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The 3 Stages in the Midlife Search for Meaning

Stages Midlife Search Meaning

Midlife is a time to challenge our perspectives and to change the way we are living our lives. We can all benefit from a shift in the questions we ask ourselves, such as, “Where should I go on vacation?” and “Is that all there is?” to deeper questions like, “Who am I now?” and “Who do I want to be in the time I have left?

The meaning of life is to find your gift.
The 3 Stages in the Midlife Search for Meaning

Midlife search for meaning

Although each person’s journey or life odyssey is unique, there are common challenges we all face as we age, especially as we search for deeper meaning. An innovative way to look at our midlife transition is to understand the lessons we can derive from nature, for example, the journey that the caterpillar takes as it transitions through its life stages from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly.

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The Caterpillar Stage

From birth or the egg phase, a caterpillar emerges and enjoys its life, busying itself with its daily activities.  As it ages, it sheds its skin several times to accommodate its growth. This is analogous to our lives, where we busy ourselves with our daily activities, guided by our understanding of what is expected of us and the roles we are to play. These roles, shaped by social conditioning, result in our being accepted and rewarded with security, power, money, and belonging. Periodically, we feel the need to change our work, relationships, and homes so we can grow and evolve into full adulthood.

However, there often comes a point where we feel we are being constrained by this social conditioning. And this is a midlife crisis. As a result, we lose interest in what once seemed more meaningful to us – whether it is our work, our relationships, or our activities. We may lose our spark and start to focus on aging and the feeling that our time is running out. We realize that the roles we have been playing in our own lives were conditioned by our families or social networks.

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We were doing what is expected of us, living someone else’s agenda, not one shaped by our true selves. Anger and resentment may surface as we either realize life didn’t turn out the way we expected it would or we simply feel stuck.

Our responses vary: we can carry on, pretending nothing is changing within us; we can rearrange things like our marriages, jobs, houses, or faces (through plastic surgery!); we can withdraw, soothing our resentment with anger or addictions; or we can move forward to confront our beliefs about how we want to live our lives. For many, this is a very destabilizing time.

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The Cocoon Stage

Entering the next stage, the caterpillar chooses to hang upside down from a branch, weaves a protective layer around itself, and remains motionless while undergoing a series of changes within its cocoon. (This stage is also referred to as the Chrysalis stage.)

This is the stage when we realize that our life is shifting and the old ways of doing things are no longer working for us. We have outlived the caterpillar stage, the stage where we have been living according to the social conditioning and needs of others and now need to move on to seek a deeper connection to ourselves, our identity, and to the rest of our life.

The cocoon represents the protective space we need to enter this transformation, a time and a place to reflect and figure it all out. It is a metaphor. We may not be physically running away from our lives – it’s more of a metaphysical concept where we may withdraw from some activities in our work and from interactions with our friends to focus on understanding what isn’t working for us anymore and on what we want for the future.

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Elaine Dundon

Elaine Dundon is leading the Meaning Movement, having founded the Global Meaning Institute and the unique study and practice called MEANINGology®. As a Philosopher of Meaning and author of 3 bestselling books on Meaning and Innovation, Elaine is dedicated to helping people discover new meaning in their lives and work, and at the systems, level to connect to the deeper meaning in organizations, communities, and societies. Elaine Dundon’s research and experience are focused on Meaning (blending psychology, applied metaphysics, and existential philosophy). Her research and work have provided insights into how people, organizations, and communities can reach their full potential through meaning. She is the author of 3 best-selling books on Meaning and Innovation, available in 20+ languages: Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life & Work (Self Help Book of the Year), The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work (8 Literary Awards), and The Seeds of Innovation (named a Top Ten Business Book of the Year by The Globe & Mail).View Author posts