The guy who divorces his wife, gets a hot girlfriend and buys a red Corvette is a hoary but oft repeated stereotype of a man going through a midlife crisis. It’s unclear what comes first, the girlfriend or the sports car but that doesn’t really matter. I work with men going through mid life transitions and to my knowledge, not one of them owns a sports car. My ideal client is the guy who is a little afraid to ask for directions but he can do it. Hardly typical, I know.
Just about every man goes through some kind of mid life transition between the ages of 35 and 50. What they get out of it is entirely up to them but when they go through it is not often their choice. A mid life transition can be as gentle as feeling a little uncomfortable to a full blown identity crisis.
Let’s start with the full blown identity crisis shall we? A surprising number of men I work with claim that they do not feel like men at all. They feel like boys dressed in men’s clothing who act like men and who talk like they think men should talk. Somehow the line between childhood and being all grown up was never traversed. Men in this predicament have a very profound fear that they are going to be found out and exposed, as if someone will rip off their mask and find the scared boy masquerading in a suit and tie.
At some point these men/boys get fed up pretending and want to get real. The only problem is that they have been pretending so long, they have no idea how to be real or how to be a man. Typically, before they stop to ask for help they medicate their pain with drugs, alcohol, women, work, golf and just about anything that distracts them from the real issues.
So how does it happen that boys don’t turn into men? Just about every “primitive” society has initiation rites into manhood before boys are welcomed to join the tribe as a man. For instance, in Native American society, boys are sent on a spirit quest to find their purpose before being considered a warrior. If a boy isn’t initiated into manhood, he stays immature, hence a fascination with cars, sports figures, accumulation and ride on tractors, things a five year old could relate to.
Beyond trivial representations, modern society has no such customs. Getting a driver’s license, having a bar mitzvah, getting a credit card, being allowed to vote or having sex aren’t transformative. So boys become men in name only and somehow keep up the pretenses until they lose their sense of purpose often between 35 and 50. As most therapists, coaches and counselors are aware, before they seek help, most of their clients have to hit the wall, get stuck or become total wrecks. On top of that, most men just won’t ask for directions and consequently never seek help.
I realize that the men I work with are not a representative sample; it’s just my experience from where I stand. I’ve seen some incredible flowering of manhood, liberation from the tyranny of self-imposed restrictions, taking responsibility and freedom from negative thinking when boys claim their due. Some of the most dramatic results I’ve seen are in my men’s group where peer feedback, group trust and sharing combine to validate each other.
For a lot of men, being a boy meant death by a thousand cuts, often reflected in poor body image and low self esteem, presided over by distant, often alcoholic fathers, negligent mothers and other forms of more or less subtle abuse. Their wounds never heal until men feel they are in a safe environment where they can share their pain with each other. What they find is that, no matter what happened to them, where they grew up, what their family situation was, they have a hell of a lot in common and their current predicaments are pretty similar. They come to see that ripping off the mask isn’t such a big deal after all and in fact has to happen for their own growth.
So how does a boy grow into a man? Short of sending him to war, we can help boys become men in a therapeutic environment. There is something about the process of a man admitting all the little cuts of childhood to himself and his peers, getting support, being validated and encouraged to become more authentic that allows men to let go of the past and take responsibility for who they are and what they do. In a men’s group it comes through bonding but it can happen in a therapist’s office and in a marriage when both partners are open and unafraid. With responsibility comes maturity and the boy becomes a man.
So what can you do to help if a man you know who is going through a transition? Support him, help him open up and encourage him to ask for directions. Asking for directions might include joining a men’s group, seeing a therapist, coach or being open to talking in a fearless way with his peers. Remember, it’s not what you do but the work the man does that’s important. You can lead a horse to water and all that.
What will you see if you do? If you have a relationship with such a man you will find him becoming more real, taking more responsibility for his actions, more supportive, able to take support, more aware of his impact on others, able to be vulnerable, less neurotic, less anxious or angry. Remember, he may not know how to ‘be a man’ or be real so he may need some help. There is help out there and a lot of guys like him who are looking to connect.