” I can’t do it anymore!” Mid-life and other transitional phases of life as a chance!

Juli 5th, 2020


I can’t do it anymore!!!’   (You can find the German version here)

A sentence expressing a feeling that you are probably not unfamiliar with if you‘re finding yourself reading this article.

But what is it really about and what triggers it? Is it ‘just’ exhaustion? Are you sick? Or what is happening within? And what exactly is the IT  you can‘t do anymore? The latter question really interested me as I generally like to go to the bottom of things that have to do with my being.

Of course, we can feel this way in times when we are simply physically exhausted or fed up. But on a different, deeper level, this feeling can be a sign that you are in or on the threshold of an important phase of growth and maturity and thus on a path of evolving as a human being that will bring you much closer to your inner core, to who you truly are.

I can’t do it anymore!!’ is a sentence that accompanied me fiercely for roughly three years. (Spanning loosely from the age of 41 to 43. I am currently 44.)

When it emerged,it took me by surprise, because all the other parts of me were bursting with health and love for my work and my life. I had never been so relaxed in my life. And yet: There it was! I can‘t do it anymore: A visceral experience, like an entity living and breathing inside of me rather than coming into being through cognitive thought.

What was new to me at this point, was that I was feeling absolutely fine at the same time and experienced life in a depth as never before. That entity on the one hand showed up as a total burnout or depressive mood (causing me to think thoughts like: “I want to take my suitcase and take off immediately! OR: I want to remove my practice sign from the door. NOW!! I don‘t want this anymore!!!) and on the other hand I was totally present and awake. All at once: The I AM became a lived experience. The beauty of a flower touched me so deeply, my heart clenched with tears of joy. As if a single petal contained all and everything I needed to feel and know about this life.

What was going on with me? What is going on with you when this shows up?

You are in a transitional state. In my case: Mid-life.

Transitional states, to which the anthropologist Victor Turner refers to as Rite of Passages are not an unusual, but a highly natural process in the flow of life, of what life REALLY is, because it means: growth / maturity / awakening.

In our society, alienated from its natural ways, which are non-linear and chaotic in character, life is reduced to a FUNCTIONALITY, supplying us with the illusion, but also the frustrations, of having CONTROL over life; defying our continous dying. “Forwards, upwards and please…a bit faster”. That keeps us from experiencing life as it is and especially its highlights, namely these transitional phases. There is little or no room for this experience.

The transition phases of life: An unsightly interruption, a sickness or a growing phase?

Mid-life is a phase, which is acknowledged to a certain degree in our society, but is mostly dismissed as a purely physical and irrational and thus ugly interruption of life. Subsequently, it is often ridiculed. Ridicule is important when an individual or a society is afraid that something like this could happen to one/itsselfEven when people dare to talk about themselves experiencing this mid-life phase they tend to ridicule themselves by making jokes or using irony.Trying to ensure that they are not falling of the edge of belonging. Belonging to the group of healthy, attractive, functional and thus acceptable people.

Further, this important phase is often pathologized. A diagnosis is given to assess and combat (!) this ‘sickly’ condition: Burn-out, Depression…. Well, simply SICK! Not only is it not true, it also denies a deeper access to this intense, yet potentially fruitful phase of change and growth.

In my practice I am encountering this phenomenon of pathologization already with teenagers. Diagnosis: Depression.This disturbs me. Personally and as a therapist, because in most cases there is no disease here, but simply a transitional state, namely that of puberty. The latter goes often hand in hand with extreme downs, darkness and even suicidal thoughts as the child is letting go of Mommy‘s hand and is stepping into the (scary) unknown. In the following I will speak some more of the extreme downs that can be an essential part of transitional phases.

Other transitional states, which are to a degree recognized today, but are hardly celebrateor experienceas a rite of passage are puberty, marriage, mid-life, aging and dying as well as the phase of mourning. The entry into working life, grown-up children leaving their parents‘ house, or sudden insights that strike like lightning and which can be felt as an awakening can initiate these phases as well. Here is the comment of a 50-year old woman:

One day I suddenly felt a lump in my throat and I felt like I had lost all contact with the others … as if I was standing in front of a wall … alone, very alone … and nobody would ever understand how I feel … ” (From ‚Betwixt & Between‘, ed .: Little, Mahdi and Foster. Translation: K. Kelly)

What is happening during this transition period and why does the ‘I can‘t do this anymore’ appear?

The old ways, which include strategies, modes of behaviour and belief-systems that form(ed) your identity and life (up to now), no longer carry – but the new is not yet in sight. As if the foundation you are standing on is crumpling away. Everything that you held onto for orientation and control in life seems to disappear or is hollowed out.

Therefore I‘d like to describe this inner condition as a continous fluctuation between the old, the new and the unknown. That explains how my seemingly opposite feelings I described above could exist side by side.

In puberty, the physical changes are simply the visible signifier of this particular time of life. Psychologically, the adolescent may feel torn between being a child and the young woman or the young man, she/he is about to turn into. Maybe she/he still likes to cuddle with mom, but explodes the next moment and pushes her away. I remember that I still ‚played‘ with a neighbour‘s daughter, who was a year younger than me and then later in the day explored putting some lipstick on, received my first kiss and tried a cigarette. I remember feeling a sense of confusion within. There are, of course, many more subtle variations of this.

In the middle of life it may be a deep questioning of one‘s values, one‘s worth or individual purpose in life. It can seem as if all that gave your life meaning previously, a sense of motivation and purpose is gone in a second – similar to how the woman described it above; further, a reversal of focus takes place: Shifting from the outside to the inner landscape. That is an often painful or dark process as you are getting in touch with previously suppressed or neglected parts that had no room in your „happy forward and upwardlife“, but thus has a powerful potential for healing.

For me, a transitional state feels like I’m leaving an (old) room to go to a new one. In between is an unknown stretch of space, an empty corridor. A free fall. You are already in the hallway, but now you really (!) have to let go of the doorknob behind you, because the strategies that made up your personality no longer work and THAT shows up as: ‘I can’t do this anymore’! The ‘old ways’ just don’t work anymore! And it can‘t be done by thinking alone.

Summarizing the above, one can say that this sentence/feeling turns up if you are still holding on to the old ways of being and try to continue as usual in the old lane, although life already suggests that that is no longer a possibility.

Old ways can include strategies that we used to form in childhood (partly, because they gave us parental recognition and thus a sense of security and belonging). The good girl (who always smiles, helps others, is an achiever, is a beauty queen, is Daddy‘s girl…), the good boy that comforts Mum when Dad has been ‚behaving badly‘, the top achiever, the keeper of the family business and so forth. Part of my ‘old strategy’ that formed in childhood was: Helping, listening, being empathetic. An often typical childhood strategy of a high sensitive; the downside being that ‘my individual qualities’ had to be suppressed. This turned up now, in mid-life, as the feeling and thought of: “I am taking this practice sign down immediately!” It was healing to feel that. My adult self in me was able to say: “Hey, it is okay. There is no danger. Your life doesn’t depend on this, you can also live all that you are without loosing contact, without loosing feeling safe!” If it can be re-integrated like this, on a visceral level, the strain can disappear and your wound can become your greatest gift. If that doesn’t happen, the strain will make it hard work. 

As adults, we may have further expanded and optimized these particular strategies and cemented them with belief-systems and stories. They form our EGO mask or as I call it: Our personality mask – how we function, behave and relate.

Other individual qualities, traits and talents are displaced behind these “preferred characteristics” and split off into the unconscious. The latter then forms our shadow that we like to project onto others in a (mainly unconscious) effort to bring these ‘lost qualities’ back into our lives through other people; an desperate attempt to feel more whole or to be able to reject them once again (“I would never be like this!” – Really? ;-))

Our soul/psyche knows what‘s happening and is continously trying ‚to help‘ us:

We (unconsciously) keep attracting people and/or situations into our life that offer us a ‘practice field’ to recognize our highlighted strategies as well as our shadow qualities that want to come out of the darkness or will otherwise rule us. Since we, humans, can be a bit ‚ ‚process-lazy‘ with recognizing that this is a possible path to our true selves, we are often just angry, upset, delighted or euphoric about the situation or the person. We are not integrating it back into ourselves.

One could say that the transitional phases of life are functioning as an intensifier of all of this. Instead of softly nudging you in the ribs its more like hitting you right in the face: „WAKE UP“ from your slumber and the illusion of control. Wake up and start to heal by bringing the shadow out.

The three phases of transition periods: The Rites of Passages.

Victor Turner divides the transition period into 3 phases: Detachment, Liminality or Threshold time and Re-integration. However, these phases do not (only) appear in this strict linear order, but are completely non-linear in its experience; as all of life is process-like.

What do I mean by that?

Sometimes in everyday life we ​​say something like: “Two steps forward and one back…“ We feel we have progressed, but then there was a (felt) setback. You may have experienced this in a therapy setting: You had deep insights, you felt a healing connection with your body and in the next moment it feels like someone is pulling the carpet right from underneath your feet and it all seems almost worse than before.

But once that has passed, you will feel that something has been able to integrate. Something that remains.

The Detachment Phase and the Liminal Phase: Typical sensations.

I have already mentioned my idea that a transitional phase is like changing rooms.

This (below) is the picture that emerged. It often helps me to put something out of my body on paper to feel and see it more clearly.

I was surprised when I drew this, because I was not aware that apart of me still wanted to hold on. WhenI looked at my picture and thenimagined that I would let goof the old door handle, it triggered a great sadness in me. I noticed that I did not allow myself to be sad or grief that which was over at this stage in my life. I wrote in my little diary:

I am so surprised that this sadness is insideme, because I am so happy to get older! But I notice now that the pain that showed itself in holding ontothe doorknob had to come into my (felt) consciousness before I am able to let go.”

As soon as this was felt, the typical sensations of the detachment phase left me: Inner pressure, aggression, confusion, deep exhaustion. The sentence ‘I can‘t do this anymore’ that symbolized all that, started to dissolve, because I had begun to let go. Almost at the same time something integrated and a new kind of anticipation grew within me: „Who can I still become? Who is this woman that is maturing? Wow, that’s a lot more exciting than holding on!“

What else have I experienced or what might you experience during this transition period?

I experienced the re-turn of some physical symptoms that I haven’t experiencedfor 10 years or more (panic attacks, bladder irritations and infections…). These symptoms didn’t last long, but long enough to get my attention. “Hello! Here we are again. Do you want to take us with you for the next 43 years or isn’t it time for us to say goodbye?”

I had booked seminars that I canceled shortly before they commenced. (“I can‘t do it anymore!” ;-))

I questioned my way of working and at times wondered whetherI even had to give up my work . I wanted to take up old hobbies again or start new ones that I had never allowed myself: Horseback riding, playing the violin, experiencing wild adventures and holidays and ideally all of it at once please… Maybe you recognise some of that?

Old themes from puberty and/or my early 20s re-appeared in my consciousness or in my dreams at night: Failing to pass my dance exams, being laughed at or ‘nude dreams’, in which I am half-naked in public spaces. Dream analysis connects the nudity dreams to the fact that I start exploring and show hidden or deeper layers of myself. How fitting!

A sudden lack of interest in partnership, career or friendships is also possible during these times.

What can you do? How can you deal with it?

No quick and hurried actions.

After a period of feeling empty or depressed, it can feel good when all sorts of ideas come up (ideas of new /old hobbies, adventures, starting from scratch / leaving family). And there may be something in there that will be important for your future life, but …wait…! At the beginning of the detachment phase, this is usually an attempt to distract yourself or to quickly find ‘solutions’ again. That is understandable, but nevertheless part of an old, learned strategy and an attempt to become or stay ‘the same’. Recommendation: Pause! Watch all this coming up inside of you. Don‘t act on it (immediately).

In the book ‘Betwixt & Between’, Jan and Murray Stein write:

In the detachment phase, in which internal structures that previously defined ambitions, duties, interests and self-image are dissolved, extreme mood fluctuations between total emptiness and depression and a sudden high can be expected. What’s happening? The ego is separated from its previous attachments, which temporarily causes the empty or depressed feeling, but then tries to cling to new content, which in turn creates a brief euphoria. (From Betwixt & Between, note: translation and summary by K. Kelly)

Have faith and surrender!

There are (at first) no concrete answers and that is exactly the chance. Your mind or inner critic, who presides over the maintenance of the personality mask, can be ‚sanded down‘ here, so that all of you can become more visible.

After more than 20 years of self-development work I know: The best thing is to surrender yourself to this condition. I sometimes call it ‘sitting in your own soup’ because it’s a fiercely challenging, yet creative process. Similar to an artistic process, you only start to see the big picture when you let go and let yourself in.

When I drew my image and allowed the grief to come through, I wrote the following. Something that you might wanna take to heart as well:

I want to appreciate myself during this phase. Give myself lots of time. Live through these fluctuations consciously – like labor pains. I really want to immerse myself into this phase even if I feel fear, but I want to consciously feel the woman in me, who wants to be born here. I’m curious about this woman! ”

Ultimately, it is not what you do in this phase that matters, but how you let yourself be. How you are in contact with it: Do not evaluate or judge it, which will cut you off from yourself. Feel it! Consciously perform rituals that honor your past… and then let go.

This will inevitably affect what you do or how your life will change when the time is right. Decisions and actions will simply appear and be made without much further ado. Action will not be taken out of a hurry-up euphoria, but instead from a place of clear and calm.

The reward: The phase of Re-integration.

Jan and Murray Stein write:

In the final phase of re-integration, people report a gradually growing sense of clarity about who they are and what they want to do… Hand in hand with this new clarity, the integration goes from previously projected aspects of the self: What else was scary, unknown or uncomfortable is now integrated into the new consciousness.” (from Betwixt & Between, translation: K. Kelly)

For me, it can be best described as follows:

I am in the same spot, but internally I changed lanes through this process; I am here with a different, more integrated quality and presence. Certain patterns say goodbye and I have a deeper and differentiated access to my being. My light. My love. My joy of being human.

For example, I act and re-act with much more serenity and, above all, humor! to situations that would have scared or stressed me beforehand and / or that would have called my inner critic onto the scene and would thus have made me react defensively or offended, because my ‘personality mask’ (=my old strategies) were still to be defended.

In the re-integration you can be much fuller and freer in the world. It allows you to feel your worth without having to look for it in others or in achievements. You no longer need to blame pople or situations for your sadness or misery. The previously felt deficiency that has arisen within you from what was previously suppressed no longer exists or hardly exists.

Jim Carrey once said in a speech to university graduates:

If you are looking for acknowledgement outside yourself, you become invisible.”

I hope that I could give a little insight into these important phases of growth and change. I’d be overjoyed if it would encourage you to enter this liminal space that wants to give birth to a self as a breathing, sensitive being without attachment to status, attributes and / or functions alone. Now, you are free. Now you can truly love unconditionally, because there is nothing to defend. Nobody can destroy the light that is always there.

Be gentle with your self!

All the best,

Katrin Kelly