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Julie Hannan
Developmental, Mental health, Personality and self

Standing at the midlife threshold

Julie Hannan found herself at an impasse. Then she learned more about liminality…

05 May 2023

A few years ago, in my late 40s, I had just achieved my Doctorate in Counselling Psychology and Integrative Psychotherapy. I had founded and was running a successful mental health clinic with eight psychologists and psychotherapists, counsellors and CBT therapists. So why did I feel unhappy and unsatisfied?

I thought about what I wanted. More flexibility in my work life, to shift clients online, to write a book. I had never wanted to be a manager or leader, and I realised I had been accepting all those referrals because I thought building practice is what I 'should' do.

I still loved working with people and helping them process issues, but there was something really that didn't sit well in the environment in which I was doing it. It felt misaligned, like I had arrived at an impasse. I felt lost, bored and fatigued, and seemed to be attracting midlife clients who felt the same.

The new career I had presumed would see me through to retirement now seemed in jeopardy. But I was earning well and felt I was good at what I was doing, so I carried on. I wanted a more fulfilling life, but I was clinging to the 'known'. It is human nature to find comfort in the familiar, but how do we change for the better?

Midway upon the journey

I had been interested in Jungian psychology for a few years and had been familiarising myself it as I tried to understand my circumstances better. Carl Jung described an impasse as 'a disagreeable situation where you see no opening, no direct path'.

It is what Dante describes in the opening lines of the Inferno:

'Midway upon the journey of our life.
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost'.

I would describe it as a stationary, psychologically challenging space where you can feel trapped. You have begun to recognise the aspects of your current life that no longer serve you and hold you back from being the person you want to be, and yet there is no obvious way forward.

The Impasse is a familiar term we may use with clients to describe a feeling of being 'stuck'. If we and our clients continue to do the things they've always done, there will be no growth or movement. But how do we know which is the right move and how can we be confident of a positive outcome? The general rule here is that if you don't have clarity about the nature of your stuckness, then sit in the impasse until the way forward becomes clearer.

But what if that didn't happen? Everything I read seemed to position midlife as an awakening and a golden exciting opportunity. It certainly did not feel like this for me. I enjoyed Murray Stein's books about the tales of Greek mythology but couldn't quite see how they related to me and what I could do practically to help my situation. There seemed to be a distinct lack of midlife psychology.

Betwixt and between

Once the impasse has been acknowledged, and we begin to recognise and let go of unhealthy attachments – mainly people, objects and limiting beliefs – holding us back, we enter liminality.

The word 'liminality' is derived from the Latin word 'limen', meaning threshold. The liminal space is a transitory space, which a person occupies as they change from one situation or perspective to another. It is an emergent, unstable 'in-between' space in which the person may oscillate between hanging on to old identities because of the comfort they provide, and reaching out into an unknown, new space that is yet to be fully formed. In 1969, Victor Turner said that liminality 'involves letting go of previously held views, attitudes, and status, and being prepared to reconsider and recalibrate. It means living life as transitional, in between, taking nothing for granted, recognising oneself perpetually at a crossroads, reconsidering choices'.

There is no simple passage at the threshold of betwixt and between. You can feel a sense of social isolation as you traverse this very personal journey alone. We know we can no longer go back to being the person we used to be. We know that just doesn't work for us any more. But we don't yet know who we are trying to become, exactly what we are going to change, or the new choices we will make for ourselves. And not everyone is as lucky as Dante, who had Virgil as his guiding companion through his midlife journey. For many midlifers, this situation can generate a strong feeling of being lost.

In my experience, it felt like being 16-years-old again, on the threshold of adulthood, and letting go of the comfort, protection and lack of responsibility of childhood to reach out and explore something new. This sense of the in-between was destabilising and anxiety-provoking – it can be unpleasant not knowing who you are and not having a formed identity.

Yet we need not despair – this is a normal process and all part of establishing a life worth living. We get through by acknowledging the liminal space, soothing ourselves to manage the anxiety, creating choices, listening to our body and monitoring and noting its response to change. That is what I began to do, and I encouraged clients to do the same. It can help to have company and understanding in this part of your transitional process. Research shows there can be a heightened sense of belonging and togetherness in sharing this space with other like-minded people who can relate to this experience. Maybe that was why these clients were turning up to see me. Turner coined the word 'communitas' to describe this special bond between those who share the same liminal passage, saying that this unique community continues even after the liminal period has concluded.

Tools for liminality

Liminality provides the spark of creation, the opportunity for new choices that can release you from old ties and allow you to embrace new-found freedom. It is a space where deep healing and transformation can take place – if you can tolerate the not knowing.

As many people (including my clients) like strategies, and I couldn't find any that existed, I thought I would develop my own to use in session: not to hurry them through liminality, but to gently stimulate thought processes and awareness and guide them along. Key to this is time.

In midlife, people begin to focus on the limitations of the second half of their life – it isn't forever, and there's often a sense that time is running out. Do I have enough time to change? How long are these changes going to take?

This causes challenges for midlifers. It can be very tempting to implement a massive immediate overhaul of your life when you realise how you have been living. Trust me when I say this is too much too soon. Decisions, actions, and behaviours carried out without self-awareness and from a panicky place can mean you end up right back at square one.

As Goethe said, 'We always have time enough, if we will but use it aright'. So, broaden your perspective on time. As we get older, our perception of time becomes more constrained. We tend to prioritise goals in terms of how quickly they can be achieved. In turn that prioritises our current emotional state and our sense of well-being, rather than expanding our horizons as it did when we were younger. We plan to immediately relieve those emotional states we would prefer not to experience, such as anxiety. We dislike our jobs, so we shift companies; we are unhappy in our relationships, so we have an affair or leave to bring some fun into our life; we feel depressed, so we see the doctor and are prescribed antidepressants. All in an attempt to alleviate the feelings we don't want to feel. Pausing, and being able to tolerate the emotions we don't want, will allow us to consider our next move and can help to ensure we address not only the physiological symptoms but also the cause of our distress.

Allow yourself time to really contemplate the future that you desire. Use self-compassion to support yourself emotionally while you wait for true interest, passion and vitality to arise. It's no different to the teenage years – we form our sense of self over time, not based on snap decisions, so don't start now. In midlife, many of us are crying out for stillness and silence within our lives and within our culture. I know many midlifers have a powerful urge to shut themselves off, disappear quietly on their own or run away. What are we seeking, what are we searching for? The world isn't going to change for us. We are not going to become a culture of inner reflection and quiet times any time soon – it is essential that we provide this for ourselves.

As the author Lori Deschene said, 'Practice the pause. Pause before judging. Pause before assuming. Pause before accusing. Pause whenever you're about to react harshly and you'll avoid doing and saying things you'll later regret.'

What happened next?

I decided to continue to see existing clients, and when therapy ended for those clients, I didn't take on anymore. I used the developing space for my writing: a book about the midlife transition which would help people in a practical way.

I also took to Tiktok, and it seems that followers are finding comfort in the fact that this feeling of being lost and ungrounded has a name. It is really a thing, an experience. 

I still see clients, exclusively online. I closed my clinic and went back to working alone and now run workshops which support people through their midlife transition. My new life is good, satisfying and aligned with my current values.