Why Turning 50 Is a Big Deal: In Praise of Being Uncertain

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The famous psychologist Carl Jung once observed that more people enter therapy around the age of 49 than at any other age. My own clinical experience backs up this observation. But why is turning 50 considered a big deal?

The reason people flock to therapy is that the early fifties is often a life and death battle. The battle is between Thanatos (death and destruction) and Eros (the life force). The way that people resolve or avoid this battle determines the rest of their days.

For people who have had rotten childhoods, their 50s can be a renaissance time; a time to recapture their lives. If you were robbed of your childhood through abuse or neglect, or lost  your adolescence through being launched into unexpected early parenthood or your parents’ death, your 50s present genuine opportunities to heal and renew.

By 50, you have reached the prime age for stable and consistent growth. What was on the horizon in the previous stage of life now steps on to the main stage. It will enable you to find a new way of being.

There is a test of courage on offer here. The courageous have the impetus to take risks in life; the timid may briefly recapture the playfulness of earlier years before sinking back into the pedestrian mainstream. Fifty is a really good time to ask yourself — “Who do I want to be now I am grown up?”

Some people choose to participate in superficial rituals: buying sports cars, getting tattoos or piercings, or rekindling old passions. At this age people often find themselves going through their old contact lists and deleting names.

The most common experience at some stage around your 50th year is feeling complete bafflement, bewilderment and confusion. Your previous ways of coping have passed their use-by date. It doesn’t help to realize that many of our ancestors didn’t live much beyond this age.

Rites of Passage

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What is going on here is a rite of passage. Rites of passage are not minor blips on the radar of life. They are opportunities when we can reconsider our direction in life and transform ourselves. For many people this is an unsettling time. The rites of passage that  occur throughout our lives are particularly powerful between the ages of 50 and 56.

Rites of passage have a sequence of stages:

  1. Separation from your normal way of living.
  2. Liminality – this is a stage of being betwixt and between, usually resulting in feeling confused and all at sea.
  3. Return and reintegration.

Rather than seeing your 50s as a time of renewal and reinvention, we either send people off for therapy or medicate them for depression. Our lack of understanding about what is happening results in some people blaming those closest to them for the unexpected loss of meaning in their lives.

Certainly, some relationships do run out of puff and separation may be inevitable. Even so, it is awfully easy to blame someone close to you for your own unsettled feelings and to ignore the need to do the inner work needed to create a new you. The way out, is in.

Liminality is a sacred space. If used well, it has enormous power and opportunity. People who
can tolerate a time of ambiguity and uncertainty often discover new interests that fulfill them. If ignored, medicated, or trivialized, a great possibility for your future is missed.

The final stage is return or reintegration. This is about making sense of the experience and finding a new you. The entire process of a rite of passage varies in length; for some people it can occur swiftly, for others the process can take years.

The Revolution Within

For people wondering why turning 50 is a big deal and who are going through a rite of passage, I have three vital pieces of advice:

  1. Do not pretend to know who you are. Rather, allow who you are to emerge. Guard your soul. Life will be intolerant of your uncertainties. It will want you to fix yourself. Take “you” time. Preserve your flexibility. This is a time to let ideas simmer. If life at this age is a race between the hare and the tortoise, practice being the tortoise.
  2. Old maps don’t help you to travel over new territories. The old strategies are not going to work. You are actually going to have to work out a new way to live your life.
  3. The way out is in. Tempting as it is to look for external causes for your distress, you need to turn inwards, reflect, consider and re-invent your life.

Why Is Turning 50 a Big Deal? — About the Author

Andrew Fuller is the author of YOUR BEST LIFE AT ANY AGE: How to Acknowledge Your Past, Revive Your Present & Realize Your Future. He has been described as an ”interesting mixture of Billy Connolly, Tim Winton, and Frasier Crane” and as someone who “puts the heart back into psychology.” As a clinical psychologist, Andrew works with many schools and communities in Australia and internationally, specializing in the wellbeing of young people and their families. He is a Fellow of the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Learning and Educational Development at the University of Melbourne.