Coaching is a “Third Way” through Midlife’s Pitfalls
Gary, in his early 50s, is a successful professional with a good marriage and thriving kids. He isn’t depressed and doesn’t need or want psychiatric treatment. But, he feels unaccountably discontent. When I ask with whom he discusses his dissatisfaction, he says, “I keep it contained within myself.” When he opened up to friends, they gossiped about him. He worries, too, that he’ll become the butt of a punchline about midlife crisis.
So, what does he think would help?
“I wished I’d had in my life an older, wiser mentor type. Wouldn’t it be great to have a safe space and someone I could turn to and talk this through with?”
After immersing myself in research for my book, I came away believing that there is a name and a model for what Gary wants: coaching. I also came to believe that the coaching paradigm is uniquely suited to meet the large unmet need felt by him and millions of others.
Aging is not neutral where happiness is concerned. Like a river’s undercurrent, it tugs away from happiness in the first three decades of adulthood, often contributing to dissatisfaction in midlife, but then it switches direction, bringing a surprising new contentment in later adulthood. During the transition, typically in the middle years of adulthood, a long, grinding period of malaise or dissatisfaction often sets in.
Individuals’ mileage will vary. Many people are happier in their 40s than later. But time’s U-shaped effect on happiness appears to be fundamental. It is found in massive data sets in countries and cultures around the world. It’s even found in our closest primate cousins, chimps and orangutans.
Unfortunately, society today deals with this pattern poorly. The two prevalent models are both flawed.
Model 1: Medicalization
“You need counseling, psychiatric treatment, medication.” Some people, of course, do need mental-health intervention. In my dozens of interviews with people like Gary, however, one thing was clear: they are not clinically depressed; they are dissatisfied. They are fully functional, often cheerful and dynamic. What they feel is a nagging sense of disappointment, a decline in optimism, a feeling that their lives are out of touch with their values or some combination of those things.
Those are not disorders. Rather, they are part of a healthy and normal emotional reboot that leads toward a surprising rebirth of contentment and gratitude. Telling people they need medical help with this transition is as inappropriate and stigmatizing as it would be to pathologize adolescence, another healthy but sometimes troubled developmental transition.
Model 2: Mockery
The punchlines and cliches about men buying red sports cars and women panicking over wrinkles. The “midlife crisis” meme has never been very accurate; for most people, the midlife transition is a slog, but not a crisis. Worse, it shames millions of people into silence and isolation, which only compounds their misery.
Coaching, by contrast, has many of the right ideas wired in.
Coaching is about surfacing and clarifying values, goals and priorities. That suits it well to handling the midlife reboot, which is a change in values as our expectations, priorities and brains adjust to a less competitive, more connected approach to life.
Coaching does not assume the client is broken and needs fixing. It encourages clients’ self-conceptualization as normal and healthy, a threshold issue for those who, like Gary, reject (rightly) being pathologized.
Coaching is non-hierarchical. People undergoing midlife reboot are often at the top of their game. They don’t want advice from on high; they want a safe way to express doubt and vulnerability. By framing its core relationship as that of alliance, coaching assumes mutuality and equality.
Coaching is solution-oriented and future-oriented. Midlife dissatisfaction is partly caused by a negative feedback cycle: disappointment breeds dissatisfaction in a self-reinforcing cognitive spiral. Coaching can help interrupt internal critics that harp on failure.
Coaching is steadily becoming more widely accepted and accessible. It’s also important to propagate and emulate the ideas on which it is based. Millions of people, whether or not they seek professional coaching, could benefit from understanding and applying—to themselves and others—concepts like alliance, non-brokenness and values transitions.
Coaching “gets” that midlife adjustment is a we problem, not a me problem or a you problem. It is a third way, with implications and applications that extend well beyond the boundaries of coaching itself.