May 27

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4 Ways to Avoid Stagnation at Midlife


“Iron rusts from disuse; water loses its purity from stagnation… even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.” Leonardo da Vinci

 

Do any of these phrases sound familiar…

…I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels

…I’m stuck in a rut

…I have a serious case of the doldrums

…Life is like a rollercoaster…just a continuing series of ups and downs

…I feel like the hamster on the wheel in the cage.

…I’m getting nowhere fast

…There just doesn’t seem to be any point to what I’m doing

…I never feel like I get ahead or accomplish anything worthwhile

If any of these statements ring true, you may be approaching or at a point of stagnation in your life. Stagnation can occur in any area of our life, and it happens naturally if we do the same things over and over.

We lose our passion because we have lost sight of what we want and why we are doing it. It may not be that anything we are doing is wrong or unproductive. However, it just feels like it’s the same old thing over and over with the same results.

Life is a balance of routine and variety. Routine is about following processes that ensure consistency and quality. Routine helps us accomplish great things over time. For example, The Great Wall of China was built one brick at a time. Following a routine doesn’t require a lot of thinking which saves brain power for more important things.

Routine provides stability, and the human mind seeks both stability and desires to learn and experience new things. Therefore, the key is to find a balance between the routines of daily life and the joy and excitement that come with variety and new adventures. Stagnation occurs when we have too much routine and not enough variety and adventure.

Psychology of Stagnation

Erik Erikson, an American psychologist, and colleague of Freud described human personality development in eight stages from childhood through late adulthood. Erikson viewed development through the lens of social development examining how people view themselves, others, and their relationships with others.

For each of the eight stages, there is a conflict to confront with positive and negative ways of coping. Positive adaptive ways of coping develop into positive characteristics such as hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom. When we fail to develop healthy ways of dealing with these developmental conflicts, we become stuck hindering further social and personal development.

This table shows a simple representation of the stages of development. While the stages generally go in order, development of later stages can occur with earlier stages lacking resolution or full development. For example, a person may be highly competent but lack trust and feel dominated by fear. Similarly, a person can be in a loving intimate relationship but lack loyalty to others who are not in their inner circle.

In addition, each trait typically represents a spectrum of positive to negative behaviors depending upon the circumstances and our current state. For example, we may generally feel competent at work. However, after the boss who is having a bad day yells at us for a mistake that was beyond our control, we may feel a little less competent.

StageConflictPositive TraitNegative Trait
1Trust vs. MistrustHopeFear
2Autonomy vs. DoubtWillSelf-doubt
3Initiative vs. GuiltPurposeAimlessness or lacking intention
4Industriousness vs InferiorityCompetenceLacking self-pride
5Cohesion vs role ConfusionFidelityLack of loyalty
6Intimacy vs IsolationLoveLack of intimacy
7Generativity vs StagnationCareLacking passion or enthusiasm
8Ego Integrity vs DespairWisdomRegret and bitterness

 

What is midlife stagnation?

Midlife stagnation is the failure or unwillingness to meet the demands of life and is often expressed in terms of boredom, lack of psychological growth, and possible self-absorption or self-indulgence. Stagnation aims to preserve one’s power and resources without regard for the long-term consequences of themselves or those around them.

According to Erikson, the opposite of stagnation is generativity. When we don’t seek an outlet for generativity, we become overwhelmed by stagnation, unconnected to others or offer little to society. This can look like a regression into earlier development stages where we start to indulge ourselves in childlike ways. This is the typical scenario of a person in a midlife crisis trying to act much younger again.

During midlife stagnation, people may become absorbed with their own needs and comforts which can make it difficult for people to be around them or to feel satisfied with their lives. In studies, stagnation has also been associated with the personality characteristics of neuroticism, high levels of worry, difficulties in social relationships, feelings of social rejection, and being highly controlled.

Avoiding midlife stagnation through generativity?

Psychologists point towards two primary approaches for avoiding or working through stagnation. The first process is called the person-environment interaction which refers to how a person interacts with their environment in any given life area. For example, if the primary feeling of stagnation is coming from work, then focusing thoughts and efforts to change how one interacts with their work environment. These changes can be internal, external or a combination of internal and external. For example, we can vow to walk into work with a better attitude each morning, or we could add a few photos or motivational quotes to our work area to remind us of why we do what we do. On the other extreme, it could be preparing ourself for a whole new career including going back to school and dusting off the resume’.

The second part of the process of establishing generativity is our personal creativity. Creativity has been defined in many ways, but in this case, we will refer to creativity as the willingness to abandon old forms or patterns of doing things in favor of new ways. What this requires from us is the production, evaluation, and implementation of new ideas.

1.     Person-Environment Interaction

Adults that display generativity seek to contribute without fanfare or great reward. They generally behave in a way that makes the world a better place for others without expecting personal gain. The concept of interaction that Erikson proposed suggested was s a reciprocal satisfactory influence between the individual and their world (environment).

As we actively participate with our skills and knowledge in different social settings, we begin to have a sense of validation for the contribution we make. It is important that we seek to remain in social settings that fit our skills and needs where our contribution will be most effective and internally rewarding.

If we try to contribute in areas that don’t fit our skills and needs, we will likely not feel the sense of personal satisfaction we are looking for. We will be frustrated with our efforts, and others may become frustrated with us as well.

It is important to view situations like this as either a good fit or a not so good fit rather than a success or failure. Successful generativity requires a good fit between what the person has to offer and what the circumstances (environment) require. Therefore, we need to redirect our focus towards social settings where we are able to find satisfaction.

The person-environment interaction can also be making some changes at home. It could be having a serious heart-to-heart with your spouse or kids about how you would like to make the home environment a much happier and healthier place. Remember, this is not about changing other people. It is about making changes in how we think and what we do. And, to the extent that we can convince other people that it will be better for them as well, then perhaps they will make some changes as well. However, we should never expect others to change. We can only control how we act initially and respond to others.

2.     Creativity

Creativity is much more than just art or music. Creativity is the process every person uses to decide how they would like to create their environment and what results they would like to achieve. Every adult plays multiple roles such as father/mother, son/daughter, worker, manager, friend, student, athlete, etc. And each of these roles have competing time and energy demands.

Creative adults are dominated by their ability to direct their own course of events as opposed to the ones dominated by others. Through the creative process, we can reshape our social and physical environment in a way that we can meet both personal and social needs more satisfactorily. Although not easy, we can face the situations in our family, child caring and work settings as stimuli for creative problem-solving.

Typically, a creative solution is required when the standard way is no longer working. And for us to be able to do new things, we must be willing to give up old ways of thinking and behaving that may have worked in the past. Creativity also means that we can expect that we may not get it right the first time. Creativity is not a one and done solution. Creativity is an iterative process of trying new things until we find what works best. Afterall, the great masterpieces were not painted on the first attempt and every bestselling novel had an ugly first draft that was later crafted into something good.

3.     Caring for Future Generations

Erikson defined care as our concern for others. He believed it was manifested in the need to teach which not only helps others but also fulfills our own identity. He referred to midlife as the stage of maturity in which we need to be actively involved in teaching and guiding the next generation. In Erikson’s view, this need would extend beyond our immediate family. Therefore, our concern will become broader and more focused on long-term outcomes involving future generations and the kind of society they will live in based on our legacy to them.

Generativity is critical to the survival of any society. Although not common in the modern Western culture, many cultures still honor their elders and count on them for wise counsel. Parenthood is the most obvious and natural expression of generativity in our life in the sense that we provide for our children, so they can survive and hopefully thrive as a part of the next generation. However, Erikson argued that an adult does not have to be a parent in order to display generativity nor does having children automatically satisfy this need.

There is a point in life where most adults begin to feel an obligation to contribute to their resources, skills, and creativity to improve the quality of life for younger generations. Many people such as Bill Gates turn their focus towards philanthropy in the later portions of their life. And sure, Bill Gates can help thousands of people with the stroke of a pen. However, the great thing is, you don’t have to be wealthy to make a difference. You just have to care enough to get involved and listen to what other people are saying. When the time and circumstances are right, you will be able to share your wisdom and make your contribution. It may be one person at a time, but in the end, that’s how the world is changed.

Just a warning about becoming overzealous in providing generativity. Overextended generativity can lead to overwhelm which means that we don’t have enough time for ourselves. This usually leads to unhappiness and defeats the purpose of generativity to begin with. The purpose of generativity is to make life more fulfilling. Approach generativity with a sense of restoring balance and meaning to life rather than creating another responsibility or additional job.

4.     Empowering narrative Identity

Narrative identity is the collection of stories we construct in order to make meaning of our life. It is the reason that our ancestors created mythological stories of gods, goddesses, kings, and warriors. Whether we think about our stories intentionally or unintentionally, we still create our own stories. Story or narrative is the natural human way of making sense of the world and one’s identity in it.

While narrative identity provides a sense of coherence and temporal continuity in our lives, it also serves us as a psychological resource in our daily life. Studies have shown that generativity has a great influence on how we see our life experiences or narrate them. Using narrative identity, we reconstruct our past and imagine how our future will look like including the ongoing story with settings, scenes, characters, plots, and themes.

The content and structure of our story (past and future) are strongly shaped by our personal experience and how we subjectively view them. Studies show that in the presence of generativity, we describe negative life experiences as being transformative and as redemptive. Alternatively, stagnation often leads to interpreting positive life experiences into negative events. Have you ever heard a person say that losing their job or contracting an illness was the best thing that happened to them? It happens all the time because people with healthy narrative identities use their circumstances to write the next positive chapter in their lives. Therefore, generativity and stagnation not only influence how we see our past but how we project our future as well.

Benefits of Avoiding Midlife Stagnation

Studies have shown that when we focus on generativity, we tend to believe in the goodness and warmth of human life as well as feel happier and more satisfied with our own life. We are also more careful and open to new experiences, our social relationships have more meaning, we feel more attached to the community, and as a result feel more emotionally stable. Moreover, studies have shown that higher generativity leads to a more successful marriage, greater achievements at work, and closer friendships. Generativity brings many benefits including altruistic behavior, sensitivity to the suffering of others, a stable personal belief system, and clear personal and community goals.

Action Items

  1. Feelings of stagnation usually occur in one area of our life primarily. Feelings of stagnation may generalize to other areas of life. However, making changes in multiple areas of life simultaneously is more challenging. What is the one area of life that you would like to change that would have the greatest impact of how you would feel overall? Is it work, finances, love relationship, family relationships, health, spirituality, lack of free time, …?
  2. In a journal or on a piece of paper, write down exactly how you would like this area of your life to look like if you were able to wave a magic wand it would be fixed?
  3. Set a timer on your watch for 5 minutes. Sit in a quiet place preferably with your eyes closed and imagine what your life will look like and feel like when your life has changed. What things are you doing? How do they make you feel? What things have you done to make those changes in your life? What kind of person have you become along the way? How has this new way of living become part of your identity?
  4. If you don’t have time to do this exercise now, schedule 15 minutes for you to do it later today or tomorrow. Set an alarm on your calendar.

Summary

Erikson’s view of human nature is highly optimistic. His belief was that we can consciously direct our growth by satisfactory solving each stage conflict. Although influenced by our biological forces and childhood experiences we are not their victims. He argued that learning constantly and developing social interactions are more important than heredity. Certainly, it is more satisfying to our sense of self-worth to consider ourselves capable of consciously shaping our development and destiny rather than being dominated by instinctual forces and childhood experiences over which we have no control. Overall, psychologists agree that generativity in midlife is positively correlated with a sense of well-being, stronger intimate and social relationships and inner power.

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References

Newman, B. (2014) Development through life: A psychosocial approach

McAdams, D. & Guo, J (2015) Narrating the Generative Life

Shultz & Schultz. (2005) Theories of Personality

Whitbourne, S., Sneed. J& Skultety K. (2009) Identity Processes in Adulthood: Theoretical and Methodological Challenges

Bruce Fleck

About the author

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