villanelle. I’m not particularly interested in becoming an international assassin, but I am drawn to her maverick nature, love of fashion, and strange sense of humour. By cultivating my inner Rebel, Fashionista, and Jester, I can bring more happiness to my life.
>> Identify who irritates you.
The people we dislike often have qualities associated with our shadow archetype, which is the side of ourselves we hide or subvert due to parental or societal pressure. If you find yourself judging joke-playing Jesters or pleasure-loving Hedonists, it might be useful to explore if you need more levity or pleasure in your own life.
If you find yourself in a midlife crisis or otherwise are feeling stuck, archetype exploration can help you try on a new identity in a deliberate and non-judgmental way.
You can always do radical cosmetic surgery, run away with your trainer, or buy a Ferrari, but when you find an identity and life purpose that fit well, the external distractions may no longer be needed.