Interview with Robyn Vickers-Willis

The author of Women Navigating Midlife talks about her book, about the changes which women go through at midlife, about Jungian psychology, how couples can work through their midlife changes together, about revealing herself in her books, and her next book.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

The Compulsive Reader: The “midlife crisis” in men is a well established area in the psychological literature. Did you receive resistance to the idea that women might also go through major changes at this time of their lives?

Robyn Vickers-Willis: I think now, that the answer is no, there is suprisingly little resistance, since I get a lot of excitement from both men and women. The only resistance is coming from people who haven’t chosen to make this transition. Doctors are recommnding my book and my seminar to their patients. I think that now, once people are recognising it, they realise how natural this transition is. Certainly in the past, I found myself being surprised at how even well known writers would talk about men going through a mid-life crisis, and women going through menopause. Even last week I was reading a book by a well known writer on change throughout life, and found that kind of blinkered approach. There has been a mindset that women aren’t allowed to own their own psychological development. When we think back to the impact of the feminist movement, and how recent it all is – 30 years ago a women wasn’t even allowed to have her own life, their lives belonged to their husbands and children. Women and men now are starting to live a life that’s reflecting who they truly are, and this is normal for the second half of life. Although not so much for the first. I think women are now moving through their midlife transition, however I think there are lots of forces against women too. 

The Compulsive Reader: You mention in your book that many people assumed that you were writing about menopause, but surely menopause is an event fairly far off into the future for a large proportion of your target market.

Robyn Vickers-Willis: There are still people I know, in their early 40s, who are going to their doctors with the ‘symptoms’ I talk about in my book, and are being recommending HRT and anti-depressants. Allen & Unwin had to put “This is not a book about menopause” on their press releases, and on the books that they sent out. Even with that, many people assume that it is about menopause. I don’t believe it has ever been explained to women that this kind of transition is a natural part of life. It is in psychological books, and I’ve read over 100 to write this book, but these works are not easily accessible to the everyday reader. My aim to write a book which was easy to understand, and geared towards the average reader.

The Compulsive Reader: Describe some of the changes which women typically go through at midlife.

Robyn Vickers-Willis: To start off with, there are bewildering feelings of sadness, apathy, and low energy. The sadness and depression and apathy are there because their psyche is encouraging them to slow down, and go within, and start noticing those parts of themselves that they’ve buried within society. For example, a women growing up in the 50s, if she was energetic or lively, might have had to repress those parts of herself to please those around her. As she starts moving through midlife transition, her psyche will start encouraging her to take ownership of those parts of herself. She will also start feeling anger and restlessness. It is really important for her to not just notice those parts, but to make changes which align with the way she is changing herself. The next generation – women as young as 20 and as old as 70 – are also reading my book. The conditioning is less, and the less you’ve repressed the less there will be to reclaim at midlife, but this change occurs regardless of where you come from. Every culture will make us bury parts of ourselves – that is normal because that is how we become socialised. Since the feminist movement, for young girls, less of their being will be repressed.

The Compulsive Reader: Have you always been a Jungian, or have you simply found his work most relevant to the type of change that women go through at midlife.

Robyn Vickers-Willis: I did discover Jung at midlife. I was actually going to give up psychology in my mid years. Although my clients were satisfied, I was discouraged, and felt that it provided no framework for who I was becoming. I had a life changing dream, and other events took place which are recounted in my book, and I started setting up a practice as a consultant in the corporate sector. This was about the same time that I discovered Jungian psychology, which has since become my main focus in my corporate work,in my personal life, and in the counselling I’ve done for other people. Many lay people find his direct writing hard to understand. He is said to have been the second most influencial person in the new age movement, with his focus on synchronicity, mandalas, dreams, and so that is something I just demonstrated in the telling.

The Compulsive Reader: You mention in your book that there is often a conflict between personal values and societal values? Why is this?

Robyn Vickers-Willis: As we are growing up we try to fit in as good citizens – as young girls and boys – society expects this of us. We are focused on our peers, our partners, our children, and our workplace. And then…at midlife, it is really important to start working out what our own true values are. These are not always in conflict with societal values, but in the main, they are much more internally focused, and may involve going against what we’ve been tought. 

The Compulsive Reader: You mention that Jung says our task at midlife is to find our true self and create a personal world that honours this self. What happens if we don’t succeed at finding our true selves?

Robyn Vickers-Willis: I think we end up with a much more constricted life – a life where we are just living out the first half of life. We end up holding on to a way of living that is no longer appropriate. Even if, on the outside, a woman appears alright, inside she might experience a lack of ease, energy and excitement. She will still be very much engaged in ‘role’ – eg holding onto her mothering role even though her children need her to let go, or to her primary relationship. This kind of thing can lead to deep unhappiness, and ill health.

The Compulsive Reader: Can a couple work through their midlife changes together openly? What is the best way to do this?

Robyn Vickers-Willis: Yes. This takes a lot of patience and good communication skills and a lot of trust. For my generation, even though we might have been reinventing our professional lives and lived very differently from our mothers, often the models we had from our parents meant that our home lives followed traditional stereotypes. This leads to a lot of potential upheaval in our relationship at midlife. My third book will be about relationships, although there is a chapter in Women at Midlife on relationships in which I discuss redefining how we can life in terms of our long term or short term relationships. The second half of life is more in relationship to the self, and if you can find a way to satisfy this part of yourself while still maintaining existing relationships, that is wonderful. 

The Compulsive Reader: Much of this book involves your own personal journey. Was it hard for you to reveal so much?

Robyn Vickers-Willis: At the time I was writing, no it wasn’t hard. I wrote the book in 6 months, and this is after having had writers’ block for 40 years. It just came out, and was the most satisfying 6 months of my life. I had offers from 2 major publishers, and was very encouraged. However, just before it was released into the bookshops 3 weeks ago, I suddenly felt a terror about having revealed so much. This form of self-revelation is very much against my original nature. Even in my corporate work, and I know that writing my story helped people relate to their own story, but in a way, at one level, it was terrifying. I knew I had consciously chosen to take this personal approach. My son set up my web site, and since then I’ve had emails and phone calls from women all over Australia, and I no logner have that terror. I now feel completely at ease at having told my story and feel it is why the book works for people. I live with my children and they have been very much part of that journey and feel really excited this whole thing, and I think pretty gobsmacked. First of all having known that I’ve always had a problem with writing – that I wrote, and published a book and so quickly. To me, I was also conscious as I was writing about my life of not exposing my family’s lives. I always had an intent of love while writing and my family have read the book. I don’t feel I have said anything which has invaded anyone else’s personal space. To me this all feels like the the right place.

The Compulsive Reader: Tell me about your next book Men Navigating Midlife. In what way is this book going to be different from navigating midlife?

Robyn Vickers-Willis: I’ve interviewed a lot of men and they talk really easily. The first man I spoke to talked for 5 hours. I haven’t asked questions and just let them talk. This book will be written in their voice, to explore the things that concern men at this pint in their life. Men relate to my womens book so a lot of men are reading the first one. My hope is the men’s book will help the men connect more with their own story. I won’t be identifying any of the men I use except for one man. I have had a very positive response from men about my work. At first people said to me ‘how can a women write a book about men’, but I think that, using the voices of these men will make it very much a book by and for men.