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Conscious Change at Midlife: Claiming Your True Life

I have heard people say that Carl Jung once wrote, “Consciousness begins at 40.” When I looked into this quote, I found that the quote is actually more often written, “Life really does begin at forty. Up until then, you are just doing research.” As I looked to find the source in which this quote was written or stated, I could not find the original work. Nevertheless, Jung did write about development across the lifespan. He expressed the importance experiencing aging with conscious awareness and appreciation. He wrote about each stage of life having its own purpose, and how when we are young, we pursue things to solidify our work in the world and the things we need materially. He wrote that the “afternoon” of life (40-60) is for enjoyment of life and service to the world. He stated that the goal of life is death. If we expand the idea of death being a goal beyond the death of the physical body, I wonder about death as a conscious part of life. What can we let die? Is the expanded concept of death actually just another way to describe change? When we really want to change something, we must let the old way die. When we want to be free from a behavioral pattern, way of living, limiting belief, or self-defeating habit that no longer serves us, we have to die to the old way of being.

Joanna Eunice V. Parungao, LPT, Ph.D, shares this diagram that explains Jung’s ideas on the stages of life in her essay. “Reading Jung’s Stages of Life from Sunrise to Sunset: A Guide for Teaching Jung in Developmental Psychology.”

According to Jung, age 40, is when the sun is high in the sky. Up until then, we have been accommodating the persona roles – playing out the things our upbringing conditioned us were important and necessary. Forty marks a halfway point. I think of this time as a pause that gives the opportunity for what Ira Progoff termed the “true life” to begin. In occult consciousness development theories, Gurdjieff wrote about the false personality, which is built of and in service of our conditioning during early life. True personality, however, is the personality intentionally built in service of the true self, or essence. This true personality is less concerned with fulfilling the expectations of society, and more concerned with deepening in meaning and connection to truth, within and with others. We have the chance, psychologically, to shed what has led to our suffering and limited outlook on ourselves and our capabilities during the first half of life. This doesn’t mean that we have the resources necessarily, or that it will be handed to us. We have to remember that our current society is run by systems of oppression. Those systems will keep us running a race until we die, and an entire life can be consumed by that race. There are very real-life obstacles and distractions to being able to focus on one’s personal development and transformation. But, if we can see those obstacles as part of the conditioning that must be dealt with and overcome, and if we can think psychologically, a mid-life crisis could become a mid-life opportunity.

Each life stage brings with it specific opportunities, developmentally and psychologically speaking. Forty, the dawn of mid-life, is the time in life when we begin to feel (more than just knowing intellectually) that life is finite, and that our conditioning may not be sufficient to guide us toward fulfillment. Forty years is long enough to have suffered some major losses or disappointments in ourselves or others. We begin a new relationship with the concept of time. We start to understand we won’t be here forever, and some mistakes cannot be made up for. We might also start to see that we can correct our course. We can do what it takes to have our heart’s desire. Maybe it is similar to the times in Spike Lee’s films that a character looks directly at the camera and says “Wake up!” to the audience. What wakes us up in midlife? Probably the need for change. Either change we see we need to make in ourselves, change that happens to us unexpectedly, or change that occurs naturally within us – maybe a combination of all three and more.

Because each of us has a unique journey through life, chronological age is not enough of an indicator of where you might be in terms of a model of development. Some of us have experienced trauma or other circumstances that caused our sun to move slower or faster in our sky of life. Perhaps this big midlife opportunity for change will come close to age 40. Perhaps it will come a bit earlier or later. In any case, part of waking up to needed change in midlife is the realization that we are responsible for making the change we need in order to have the life we want. This takes humility, effort, guidance, and death; the death of our allegiance to what we have followed up to this point. As Marion Woodman, depth psychologist, states, “Most of us are dragged toward wholeness.” It may not feel easy or gentle, but no birth canal is.

The Process of Change

The Stages of Change Model (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983) describes the process of change through defined stages.  During precontemplation, we are not yet acknowledging the needed change. Usually, we attempt to keep doing things the same way or attempt half-hearted quick fixes to swat away the effects of the things we actually do need to change in life. This stage can be frustrating for people who love us and are also affected by the things that need changing. This is especially true because during this stage we are still complaining about the way things are, usually from the stance of being a victim of life rather than a co-creator of our circumstances. This does not mean we are doing anything wrong – every one of us has our turn at this stage at some points in life. We are not meant to be perfect, nor to see the whole of our process of becoming from the beginning. During this stage we are very far away from surrendering or believing there is a greater process at work. Because a refusal to change is often a survival strategy, or a defense mechanism like denial, we can see that we struggle with surrender because we have been surviving on our own for a long time. And perhaps until now, that has worked well enough. But around 40, something usually happens that makes us question whether our usual ways of working are getting us where we want to go.

The next stage, contemplation, brings an acknowledgement that there is a problem but we are not yet ready to move forward. We also might feel unsure about the needed change and whether we really want it, or whether we can do it. We might lack confidence/skills/tools/consciousness to make the change. We also might feel disconnected from help, reluctant to ask for help or come under the influence of a helper (a group, a therapist, a teacher, etc.). We might have to work through shame that comes with realizing we have made mistakes while living from our conditioning. We might be bargaining in this stage, wondering if we could just think differently without changing behavior, or just do something else while still thinking the same way. Contemplation sometimes goes on for a long while. One way to think about it is like window shopping. Eventually, we come to see and feel what not changing has cost us and is costing us, and we move to the next stage: preparation/determination.

In preparation/determination, we get ready to change. We move out of window shopping and we decide to go into the store. We get serious about making an investment, even if we don’t know the exact details of the purchase quite yet. We start to see our problems more clearly and, importantly, our specific role in those problems. We bring into focus what is going to be required of us. We take a hard look at ourselves here, working to gather tools, knowledge, teammates, guides, and courage. I think these stages are not strictly linear. We may bounce around between the first three over a period of time leading to change. We are complex beings. We might have a strong adult self, ready to be individuated and make powerful change; and that doesn’t cancel out the scared child inside that feels compelled to stay with the old ways of conditioning.

Change involves healing. We deal with our traumatized selves through the change process, who may need a lot of encouragement to believe we are worth making this kind of transformation. It takes time to get all the inner parts on board, and it is time well spent. And even after we begin the next stage, we may still have setbacks that cause us to have to back up and lovingly gather some inner parts that were not convinced change was possible or safe. We might see that some parts jumped out, sabotaged our change process, and set us back a bit. We must remember that our wounded parts used our old ways of behaving to survive. For example, we may have, as a child or teenager, had to develop the habit of being manipulative and hiding things because speaking to people honestly and vulnerably led to us feeling abandoned or uncared for. We may have developed the habit of being codependent and hyper-focused on others because it was a way to stay safe with a caregiver who was unpredictable or withholding. Self-compassion is of the utmost importance while we learn to parent ourselves in new ways toward a new way of living. These patterns would be unconscious to us. We might even realize after the fact that we engaged in these behaviors, and then have a mess to clean up.

When we are ready, the action stage begins. This is where we actually change behavior from a place of taking responsibility for ourselves. We get the help we need, come willingly under helpful influences, grieve the loss of the old way of being and all it entailed, and we actually stop the behaviors that were problematic. One step at a time, we release the heavy bag we have been carrying and walk through the door we opened for ourselves during the preparation/determination stage. The action stage is a time for practicing new ways of approaching life with humility and a growth mindset. Humor, in my opinion, is a very important part of this stage. Learning to laugh at ourselves and then love ourselves when we falter is extremely helpful for enjoying the action stage. Opening up to a wider perspective can be helpful here, too. This stage can feel discombobulating for some time because we are changing patterns that we are used to and have neural networks supporting, and in addition, people close to us also are used to and expect us to stay in our old patterns. The key here is to not allow the inevitable setbacks revert you to pre-contemplation thinking. The action stage is helped along by supportive groups of people who are walking and have walked a similar process of change. Communities and professionals that are compassionate and supportive and also informed about the change you are attempting are extremely valuable here. This stage is a great time to learn more about ourselves. We try new things, make mistakes, examine what happened, get even more humble, and attempt again after regrouping. The sun is high in the sky. In the action stage we get used to not hiding in the shadows anymore.

For me, turning to the Living Universe and its magnificent incomprehensible power is vital during the action stage. It helps me feel supported and surrounded by the energy needed to keep moving in the chosen direction. It also helps me feel trust in the unknown, and to release control over the outcome. I know who I want to become and that I want to live my core values, and that is what guides my actions; where it leads me is mostly up to factors that I cannot control; like other people. This doesn’t mean we can’t have an idea of what we want and are moving toward. But having trust can help us be present to the moment and ourselves along the journey instead of being lost in fantasies of the future. To truly be in the action stage of change, we need to be present to the reality of that stage. It may come with challenges, intense emotions, cravings for the old ways of behaving, along with increasingly frequent glimpses of freedom the trappings of the past. This stage is the one that brings the risk of relapse (not that relapse has to be permanent!) because it feels so hard sometimes to really live life in a new way.

The next stage, maintenance, is about maintaining the behavior change we worked so hard to gain and embody. I think of this stage as being full of practices that give us behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and understandings that make up our new way of living. This stage requires consistency, self-honesty, humility and remaining connected to the helping factors (within yourself and in life) that led to change. It also means that when we falter, we must see our mistakes in the context of the change process and know that perfection is not required as long as we are progressing forward. If we can expect that we will make mistakes during the journey

of change, we can hold ourselves in compassion and, as quickly as possible, come clean about our mishaps to those around us so that the mistakes can actually add to our changing because we learned even more about ourselves. Having slips and righting ourselves demonstrates to ourselves and others that this change is our new way of being, and we are committed.

Change is a healing process. There is a force in the universe that naturally heals things. We see evidence of this when our physical bodies are healing. The healing happens on its own most of the time. It is a natural process. The microcosm of the physical body’s healing process can give us hope that healing can happen in emotional, behavioral, spiritual, and cognitive ways. The best we can do is willingly participate in the process of healing and change instead of resisting it. The more we travel through the process of change intentionally, the more we gain confidence to face needed change in life. Eventually, even change that feels scary to the wounded parts of us can be undertaken because there is an emotional muscle memory in support of transformation. Something in us remembers that this road has been traveled before. Even if the details differ, the overall process can be trusted. We trust that we will end up someplace new and better than where we were before.

Moving boldly into the process of change is a sort of death because we are letting what we don’t want anymore die, and allowing space for the birth of a new life and a new way of living that starts today. With the sun high in the sky during midlife, we have an opportunity to see things more clearly. We can face the conditioning and things that happened to us, knowing that those things were never our nature, never our truth, for they came from someone else. Therefore, the sunshine of midlife shines light on the differentiation between the conditioned life and the true life. As we let one die, the other can live.

Embracing the process of change means asking ourselves new questions to assist in claiming individuation guided by something greater than conditioning:

  • How would my daily life change if I lived in alignment with those values?

  • What was I conditioned to believe about myself?

  • What of that conditioning is true and what can I let go of?

  • How are my conditioned patterns standing in the way of the life I truly want?

  • What might it take to show up to my relationship with myself and my relationships with others authentically and honestly as my true self?

  • How can I support myself in the process of changing? What external sources of support might be helpful?

  • What are my core values (not conditioned, not what I was taught to value, but what values actually guide me in living a meaningful life)?

Models like the stages of change are helpful because they provide a template that we can apply to our one, magnificent adventure of life. We see where we are, where we were, and where we want to be with our next steps. Much like a map, the stages of change help us accept where we are while seeing where we are headed. Enough people have followed this map that it is a widely accepted and applied template. That means we can find solace in not being alone in the change process. Ideally, we use such a model to move toward our truer life and the fulfillment of our deepest desires.


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