It’s easy to think that once we ‘become’ adults, then that’s it: we are fully formed and ready and primed for what comes next. Job done. But in the process of living our lives, we face a series of challenges to make sense of the world around us – the people we encounter, the things that happen, and what we make of it all.
These challenges begin in our infancy, as we learn to trust (or not trust) other people, or to take risks, or to use our initiative, or measure ourselves against our classmates at school, or try to work out – as teenagers – what kind of individuals we want to be.
The German-American psychologist Erik Erikson saw all these as important ‘stages’ in development, and he identified eight specific ones. Five of these are about development from toddler to teenager. But interestingly, he highlighted three further important challenges that face us in adulthood.
Typical ages: 20s to 40s.
“Why are relationships so difficult?”
Typical ages: 40s to 60s.
"I’ve hit a plateau.”
Typical ages: 65+
"What was it all for?"
Life is full of choices. And for every choice we make, we are forced to give something up. Choose this, and not that. But as we all know, those kinds of choices are always the hardest, and can leave us yearning for what might have been.
As we enter adulthood, these choices are everywhere, and not least in relationships. But part of what can make relationships difficult at this time is a kind of internal struggle that we all have to try to negotiate – between an idea of ‘freedom’ and that of ‘commitment’. At times it can feel like balancing on a knife edge: on the one side, the relationship, with its promise (and demands) of intimacy, and then the feelings of vulnerability that can arise from that; and on the other side, the part of ourselves which wants to remain self-sufficient, that is not ready – or perhaps never will be ready – for such overt sharing.
The American psychologist Erik Erikson characterised this as a kind of negotiation that we have to make between what he termed intimacy and isolation: the appeal (and complexity) of intimacy as we get deeper into a relationship, versus the risks of isolation if we don’t. It’s a bit like the old conundrum of ‘can’t live with them - can’t live without them.’
How we navigate our way through this stage will in part depend on circumstances (for example, who we meet…) but is also about our own backstory, which feeds in to our capacity or willingness (or not) to make and sustain relationships, and what kind of people we tend to choose, and why.
We all live with a detailed and complex backstory to where we are right now, which constantly plays out throughout our relationships with other people – from falling-in-love to breaking up, influencing our certainties and insecurities, and the general overall craziness and unpredictability of how we form bonds and relationships with other people. Understanding a little more about ‘Why I am like this?’ will help to make sense of the pitfalls and setbacks that we meet along the way.
The second of the big life-stages that occur in adulthood is at a sort of midway point – at a stage when many of us have been working already for a couple of decades, and if we have or had kids, they are starting to grow up. It can be a period when life seems to be either in flux or completely stuck, but none of it feels particularly exciting.
Erikson’s theme was taken up in a sense a decade or so later by Elliot Jaques, who coined the term ‘midlife crisis’, this moment when we start to think about our own mortality and the years of ‘productive’ life that are remaining to us. These days, the effect is heightened by social media, promoting the idea that other peoples’ lives are somehow more beautiful, fruitful, busy, sexy, enriched, productive and successful than our own. Erikson characterised this mid-life period as a struggle between ‘stagnation’ and what he called ‘generativity’ – which we can think of as meaning creative, fruitful, perhaps with the idea of leaving something that will outlast ourselves.
Of course, this period of our lives is minefield of potential setbacks. Work can appear to hit a plateau, leaving us wondering about our abilities and skills. A long-term relationship can suddenly and catastrophically come to an end. Parents will watch their kids turn into teenagers and then leave home and become independent adults, which can stir up a whole load of powerful emotions in everyone involved, and lead to a whole new constellation of relationships. Families can split and re-form. Old doubts and anxieties, buried for years, can start to resurface.
Some people will take all this in their stride. Others won’t. The difference, in terms of our mental health, can be in part condensed down to a sense of loss, and how far this affects us. Getting older implies a loss of youth. Not getting promoted can suggest the loss of an ambitious dream. Getting ignored by your teenager feels like losing your role as parent. Not getting into that old pair of trousers is a loss of the younger person we used to be.
At its most basic level, loss makes us sad. And it’s worth remembering that, as with any loss, it can take time to process, and move on.
BOOK SUGGESTION: Midlife: A Philosophical Guide
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the most popular songs played at (non-religious) funeral services is Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way.’ It is easy to see the appeal: in this ballad, Sinatra seems to sum up the very best one can hope for at the end of a fulfilled life. ‘I’ve lived a life that's full, I travelled each and every highway,’ we hear early in the song, followed soon after by those famous words: ‘Regrets, I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention...’ If only we could all genuinely reach this level of satisfaction and peace with what’s gone before as we ‘face the final curtain’ as the song puts it. But the reality, as we all know, is a little different.
It is a shocking statistic that around a quarter of people in the UK over the age of 65 suffer from depression (and most do not receive any help from the NHS to deal with the illness). The causes of depression among older people are many, with isolation and loneliness being a major part of this. At the same time, old age itself presents us with a final mental and psychological challenge, which perhaps for many of us it is the most difficult of all to handle. When the German- psychologist Erik Erikson was writing in the 1950s, life expectancy was somewhat shorter than today, and so the point at which his final developmental stage kicks in could be later now than he thought at the time. But whatever the specific age, his point was that at some stage we start to look back on our lives and ask ourselves the question: what was that all about?
For Erikson, the psychic challenge facing older people was a kind of accounting process of a life that has been lived. And at the end, when we look back, what does it all add up to? The most positive outcome was what he termed ‘integrity’ – where there seems, in retrospect, to be a sense of meaning to the life, something achieved perhaps, or something left for the future, or maybe just a sense that simply the memory of oneself is already a good enough legacy for those who remain. The other side of this, the negative outcome, was something that needs no explanation at all: he called it ‘despair.’ Regrets, disappointment, bitterness.
In truth, we tend to fluctuate, in old age between these two extreme states and everywhere in between. How we feel about past events will also be heavily influenced by how we tend to make sense of the world around us, which is in turn influenced by how we have learned to attribute meaning to things. In short, if we have learned to be a glass-half-empty kind of person in the past, we will probably still take a pessimistic view of things now.
So when we start weighing up the life we have lived (and it is a process that can last decades), it is easy to see things negatively. And if you find yourself in this situation, consider talking to people about it – friends, family, or even a therapist.
And if you are younger, but have elderly relatives, spare a thought for how they are dealing with all this.
EXTERNAL LINK: Some resources on issues facing older people, from the Mental Health Foundation.