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Help for mastering the milestones of midlife

Dr. Gail Saltz shares some thoughts on how to tackle this empowering, though sometimes stressful stage of life.
/ Source: TODAY

This week, I’d like to share some thoughts about midlife, the subject of a talk I gave recently at the Women’s Health Symposium at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City:

There are, of course, inevitable physical and emotional changes associated with midlife, but obstacles and difficulties are often balanced by positive feelings.

As people approach their 40s, they have generally made some progress in their lives. They possess more “things” than before — more power, more resources, more options, more wisdom. They know what their priorities are.

As a result, people in midlife — which psychiatrists define as ages 40 to 65 — tend to report more feelings of satisfaction than others, both older and younger.

On the other hand, people in this age group face plenty of external stressors. They or their spouse might be retiring. Their kids might be leaving home — or returning. They are often sandwiched between the demands of their children and of their aging (and possibly infirm) parents.

Even if you are happy with how your life is playing out, it’s natural to have some regrets about the road not taken. You might have had a better career, a different spouse, more or fewer or no children. But for better or worse, this is the life you have.

You are who you are, not who you thought you would be. You’re no longer an up-and-coming anything — you are in midcareer. You may have arrived where you are going to arrive, whether or not it’s the top of your field. Maybe it’s true that you could have been a ballerina — but it’s not true any more.

If you have regrets, let yourself mourn. Then rethink your identity. Women, especially, may question their role in life once their childrearing years are over and they’ve made the transition from youth to maturity. Menopause, another stressor, is a sharp reminder that time marches on.

It’s normal, at this stage, to assess your choices, even those good ones. You must still adjust to the loss of potential, take stock of your accomplishments and set future goals. Self-awareness is the key to a productive, fulfilled, well-managed midlife.

It’s important to find ways to be generative. Engage in things you always wished to do or that made you happy in the past, like traveling, gardening or creating art. You might not be a ballerina, but you can take dance lessons.

If, however, you are having trouble with your passage through midlife, it’s helpful to share your feelings with relatives, friends or even a professional therapist.

Because it’s also helpful to know you are not alone in your feelings about midlife, I would like to invite readers to send me a brief note about their own transitions and coping strategies, and I will post a selection here.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book, "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts" (Penguin), helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.