Problems of Midlife

Problems of Midlife,
According to C. G. Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) approaches the problem of midlife from an entirely different perspective than that of the mystic and preacher, Johannes Tauler. As a psychologist, Jung limits himself to the methods of empirical science. He leaves the philosophical and theological conclusions to the theologians. Still, as a psychologist, Jung viewed religion as a phenomenon that repeatedly affected his patients. One cannot examine a person’s psyche without also observing its attempts to answer the question of meaning by using religious systems and images. Jung takes a scientific interest in the religious interpretation of meaning only to the extent that such interpretations contribute to the health of the human soul. Although he often enough encountered it, as a scientist Jung cannot say whether or not there is a transcendental reality that lies behind religious images. It is surprising, however, that from psychology Jung reached conclusions similar to those of Tauler. This means that the correct understanding of the religious path is also the correct one psychologically.

Psychology provides us with criteria to distinguish, within religious practice, between defective practices and those that are healthy. However, psychological measures should never be used to judge religious practices. Nevertheless, every religion must at least pose the psychological question: to what extent does religion, with all its dogmas and spiritual discipline, make a person emotionally healthy or sick? After all, religion ultimately understands itself as a way of leading human beings to salvation, not merely to salvation in a world beyond, but to human salvation here as well.

Tauler wanted to lead his listeners on a spiritual path to full humanity. Jung accompanies people on their path to self-realization and thus is also concerned with their spiritual side, which, if people are to attain their true selves, should not be denied. Thus, from two different departure points the mystic and the psychologist are concerned with the same goal: to help people achieve their true selves, the authentic and unaffected image that God himself has made for each individual person.

In the wake of Sigmund Freud, psychology concentrated almost exclusively on the childhood phase of human development. The individual phases in the development of children and adolescents were studied in great detail. Consequently, when a developmental crisis or neurotic symptom appeared in later life, a person’s childhood was explored to explain and help what was happening. Classical psychology’s interest in the span of human development ends with the transition, at the age of seventeen or eighteen, from puberty to adolescence.

It was not until C. G. Jung that the horizons of psychology were broadened. Indeed, if Freud is the psychologist of the first half of life, Jung can rightly be called the psychologist for the second half. Jung was not interested in tracing developmental problems back to childhood, but rather in finding a way to help people in the here and now. This broadening of horizons, however, included much more than chronological age. The problems people deal with in later life are also qualitatively different. In his clients’ neurotic conflicts, Freud looked exclusively at people’s drives, which originated primarily in childhood. Jung, on the other hand, found in his consultations with patients that most problems beyond the age of thirty-five were religious in nature.

1.           The Process of Individuation

If we want to understand C. G. Jung’s observations about the problems of midlife, it is necessary to say something, albeit briefly, about his understanding of human development, which is known as the process of individuation. According to Jung, individuation is that process “by which a person becomes a psychological individual, that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole.’” This process has two major phases: expansion in the first half of life, and introversion in the second half. In the first half of life, the child lives totally from the unconscious and then, gradually, is torn from the unconscious and forms a conscious ego. Jung describes the ego as a person’s conscious core, the center of one’s actions and judgments. Therefore, in the first half of life a person’s ego continually grows stronger so that one can gain a foothold in the world and assert oneself.

One also develops a persona, a face that conforms to the expectations of one’s environment, a mask that protects a person’s opinions and feelings from public scrutiny. One’s persona is responsible for the relationship of the ego to one’s environment. By being so concerned in the first half of life with strengthening the ego and forming a stable persona, many other qualities are ignored. As a result, the shadow emerges, which is a mirror image of the ego and which is

…compounded partly of repressed, partly of unlived psychic features which, for moral, social, educational, or other reasons, were from the outset excluded from consciousness and from active participation in life and were therefore repressed or split off.

The shadow does not consist only of dark, negative qualities, but also has positive qualities. The human person is polar: each pole has an opposite counterpole. The one pole lifts people to consciousness, while the other pole remains in unconsciousness. Indeed, the more a person develops one aspect of the personality, the more intensely the opposite aspect takes effect in the unconscious. This is true not only of virtues but also of the four functions of consciousness distinguished by Jung: thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation. If, for example, intellectual faculties are developed too one-sidedly, the person may be deluged at the unconscious level by infantile instinctive expressions of feeling (for example, sentimentality). For the most part, however, the qualities and behavior patterns that comprise the shadow are projected onto others, especially onto those of the opposite type. This projection, which inhibits the shadow’s entry into conscious awareness, is frequently a cause of interpersonal tensions.

In addition to our own personal shadow, we also carry around a collective shadow that contains the general evil and darkness of human history. This collective shadow is part of the collective unconscious that stores the experiences of all humanity, which in turn can be variously expressed in myths, archetypes, and symbols of religion. To the collective unconscious also belong the anima and the animus, which are symbols for feminine and masculine traits, as well as qualities, symbols for maternity and paternity.

During the first half of life people are so busy maintaining themselves that they identify mostly with their conscious ego. The shadow, the anima, or animus, the unconscious, is suppressed without the shadow suffering any major harm. However, in the second half of life all of this changes. Now a person must integrate one’s shadow and anima or animus, withdraw one’s outward projections, open oneself to one’s unconscious, and become aware of the attitudes and qualities that are there. The ego needs to return to its origin, to the self, in order to gain from the self new power for life.

The development of the self is the goal of individuation. Jung defines the self “as the psychic totality of the individual.” While the ego is only conscious, the shadow is unconscious and encompasses both selves – the conscious and the unconscious. The human being needs to develop from the ego to the self, and this development is increasingly attainable by integrating the unconscious and the conscious self.

2.           The Problems of Midlife

Midlife, which occurs somewhere between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five, is that turning point at which the work of developing the ego must give way to the work of maturing the self. And the basic problem at this juncture is that the person believes it is possible to master the tasks of the second half of life with the means and principles of the first half.

Human life can be compared to the circuit of the sun. In the morning the sun rises and illumines the world. At midday it reaches its apogee, and then its rays begin to recede and ebb. The afternoon is just as important as the morning, but it follows different laws. The respect for the circuit of our own life means that, after midlife, we need to adapt ourselves less to the outer and more to the inner reality. “What youth found and must find outside, the [person] of life’s afternoon must find within.”

The problems confronting a person during midlife are related to the tasks that await the person in the second half, and to which the person must adapt anew: (1) the relativization of the persona, (2) the acceptance of the shadow, (3) the integration of the anima and animus, and (4) the development of the self by the acceptance of death and the encounter with God.

3. The Relativization of the Persona

Securing one’s position in life as an adolescent and young adult costs energy. The struggle to establish and maintain oneself in the world demands a strong persona. However, while establishing the persona little attention is paid to the suppression of the unconscious. Now, during midlife, the unconscious erupts and creates uncertainty. One’s mental attitude collapses, and one experiences disorientation and disequilibrium. For Jung, this disequilibrium serves a purpose in that now one seeks to find a new equilibrium in which the unconscious holds its proper place.’

Indeed, the collapse of the conscious can also lead to catastrophe. A frequent reaction, under the guise of protecting oneself, is to cling tightly to one’s persona, to the identity one has acquired by reason of office, occupation, or title. In Jung’s opinion this identification with office or title

…is precisely why so many men are nothing more than the decorum accorded them by society. In vain would one look for personality behind this husk. Underneath all the padding one would find a very pitiable little creature. That is why the office-or whatever this outer husk may be-is so attractive: it offers easy compensation for personal deficiencies.

Instead of listening to what the world expects and taking shelter behind their personas, people in midlife need to listen to their inner voices, get on with life, and develop their inner personalities.

4.           The Acceptance of the Shadow (The Problem of Opposites)

Jung sees all of human life in terms of opposites. The conscious stands in opposition to the unconscious, the light to the shadow, and the animus to the anima. Oppositeness is essential to being human. Human beings become fully themselves only when they develop their selves, when they do not reject opposites but embrace them. The first half of life one-sidedly emphasizes strengthening the conscious ego. The reason or intellect created certain ideals for itself that it pursued. However, all these ideals correspond to opposite attitudes in the unconscious. Indeed, the more people try to shut them out, the more they recur in our dreams. Likewise, for every behavior pattern that we consciously live, there is an opposite pattern that dwells in the unconscious. Midlife requires that attention now be given to the opposite poles. Now, the unlived shadow needs to be both accepted and explored.

Here we witness two very typical yet false ways of behaving in midlife. The first consists in never looking at the opposite of the ego-conscious attitude. One holds firmly to old values and principles and becomes laudator temporis acti [“a praiser of times past” (Horace, Ars Poetica 173)]. They become rigid, hard, and bigoted. Living according to the rules becomes a substitute for spiritual change.

In the final analysis, it is anxiety over the problem of opposites that leaves one petrified. People are afraid of their sinister brother and refuse to acknowledge him. Jung responds by saying:

There must be only one truth and one guiding principle of action, and that must be absolute; otherwise it affords no protection against the impending disaster, which is sensed everywhere save in themselves.

The second way of reacting falsely to the problem of opposites is to jettison everything that previously had seemed good and deserving of effort. As soon as one discovers the error of one’s convictions, the untruth in the truth, and the hatred in what we formerly thought was love, one tries to set aside all earlier ideals and from then on tries to live in total opposition to one’s former ego. “Changes of profession, divorces, religious convulsions, apostasies of every description, are the symptoms of this swing over to the opposite.” Finally, one now thinks, it is possible to live according to the values one had previously repressed. However, instead of integrating the values, we lapse into unlived existence and repress the life we lived before. And so the repression remains. It is only the object that has changed. Repression means that the mental imbalance still remains.

The mistake to avoid here is supposing that once the opposite value is seen, the former value must be abolished. One fails to see that no value and no truth of life is simply negated by its opposite. Rather, they are relativized: “Everything human is relative, because everything rests on an inner polarity.” The tendency to reject earlier values in favor of their opposites is just as exaggerated as the one-sidedness that existed earlier when, because of pure ideals, one paid no attention to the unconscious fantasies that might call them into question. The second half of life is “not a conversion to the opposite, but conservation of previous values together with a recognition of their opposite.”

5.           The Integration of Anima and Animus

One indication of the problem of opposites is that at midlife men and women are confronted in new ways by their anima and animus. The task is to find new ways of dealing with both. Jung has observed that at midlife men and women take on certain characteristics of the opposite sex.

Especially among southern races, one can observe that older women develop deep, rough voices, incipient moustaches, rather hard features and other masculine traits. On the other hand the masculine physique is toned down by feminine features, such as adiposity [fattiness] and softer facial expressions.

As Jung sees it, the masculine and feminine genders have a definite store of substances. In the first half of life a man consumes the greater part of his masculine potential, so that during the remainder of his life about all that remains is the feminine substance. Conversely, the mature woman finds that her masculine potential is becoming more active.

This change manifests itself as well in psychic changes in men and women at midlife.

How often it happens that a man of forty-five or fifty winds up his business and the wife then dons the trousers and opens up a little shop where he perhaps performs the duties of handy man. There are many women who awaken to social responsibility and social consciousness only after their fortieth year. In modern business life, especially in America, nervous breakdowns in the forties are a very common occurrence. If one examines the victims one finds that what has broken down is the masculine style of life which held the field up to now, and that what is left over is an effeminate man. Contrariwise, one can observe women in these self-same business spheres who have developed in the second half of life an uncommonly masculine tough-mindedness which thrusts the feelings and the heart aside. Very often these changes are accompanied by all sorts of catastrophes in marriage, for it is not hard to imagine what will happen when the husband discovers his tender feelings and the wife her sharpness of mind.

Jung calls these feminine and masculine traits, qualities, and principles anima and animus. Every person carries elements of both. In the first half of life primarily one side is emphasized, while the other side is repressed in the unconscious. If the man emphasizes only his masculinity, so that his anima draws back into the unconscious, the anima then expresses itself in moodiness and strong affects.

She [anima] intensifies, exaggerates, falsifies, and mythologizes all emotional relations with his work and with other people of both sexes.

On the other hand, women who repress their masculine animus tend to express very firm opinions. These opinions are based on unconscious presuppositions and refuse to be shaken. They are expressed as inviolable principles that can no longer be questioned and that are valid for their own sake.

In intellectual women the animus encourages a critical disputatiousness and would-be highbrowism, which, however, consists essentially in harping on some irrelevant weak point and nonsensically making it the main one. Or a perfectly lucid discussion gets tangled up in the most maddening way through the introduction of a quite different and if possible perverse point of view. Without even knowing it, such women are solely intent upon exasperating the man and are, in consequence, the more completely at the mercy of the animus.

If a man fails to admit his feminine side, his feelings, creativity, and maternal qualities, he will project these qualities onto women who then begin to fascinate him. Projection always causes fascination. When young people are in love, this love is accompanied by very strong emotions that are tied up with projection. However, in the second half of life a man needs to take back this projection. A man needs to admit that everything that attracts him to women is, in reality, part of his own interior makeup. However, for a man who is concerned about his masculinity, this task is not easily accomplished. In Jung’s opinion, this ability takes enormous strength and painful honesty:

To recognize the shadow I call journeyman’s work; to come to terms with the anima is the work of the master, which, unfortunately, only a few ever manage to accomplish.

Jung points out various ways of confronting the anima. The first step is to stop repressing one’s moods, affects, and emotions, either by covering them up with an occupation or by dismissing them as weaknesses. One needs to be able to see through this “depreciation and denial” and to take seriously one’s moods and affects. If I can begin to have a conversation with my moods, I can give the unconscious a chance to express itself and thus attain consciousness. By asking what my emotions are trying to tell me, what qualities, desires, and dispositions they want to call attention to in my unconscious, I can allow the anima within me to have its say. This conversation with one’s feelings and moods – and, in them, with one’s own unconscious – is, for Jung, an important technique for training the anima. Other ways include the conscious development of one’s emotional powers and the cultivation of those musical and artistic gifts that are latent in every person.

An important place for a man to confront his anima is in dreams. The women about whom the man dreams often symbolize his anima. Indeed, the way a man encounters a woman in his dreams is indicative of a mature or immature association with his anima – whether he is suppressing it or integrating it.

The unconscious material that a man confronts in his anima is not without its dangers. Not only can it create insecurity in the unconscious world of experience, it can take over and devour. Consequently, a man needs protection to be able to confront his unconscious, so that he can derive some benefit from it. According to Jung, religion and its symbols provide this protection. Religion takes up the intuitive, creative aspects of the anima and is like a mother who gives the man life, a fruitful font from which he can drink and which contains his vitality and creativity.

Religion offers the man the security he seeks in his mother, while at the same time severing the infantile connection to his mother. If the man remains bound to his mother, he is, according to Jung, at the mercy of his affects and endangering his psychic health. The tie to the mother is often unconscious and manifests itself in the projection of the man’s anima onto a woman who then assumes the role of mother for him. At midlife, when the unconscious descends upon a man with all of its unpredictability, a man seeks protection and safety. Anxiety about the unknown and the unconscious leads a man to seek a woman for protection. This anxiety, in turn, gives the woman an illegitimate power over the man as she succumbs to her seductive and possessive instincts.

For Jung, religion is an effective means for the man to experience the fruitfulness of the anima within him, as well as to protect him from projecting his anima onto women. A man, who only projects his anima, without integrating it, fails to achieve total independence from the woman. The “macho types” of the Third Reich, who one-sidedly trumpeted their manliness, were actually subordinate to their wives. They were like little children who clung to their mothers. The integration of the anima liberates the man from dependence. For Jung, religion is an important way to integrate the anima. Religion allows the man to experience all of the fruitful and creative powers of the anima, which are necessary for a man’s vitality. Without the powers of the anima, the man loses vitality, flexibility, and masculinity.

The result, as a rule, is premature rigidity, crustiness, stereotypy, fanatical one-sidedness, obstinacy, and pedantry, or else resignation, weariness, sloppiness, irresponsibility, and finally a childish ramollissement (brain dysfunction) with a tendency to alcohol.

Like the man with his anima, so also the woman must learn to deal with her animus, so that she can gain entrance to her own unconscious and possibly get to know it better. Her opinions, which often have the character of solid, unshakable convictions and inviolably valid principles, should be questioned critically and researched with respect to their origins. In so doing, the woman may discover the unconscious presuppositions lying beneath those opinions, which earlier seemed to be founded so rationally. The animus, then, can become a bridge to the unconscious where the fruitful, creative powers that are necessary for self-realization reside.

For women, too, dreams are an important source of knowledge for association with the animus. If a man pursues her in her dreams, she is not integrating her animus. If she subsequently meditates on the dream and asks her pursuer what he is saying to her, or what he wants to give to her, then she discovers that an important power lies in the animus, which she can then use on her path to self-realization.

For women, religion serves a different function for integrating the animus than it does for men. For women, the ascetical and moral claims of religion are above all important because they can lead the woman out of a sheltering, protective, motherliness into engagement, responsibility, and action. The animus must form the anima, while the challenging Spirit of the Father will make the anima fruitful. Thus, religion can bestow shape and form on the anima so that it can grow and develop.

A further help for integrating the anima and animus is community. The community offers security, but it also challenges and forms people. Whoever pulls away from the community cuts oneself off from the stream of life. Jung would attribute this kind of self-exclusion from the community as a concealing of affects, as, for example, a feeling of inferiority. Isolation and loneliness are, finally, the result of a lack of humility and not a lack of sociability. Anyone too proud to open up to other human beings is self-isolating. However, the person who is open and humble enough never feels alone. Whoever allows their persona, constructed for its outward appearance, to be broken through again and again by the confrontational forces of the anima and animus and honestly faces up to their own polarities, whoever continues to inquire into their feelings and opinions, and is humble and unassuming enough to open up to others – such a person the community can effectively support in the work of integrating anima and animus and of placing them in spiritual equilibrium.

In recent years the concepts of anima and animus have been severely criticized, above all by women. Women perceive Jung’s perspective as typically male. They feel offended by the manner and way he speaks about women. Certainly Jung was a child of his times. He has a one-sided image of women that he appropriated from his environment. Today, women essentially see themselves differently. In women we see not only Jung’s archetypes of the great mother, the Amazon, Helen, or Sophia, but also the archetypes that come to expression in the various Greek goddesses – Aphrodite, Athena, and Artemis. According to Jung’s model, the intellectual Athena might be a woman with an animus complex. But that is too one-sided. All three goddesses represent inner images of women. Not every woman has to be an Aphrodite. Athena and Artemis also represent mature and integrated women.

Nevertheless, the models of anima and animus can help to understand the crisis of many men and women during midlife. Men and women in midlife must develop entirely new images of what it means to be male and female, and find their most authentic and original identities. Consequently, they need to be aware of their polarities. Anima and animus should not be brought into such a close relationship with the feminine and masculine sides. Otherwise there is the danger of a sexist interpretation. Rather, anima and animus are archetypes of human beings, which do not primarily relate to maleness and femaleness, but to the structure of the human soul. What is decisive is that the male in midlife wants to reconsider how he might live the entirety of his life, and the female must be clear about everything that belongs to her essence as a woman. She must put aside images that others have superimposed on her in order to find what gives voice to her personal realization of what it means to be a woman.

6.           The Development of the Self in the Acceptance of Death                         and in the Encounter with God

The real problem facing people in midlife is their basic attitude toward death. The psychic curve of life now arcs downward and hastens toward death. The end of earthly life is a sensible goal only if a person believes that there is life after death. Only then does the second half of life have inherent meaning and purpose. For Jung, existence after death is not a matter of faith but of psychic reality. The soul finds life after death reasonable. In orienting itself toward death, the soul remains healthy.

At midlife a person must come to terms with death. One must consciously accept the decline of the biological curve of life, for only then can one’s psychological progress reach higher in the direction of individuation. Jung observes, “From the middle of life onward, only this person remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life.” Jung sees the anxiety about death in relationship with anxiety about life:

Many young people have at bottom a panic fear of life (though at the same time they intensely desire it), and an even greater number of the aging have the same fear of death. Indeed, I have known those people who most feared life when they were young to suffer later just as much from fear of death. When they are young one says they have infantile resistance against the normal demands of life; one should really say the same thing when they are old, for they are likewise afraid of one of life’s normal demands. We are so convinced that death is simply the end of a process that it does not ordinarily occur to us to conceive of death as a goal and fulfillment, as we do without hesitation the aims and purposes of youthful life in its ascendance.

Life has a goal. In youth the goal is to become established in the world and to achieve something. At midlife the goal changes. Now the goal is not at the summit, but in the valley where the ascent began. And so the issue becomes whether we are making progress toward this goal. Whoever does not make progress toward the goal or who holds fast to one’s present life will experience a discrepancy between the psychological and biological curves of life. “Consciousness stays up in the air, while the curve of the parabola sinks downward with everincreasing speed.” Ultimately, anxiety about death is not wanting to live. Only by accepting the law of life – by moving toward death as one’s goal – can one remain truly alive and grow to maturity.

Instead of looking toward the goal of death, many look back to the past. While we all pity the infantile person of thirty who looks back nostalgically to childhood, society marvels at the elderly who look and act like young people. Jung comments:

…both are perverse, lacking in style, psychological monstrosities. A young person who does not fight and conquer has missed the best part of youth, and an older person who does know how to listen to the secrets of the brooks, as they tumble from the peaks to the valleys, makes no sense; the person is a spiritual mummy who is nothing but a relic of the past. The person stands apart from life, mechanically repeating oneself to the last triviality. What kind of a culture is it that needs shadowy characters like this?.

A typical sign of anxiety about aging is holding on to one’s youth. Jung asks:

Who does not know those touching old gentlemen who must always warm up the dish of their student days, who can fan the flame of life only by reminiscences of their heroic youth, but who, for the rest, are stuck in a hopeless wooden Philistinism?

Instead of preparing for old age, some people want to become eternally young people. This, according to Jung, is a “lamentable substitute for the illumination of the self,” which is required of people in the second half of life.

Today, people in midlife are not prepared for what awaits them in the second half of life. The reason, says Jung, is that we have schools for young people but not for forty-year-olds during the second half of their lives. In times past, religions served as such schools. Religions prepared people for the mysteries of the second half of life. And yet, still today, Jung can recommend to people in midlife no other school than those religions that teach the art of dying and that offer something beyond self-maintenance in the world and where people can become real human beings.

According to Jung, there can be no development of the self until one has acquired an intimate sense of the divine indwelling. The apostle Paul’s idea of God in us where, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20) expresses, for Jung, the experience of someone who has discovered oneself. is to let go of the narrow ego and submit oneself to God. Whoever refuses to surrender will never find wholeness and, finally, will never gain spiritual health. Thus, for many people the second half of life presents a specifically religious problem:

Among all my patients in the second half of life-that is to say, over thirty-five-there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because they had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain their religious outlook.

For one’s encounter with the divine archetype – an encounter that is necessary for psychological health – Jung recommends many of the same techniques found among spiritual writers. For example, Jung speaks of sacrifice, where a person gives oneself to God, where something of one’s ego is sacrificed in order to gain oneself. Jung considers introversion a demand of midlife and is best done in meditation and asceticism. Solitude and fasting for Jung

…have from time immemorial been the best-known means of strengthening any meditation whose purpose is to open the door to the unconscious.

The entrance into the unconscious, going into one’s inner depths, produces renewal and spiritual rebirth.

The treasure about which Christ speaks lies hidden in the unconscious, and only the symbols and means of religion make it possible for people to lift up this treasure. Just as Christ, through death, descended into hell, so too must we all make our journey through the night of the unconscious, through the frightening ordeal of self-encounter, in order that, having been strengthened by the power of the unconscious, we might all be born again. Jung recounts people’s experience of having passed through the crisis of midlife and having been changed by God through the crisis.

They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, they were able to become reconciled to themselves, and thus they were also reconciled to adverse circumstances and events. This is quite similar to what was formerly expressed by saying: “We have made our peace with God, we have sacrificed our own will, we have submitted ourselves to the will of God.

Spiritual rebirth – having been transformed by God – is the task of the second half of life. It is a task filled with dangers, but also with promises. This spiritual rebirth is less about psychological knowledge and more about piety and the preparedness to turn inward to listen to God who dwells within us. With great spiritual effort, Jung says, the person at midlife should be dedicated to the challenge of self-realization. It is a challenge that we cannot accomplish through our own power but that can succeed only concedente deo (by God’s will).