Organizational sleepwalkers: Emotional distress at midlife
Human Relations; New York; Nov 1999; Manfred F R Kets de Vries

Volume: 52
Issue: 11
Start Page: 1377-1401
ISSN: 00187267
Subject Terms: Studies
Psychological aspects
Organizational behavior
Middle age
Social psychology
Classification Codes: 2500: Organizational behavior
9190: United States
Attention is paid to a dysfunctional emotional behavior pattern whereby individuals experience very little pleasure. Instead, there is a feeling of emotional numbness. Although this phenomenon touches all aspects of life, the organizational context is focused on. For some executives, the stresses and strains of midlife become the catalyst for this dysfunctional emotional behavior. Their reactions are of a quasi-alexithymic and anhedonic nature. A number of recommendations for dealing with these difficulties are given.

Full Text:
Copyright Plenum Publishing Corporation Nov 1999
In this paper, attention is paid to a dysfunctional emotional behavior pattern whereby individuals experience very little (or a total absence of) pleasure. Instead, there is a feeling of emotional numbness. Although this phenomenon touches all parts of life, this paper focuses on the organizational context. For some executives, the stresses and strains of midlife (including stresses involving career issues) become the catalyst for this dysfunctional emotional behavior. Their reactions are of a quasi-alexithymic and anhedonic nature. Some of the characteristics of this dysfunctional emotional pattern are delineated in these pages. In addition, the related experience of depersonalization is highlighted, Some of the factors that contribute to these kinds of phenomena are explored. At the end of the paper, a number of recommendations for dealing with these difficulties are given.
KEY WORDS: midlife crisis; emotion; passion; anhedonia; alexithymia; depersonalization; dissociative disorder; isolation; withdrawal; manic defense; generativity.
By passions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, friendly feelings, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by pleasure or pain.
The passions are the gates of the soul
- Baltasar Gracian
Man is only great when he acts from the passions.
-Benjamin Disraeli


Given that midlife is a time of reassessment, and given the power many executives wield at this point in their life-the influence they have on their organizations-what are the pitfalls and hazards that individuals and organizations should watch out for at the approach of middle age?

At midlife many executives are at the height of their powers but simultaneously subjected to many responsibilities which can become a drain on time and energy. For some individuals, this critical period can be a time of major revitalization, the prime of life. Others, however, have great difficulty in passing smoothly through this life stage. For them, midlife represents a perturbing period of serious reappraisal and self-doubt. Whether it is experienced positively or negatively, the self-questioning that characterizes this time is a logical development in the life of an individual. As Jung once said

Aging people should know that their lives are not mounting and unfolding, but that an inexorable inner process forces the contraction of life. For a younger person it is almost a sin-and certainly a danger-to be too much occupied with himself; but for the aging person it is a duty and a necessity to give serious attention to himself. After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illumine itself. (1933, p. 125)

Midlife is a time of greater reflection, of questioning and seeking; it is a period of increased interiority. Personal relationships and work activities, the two anchors of emotional stability, begin to be regarded in a different light (Freud, 1926; Smelser & Erikson, 1980; Lichtenberg, 1989; Kets de Vries, 1995.) The ways in which people respond to these impulses vary greatly, however.

There is no escape from the conflicts of middle age. Consciously or unconsciously, we protest that there are limits to our omnipotence, that there are limitations to what life has left to offer us. Many people cope with this well, adapting to aging more or less gracefully. They see midlife as an important transition point from which to review and assess the past, and make plans for the future. But not everybody responds constructively to the transitions of middle age. For some, the passage through middle age turns into a full-blown crisis. Dante's words in The Divine Comedy (1954, p. 28) are telling:

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray

from the straight road and woke to find myself

alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was? I never saw so drear,

so rank, so arduous a wilderness!

Its very memory gives a shape to fear.


It was in recognition of these conflicts that scholars introduced the notion of the midlife crisis. According to Jaques (1965), this is precipitated by the growing, inescapable awareness of the inevitability of one's own death which awakens fantasies of annihilation and abandonment. He noted that the resultant serious psychological disturbance could lead to manic behavior, depression, and breakdown. Erikson (1959, 1963) viewed the middle years as a time when the individual has to deal with the opposing forces of generativity and stagnation. In other words, a person has to make the difficult adjustment to feeling alive through their contact with others (particularly the oncoming generation) or risk entering a cocoon of self-concern and isolation, and eventually suffer from a sense of psychic deadness.

For many people, this crisis point can cause considerable psychological pain, with their fear and unease stimulating the sense that they need to act before it is too late (Oldham & Liebert, 1989; Hunter & Sundel, 1989; Nemroff & Colarusso, 1990; Pollock & Greenspan, 1993). This can be felt as an impulse to disrupt the comfortable routines of life, to make dramatic changes. If they fail to act now, the alternative could be psychic deadness and stagnation. These confrontations with the self can be accompanied by great stress. For people who find this dilemma-generativity vs. stagnation-very anxiety-provoking, getting older is accompanied by considerable psychological pain.

The stress of this experience may be expressed in many ways. People may give in to dysfunctional, impulsive behavior, often fortified by drugs or alcohol. Some people become prematurely old and excessively routine bound, extremely wary of trying anything new. Others may begin to lose interest, energy, and concentration. And there are some for whom this period is characterized by depressive reactions. Unfortunately, none of these symptoms-these states of negativity-augurs well for a person's longevity.

For many people a major source of stress is found in midlife changes in the home environment-children moving out on their own, for example. Relationships at work, however, can also be major stressors. At midlife, many executives ask themselves whether they should be content with what they have achieved in the workplace or strive for something more (Evans & Bartolome, 1980). They evaluate whether their original career goals match what they have achieved to date. What sets this evaluative process in motion is the fact that the discrepancy between aspirations and current achievements becomes more noticeable at midlife (Levinson, Darrow, Klein, Levinson, & McKee, 1978). For some executives, this process of internal questioning is quite alarming. They may feel stuck at work and become painfully aware that time is running out. They may have difficulty dealing with the changes in life's circumstances. Some become frantic; others acquire a zombie-like quality. Although people in this latter group are present at work, they appear to sleepwalk. For these people the comment of one wit-"The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office"-seems appropriate.

Thus, these people, instead of adding value in the workplace, seem to be only going through the motions. Merely spending time at work-looking at the clock and shuffling papers-replaces being engaged in creative work. These employees lack passion in whatever they are doing; their sense of joy, affection, love, pride, and self-respect appears to be weakened. Strong emotions seem to be absent. There is very little, if any, pleasure in any activity they engage in.

In this article, I want to focus on just this kind of reaction-on those individuals who no longer seem to experience pleasure in what they are doing. What characterizes this group of people is their absence of passion. In this context psychiatrists employ terms such as alexithymia and anhedonia. I will describe some of the indicators of these dysfunctional emotional patterns. In addition, I will pay attention to a related experience called depersonalization. Furthermore, I will explore some of the factors that contribute to these phenomena. At the end of the paper, I will give a few recommendations for dealing with these difficulties.


The material for this article is based on interviews I conducted with over 200 senior executives. Many of the individuals interviewed were presidents or members of the board of their companies or managing directors of subsidiaries of large multinationals. Most of these executives had enrolled in a leadership seminar at INSEAD-a seminar that had as its objective providing participants with a better understanding of their leadership style and helping them develop their emotional intelligence. The average age of the participants was 46. The interviews were structured around verbal accounts of each executive's life history, major relationships, key events, and major organizational complaints.

Because of the nature of the seminar and the time I spent with these senior executives (usually three periods of 5 days), it was possible (in contrast to more traditional interview formats) to engage in a deep analysis of these individuals' preoccupations, motives, drives, needs, desires, and fantasies. Because participation in the leadership seminar was voluntarily, most of these people were highly motivated to engage in this process of self-inquiry.


In this exploratory investigation, I found the following numbers in the groupings for alexithymic/anhedonic and depersonalization-like reactions (see Table 1). Most of the executives interviewed (58%) seemed to be quite adaptable in dealing with the stresses and strains of midlife. There was a group of people, however, that was not so fortunate. Most of their stress reactions appeared to be of a "mixed" nature combining elements of alexithymia, anhedonia, and depersonalized behavior. Twenty percent of the participants in the study had experienced noticeable reactions of an alexithymic and/or anhedonic nature while 12% indicated having had depersonalization reactions. There were also a number of executives (10%) that reported having experienced all of the above. In looking at these figures it should be noted, however-as these executives were a self-selected group-that these figures do not necessarily indicate parallel patterns in the general population.


Physiological Changes

Many things-experiential, behavioral, cognitive, and physiological-seem to be happening at midlife. A major catalyst for the transition and reappraisal process of middle age appears to be physical wear and tear. Painful and pleasurable experiences having colored the early developmental processes, the primacy of bodily experiences continues throughout adulthood. To paraphrase Freud's comment that "anatomy is destiny," physiology seems to be very much destiny. As we know all too well from having been sick, the ego is foremost a bodily ego. Bodily sensations determine our way of relating to the external world. When there is something wrong with the body, all other problems tend to take second place.

One subtle way of experiencing bodily changes is by looking at ourselves. For some people, the daily process of staring in the mirror is like looking at death, but on the installment plan. The mirror is where, incrementally, the decline of the body can be observed. And when the integrity of the body image begins to disintegrate, that process is echoed by a string of associated mental processes.

At midlife, these concerns with altered body image come to a head. The changes are no longer dismissible. The physiological implications of aging are there for all to sec-baldness, gray hair, wrinkles, sagging breasts, a belly, glasses, hearing loss, a decrease in cardiovascular efficiency, and a slower response time (Butler, 1989; Diamond, 1997). These transformations, making the maintenance of a youthful image of the self more difficult, are stimuli that force people to reflect on their lost youth.

Caption: Table 1.

Sexuality is also an important factor at midlife. Men, although generally referring to this issue rather indirectly, may have concerns about a decrease in or loss of sexual potency. From midlife onward there is a gradual diminution in sexual interest, arousal, and activity (Weg, 1983). For people for whom sexuality has been an essential part of identity, concerns about failing sexual performance can be devastating. The enormous popularity of the drug viagra is an indication of the seriousness of this problem. To have this part of the self-malfunction can cause considerable agony (Diamond, 1997). Unfortunately, difficulties in sexual intercourse are often translated into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a person doubts his ability to perform, the risk of failure becomes greater. Many cases of impotence are caused by psychological rather than physiological factors. Furthermore, two of the major contributors to impotence are excessive alcohol consumption and excessive use of drugs such as tranquilizers and antidepressants-the side effects of stress-rather than aging.

For women, the onset of menopause can be stressful, particularly to those who delayed having children in order to pursue a career; menopause is a forceful and unwelcome reminder of the implications of the biological clock. For some women, this change in life is marked by depression, weight gain, tiredness, headaches, palpitations, insomnia, and digestive problems. (Greene, 1984; Greer, 1991).

Furthermore, given the premium society puts on looks, and given that self-esteem and sexual body image are very closely linked, a number of women become preoccupied with losing their femininity and sexual attractiveness. Having the sense that their youthful good looks are fading and that the time for having a child is running out, they may experience serious coping difficulties (Sheehy, 1995). Although women are more susceptible to self-esteem problems rooted in appearance, many men suffer from such problems as well. Both men and women may resort to cosmetic surgery in order to preserve their youthful appearance.

Changes in Social Relations

For some individuals the stability of the marriage becomes a major concern at this life stage. If increased routine has led to a sense of ennui and tediousness, couples may begin to wonder whether they should be content with a boring but untroubled marriage or should look for a new marriage partner as a way of revitalizing their emotional life. What often brings matters to a head is the sense that time is running out, that some kind of action needs to be taken. These people feel that if no immediate (and dramatic) action is taken to get them out of the rut, change will never happen (Bergler, 1954).

What often sparks these kinds of preoccupations is the empty-nest syndrome-the depression that some parents feel when their children leave home (Chiriboga, 1981). This is not inevitable, however. For many people, the empty nest comes as a relief Those individuals who do become depressed with the departure of the youngest child may have invested so much in child rearing (having found no compensating activities) that they experience a great sense of loss when their off-spring cease to be dependent on them. It is difficult for these people to deal with being a twosome once more. As some marriages may have been largely maintained through the children, there may be very little left to hold the couple together once the children have gone (Willi, 1982). In some instances, this may be a stimulus for divorce. And although such a rupture may occur late in marriage, it has its roots in a much earlier period of life together.

Changes in male and female roles may also contribute to disequilibrium at this life stage. Men and women often start to take on somewhat different roles as they enter middle age. The traditional stereotypes of men being more active, independent, and assertive and women being more passive, dependent, emotional, and nurturing may no longer be appropriate, if they were ever appropriate at all. A gradual reversal-a redefinition of roles, if you will-may take place. At midlife men may shift toward a more nurturing role, while women may become more assertive (Jung, 1933; Neugarten, 1970; Chiriboga, 1981; Oldham & Lieberts, 1989). In some instances, these changes may destabilize a marriage. Some partners are unable to adjust to these different ways of interacting. Furthermore, what may have been good at 20 may not necessarily be exciting at 45. People tend to age at different speeds: chronological, physiological, emotional, and mental ages are not necessarily synchronized.

In general, at midlife people experience a growing awareness of aging, illness, and the resulting dependence on others. Friends, relatives, and acquaintances to whom one has been close become sick or die, which is for many an ominous sign of things to come. Some people start to wonder when their time will be up. They struggle with the idea that it is now their turn to grow old and die. Especially devastating-because it shatters the unconscious conviction of one's own immortality-is the decline and death of one's parents. Such an occurrence can cause a great sense of disorientation.

In the context of the physical decline of one's parents, there is the further question of role reversal. As they grow older, parents begin to abdicate their role as caregivers and need increasing care themselves. This reversal of roles-difficult, certainly, for those who are aging-can be a major source of stress for the younger generation as well. Changes in one's perception of aging parents, along with one's own role-change from "player" to "coach," have a disruptive effect on a person's mental map. It is hard to relinquish the inner perception of the omnipotent parent of childhood, the person who was always able to make things right. To have this situation now reversed-to have the one who could always be depended on now depending on the "child"-can be quite anxiety- and stress-evoking (Neugarten, 1970.) Depressive reactions may follow, as may regressive episodes. Hypochondriacal concerns are also common. The care of a demented relative can be particularly stressful, often contributing to emotional disturbance on the part of the caregiver (Morris, Morris, & Britton, 1988).

Apart from the time and energy needed to take care of aging parents, there is also the psychological drain of seeing what is happening to them. Not all people age gracefully. If aging is a problematic process for our parents, we wonder whether we ourselves will age in a similar manner. Will we follow a parallel pattern, or can we be different? Frequently, in our parents we see caricatures of ourselves.

The problem of aging parents is exacerbated by the fact that the middle-aged are often sandwiched between their aging parents and their children (Butler,1989). Being in that position may imply a considerable financial burden, especially if the children are in college. For people so situated, midlife is a period characterized by overwhelming pressures and obligations. Various stress reactions are often the consequence.

Above all, the realization of the gradual disintegration of the body-reflected in what is happening to one's parents-evokes very primitive forms of anxiety (Oldham & Liebert, 1989). The fear of death becomes stronger. Death, which used to be an abstraction, becomes a more personal issue, a tragic reality pertaining to the self. Time, which used to be calculated as time-since-birth, now becomes time-left-to-live (Neugarten, 1970). This can stimulate an overwhelming need to come to terms with unresolved problems before it is too late.

An acceptance of the inevitability our own death is one of the challenges of midlife. Denial of this prospect cannot be squared with a realistic appraisal of life. This period also initiates a mourning process for our lost childhood and youth, along with a reexamination of our life goals-that greater sense of interiority described by Jung.

Changing Perceptions of Work

Given all these transitions on various fronts, midlife is likely to be a time when ambitions become less abstract. In the workplace executives are increasingly influenced by the constraints and opportunities of reality (Buhler, 1968; Buhler & Goldenberg, 1968; Levinson, Darrow, Klein, Levinson, & McKee, 1978; Gould, 1980; Oldham & Liebert, 1989); the illusions of adolescence and young adulthood are relinquished. After all, grandiose fantasies are the healthy prerogatives of the younger generation. At midlife, executives have to come to terms with their limitations. They should become more realistic, giving up fantasies of omnipotence and invulnerability, with their activities rooted in the here and now. The instrumental approach to a career-doing things now to benefit one later-is changing. The postponement of gratification is no longer attractive or stimulating. It is important to be able to mourn unattained goals and to accept what has been achieved. Confronting this necessity can be very hard, as it involves abandoning old dreams and redefining the nature of the challenges to be faced.

One of the most difficult of these to accept is the possibility of loss of effectiveness in the workplace. With the plateauing of an executive's career-a real possibility at this stage in life-routine sets in. For some, new learning slows down or becomes nonexistent. The excitement of exploring new things has disappeared. Life at work becomes repetitive. A sense of deja vu may lead to a loss of self-confidence and depression.

For some people, these transformations in the "inner theater" may lead to Torschlusspanik (literally, panic because the gate is closing)-the feeling that very little time is left to pursue their original dreams (Jacques, 1965; Levinson, Darrow, Klein, Levinson, & McKee, 1978; Sheehy, 1995). Such individuals may try to ward off these feelings by taking recourse in the "manic defense"; in other words, they may engage in a frenzy of activities (Klein, 1975). It is a form of denial, a way of dealing with the sense that time is running out, a weapon against the encroaching sense of deadness. These activities may take place at work, where a desperate effort may be made to achieve the original career goals. Frenetic efforts may also be nonwork-directed, however. Middle-agers may try to appear more youthful through their actions, resorting to age-inappropriate (and sometimes even promiscuous) behavior as a way to prove their youth and potency. Some executives become susceptible to love affairs as a way to feel alive. After all, emotions tend to be more intense in new relationships. Such people are unable to allow themselves to engage in contemplation; they sense that interiority might set off thoughts of depression and death anxiety.

This "expansive mode," however-this preoccupation with doing, not being; this illusion that there are no limit to one's abilities-comes at the cost of one's awareness of inner reality. Moreover, given the emotional drain of this kind of behavior, its uplifting effect may not last. Eventually, the other side of the coin will show, making for feelings of depression and a sense of futility about whatever the person is engaged in.

Narcissistic individuals, in particular, begin to deteriorate at midlife. What sets this process Into motion is the fact that their charm and their good looks often wear out. Other people within their sphere become less receptive, less willing to provide them with narcissistic supplies. In addition, the awareness of the limitations of their achievements may lead to feelings of envy, rage, and defensive devaluation of those who are perceived as more successful. Envious of youth (even their own progeny) and engaged in selfdeception, they lose whatever external and internal sources of support might have still been available. Some narcissists may become more introverted in a world seen as devoid of meaning and perceived as hostile. Relational failures, fatalism, isolation, and rigidity are common patterns (Kernberg, 1980).

Given the importance of narcissism in leadership development, many executives will be especially affected by this category of midlife problems. Some executives, however, may also have serious difficulties in dealing with the developmental tasks of this period (Kets de Vries, 1995). Indications of such problems are the inability to enjoy sexuality, the incapacity to relate in depth to others, emotional detachment, and a lack of satisfaction at work. All these problems seem to have to have a common denominator: a lack of passion. Feelings of zest and enthusiasm have dissipated; emotions have flattened; there is very little, if any, pleasure. Instead, people succumbing to this sort of midlife crisis live in a world permeated by deadness.


In psychiatry, the word alexithymic is given to people who have a deadfish quality to their behavior-individuals who either struggle, or are unable, to understand their emotions or moods; they are incapable of perceiving the subtleties of mood change. Such people also experience problems in expressing affect. The fairly recently coined term alexithymia comes from the Greek and means, literally, "no word for emotions." True alexithymics are individuals who feel and show no passion or enthusiasm, individuals who have no fire in their belly (Nemiah & Sifneos, 1970; Sifneos, 1972; Krystal, 1974, 1988; McDougall, 1982, 1989).

Identification of alexithymics is not difficult. The symptoms of alexithymia include an impoverished fantasy life, a paucity of inner emotional experience, and a tendency to adopt a lifeless, detail-oriented way of speaking. In dealing with alexithymics, other people perceive in them feelings of dullness, and boredom, and become frustrated. Winston Churchill's description of the Russian politician Vyacheslav Molotov fits this type of person: I have never seen a human being who more perfectly represented the modem conception of a robot."

Alexithymics radiate a kind of mechanical quality. They appear to remain unperturbed by what other people would find emotionally shattering experiences. A death in the family, a partner's infidelity, being passed over for a promotion-nothing seems to ruffle them. All experiences seem to slide down into a black hole of inexpressiveness and blankness. They seem incapable of spontaneous reactions. Their incapacity for empathy or selfawareness and mechanical, robotic responses to conflict amount to psychological illiteracy. They are preoccupied with the concrete and objective; metaphors, allusions, and hidden meanings are like a foreign language to them. They have no sense of fun. They tend to negate and deny the existence of emotions. A concentration of detail is used as a way of filling their inner deadness.

There are a number of explanations for this kind of disorder-some physiological, some psychological (Taylor, 1994). Researchers who have a physiological answer to the origins of alexithymia see it as a deficit in the connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. They believe that something has gone very wrong with the "wiring" between these two units. Researchers who see the origins as psychological look to the person's early relationships with the primary caregiver.

Neurophysiologists have pointed out that there are similarities between alexithymics and split-brain patients. Alexithymics behave as if the right and left hemispheres were disconnected from each other; they exhibit a lack of interhemispheric communication. The right hemisphere's passions are inaccessible to the left hemisphere's verbal, conscious integration. Somehow a dampening of signals, or perhaps simply a lack of amplification of signals, occurs between the two hemispheres. Consequently, the person's emotional life remains out of conscious awareness. Because one of the right hemisphere's specializations is processing body image and somatic awareness, what should have been expressed as emotional reactions is channeled into bodily symptoms.

Some psychiatrists and psychoanalysts trace the root of true alexithymic behavior to a lack of transitional space in childhood. They suggest that some overprotective mothers frustrate the child's individuality and attempts at play, not allowing the child to feel for him- or herself. The child becomes trapped in an aborted symbiotic relationship whereby extreme dependence is artificially prolonged. Such mothers treat their children as extensions of themselves and keep them under their constant surveillance. The child's body is handled as if it were someone else's property; the child's natural emotions are discouraged. The ability to differentiate and verbalize emotions never develops properly. Thus true alexithymics ignore the distress signals given by their mind and body; they are out of touch with their psychic world.

This kind of behavior fits in well with many organizations. After all, few organizations have a reputation for being places where emotional expressiveness is widely encouraged. At senior management levels it sometimes seems as if a division of emotional labor has taken place. Blue collar workers are permitted to express emotions while white collar employees are supposed to be models of emotional control (Krystal, 1988). It takes a lot of energy, however, to keep emotions under lock and key for long periods of time, and eventually, this will take its toll on an individual. Midlife seems to be the time when this kind of wear and tear begins to show.

Thus, we often see at midlife, at the senior executive level, the regular occurrence of quasi-alexithymic behavior. Think about all the corporate types scuttling around the workplace-the men in their gray flannel suits, the women in their severely tailored outfits-who make all the right noises, who seem to behave appropriately, but in whom nothing distinctively human is revealed. They follow the rules, never rocking the boat, but they do not know how to play. Interaction with these kinds of people has a draining quality; there is so little emotional resonance that we may wonder whether there is anybody home. After a short while, being with them gets to be boring. One feels like kicking them just to get some kind of reaction out of them. These people can be extremely exhausting because of their lifelessness.

The nature of quasi-alexithymic behavior is revealed in this excerpt from an interview with a CEO:

I sometimes think back about the time when I was a child. I have the image of a person full of life. I remember the tantrums I used to have as a kid. I would scream and yell at my mother if things weren't going my way. Not exactly pretty behavior, but at least I showed that I was alive, that I cared. At university I remember the pleasure I experienced when our team won a soccer game. There was this enormous feeling of exhilaration. Even when I started working I remember temporary highs-for example, when I was asked to set up a sales office in Indonesia. Now, at the age of forty-seven, all these feelings seem somewhat strange to me. It's as if they're from another planet. Whatever passions I had, my company has taken care of them. I learned very early on that "Don't show any excitement" is the rule here, And I've been very good at following that rule. I know that behind my back people call me a cold fish. I've overheard them say that I must have ice water in my veins. They may have a point. I keep myself well under control. Doing so isn't that difficult. Everything seems rather flat.

At home my way of interacting isn't that different. Now, with the children gone, being alone with my wife, there seems to be very little to say. We go through the motions. We're like two ships passing in the night.

Somehow the organizations where such people work encourage this kind of behavior. And the years take their toll. Whatever life these people once possessed is driven out of them. Such individuals may not be truly alexithymic, but because alexithymic-like behavior is encouraged in the workplace, behaving in an emotionless way becomes second nature to them. They conform to what their organization expects of them, and this lack of emotionality eventually begins to stick. It turns into the real thing; it results in a partial deadness. Whatever playfulness the person once possessed seems to be gone, replaced by ritualism and apathy. This kind of deadness, however, leads to a life without pleasure.


The pursuit of pleasure is reflected in the Greek word hedonism. As professed by the ancient Greeks, hedonism was a doctrine arguing that pleasure-the gratification of sensual desires-is the highest good. This notion of hedonism led psychiatrists to introduce a concept called anhedonia to describe the opposite state (Ribot, 1896; Meehl, 1962; Klein, 1974; Snaith, 1993). The label anhedonic is applied to people who have a lowered ability to experience pleasure; it implies a sense of apathy, a loss of interest in and withdrawal from all regular and pleasurable activities. Anhedonics are unwilling to seek out new sensations; their attentional function is diminished; they lack a zest for life. Activities that would provide pleasure and satisfaction under normal circumstances do not do so any longer.

Pleasure, in the context of anhedonia, can be grouped into three categories (Watson, Klett, & Lorei, 1970; Chapman, Chapman, & Raulin, 1976). There is physical gratification-the pleasures of eating, touching, feeling, sex, temperature, movement, smell, and sound. Then there are interpersonal, social pleasures, being with people, talking, doing things with them, interacting in many different ways. Finally, there are pleasures that are neither physical nor interpersonal. Intellectual pleasures or the pleasures of achievement fall into this category. In cases of true anhedonia, however, these pleasures are absent or seriously reduced.

Full-blown anhedonia is a worrisome disturbance. In interviews, anhedonic people indicate a paucity of inner life. This sort of prolonged, marked flattening of affect has been associated with various forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia, and schizoaffective and bipolar disorders. The nature of this connection between anhedonia and mental illness is unclear. However, neurobiological disturbances have been implicated.

People in a depressed state show many similar characteristics (Klein, 1974; Loas & Boyer, 1993). Depressive symptoms, such as a lack of energy, a decrease in activity level, reduced concentration, loss of appetite, weight loss, lack of sexual activity, slowness of thought, inability to respond to the mood of the occasion, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, and feelings of tiredness resemble some of the indicators of true anhedonia. However, quasi-anhedonic behavior can be transient and does not necessarily imply the life-long characterological defect in the ability to experience pleasure that is found with real anhedonia.

Apart from depression, there are other mental states that result in quasianhedonic behavior-mental states whereby an individual no longer enjoys a previously enjoyed activity or pastime. My observations, which reveal that such behavior often comes to the fore at midlife, support the conjecture that a contributing factor is the way people cope with the process of aging. As with true anhedonia, what characterizes people adopting such behavior at midlife is an absence of pleasure. They experience a loss in the joy of living, a defect in the experience of pleasure. In its milder forms, this anhedonic-like reaction is expressed as a difficulty in maintaining concentration and interest in normal activities. It may also be symptomized as a steadily increasing reluctance to take part in normal activities. People struggling in this way keep to the minimum the effort they expend; their energy level seems to be fading. Activities that used to be of interest to them are now of little consequence. Because boredom comes quite easily to these individuals, their participation in activities drops off, undertakings that continue are conducted at a minimal, desultory level. Negativity prevails. Decisions are put off, indecisiveness becomes increasingly troublesome. Emotional expressiveness is weakened. Sexual intercourse, if it takes place at all, gives no, or very little, pleasure. To some extent these midlife quasi-anhedonics withdraw from "worldly activities"; they become more introverted. They seem to be cut off from life, no longer interested in other people. One senior executive recounted:

I realize now that the only time I've been creative-if that's the right word to use-is when I was passionate about things. That seems now ages ago. I can no longer remember when I had this feeling, when I really felt alive. I don't know what's happening to me. I've lost interest in most things. Very little gets me excited these days. I feel very distant from people. Oh, I put up a nice front, but that's what it is. I go through the motions.

The same thing is happening at home. My relationship with my wife and family has become quite ritualistic. My sex life is nonexistent. I assume what keeps my wife and me together is sheer inertia.

This lack of interest also applies to other things of my life. For example, I used to be quite passionate about food. No longer. I don't much care what I eat these days. The same thing with reading. It used to be one of my favorite pastimes. Now my concentration isn't what it used to be. I start reading a book but very quickly put it down, because I lose interest. I spend quite a bit of time watching television. Maybe watching isn't the right word. I play with the remote control. One program seems like any other. As a matter of fact, I forget immediately what I've seen. I know things can't go on like this. There's no pleasure in what I'm doing. I can't keep up this facade much longer. Something has to happen.

It is not always obvious that these changes in behavior and attitudes are taking place. The process can be very subtle. Often, someone behaving in this manner may not even be consciously aware of it, although subliminally they may realize that there is something wrong. In fact, many executives whose behavior could be termed quasi-alexithymic or quasi-anhedonic comment on their sense of feeling detached, like observers of their own actions.


In psychiatry, the term dissociative disorders refers to a disruption of the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, and perception of the environment (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Within this group of disorders we find depersonalization disorder, which is characterized by a persistent or recurring feeling of being detached from one's own mental processes or body (although reality testing seems to remain intact). This disorder might be described as a feeling of unreality or strangeness regarding the self, a feeling of numbness or death, a feeling that parts of the body are disconnected. People suffering from depersonalization complain about a discontinuity in physical reality, in one form or another. A central part of the experience is their disconnection or disengagement from the self and/or the physical surroundings. Depersonalized individuals feel themselves to be detached from their own ongoing perceptions, actions, emotions, and thoughts. What should be familiar is perceived as strange and unreal.

This psychological detachment from the physical environment makes for a reduction in the intensity and vividness of experiences (Dugas & Moutier, 1911; Jacobson, 1959; Walsh, 1975; Fewtrell, 1986; Steinberg, 1993; Cardena, 1994). Diminished capacity to experience emotions is an especially worrisome part of this phenomenon. People troubled by depersonalization experience a sensation of being an outside observer of their own mental processes (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). It is as if these people were watching a dream or a movie about themselves. No matter what they are thinking or doing, their participation does not seem real; it no longer has a personal relation or meaning. These feelings of depersonalization are more common than may be initially thought. Most people, however, will not admit to this experience without prompting. A Swedish CEO touches upon this feeling quite well:

When I was chief executive of Dagens Nyheter [a major Swedish daily newspaper], my collaborators started to complain about me. . @ . To my horror, I noticed my tendency to emotionally disappear in the middle of a presentation. Suddenly I would be gone, closed, no longer part of the surroundings. People would notice; they would become edgy, as evidenced by the way they would cross their arms and legs; their attention span would wander off ... To this strange state of mind was also added my incapacity to listen and function in company. (Douglas, 1993, pp. 65-66, my own translation)

I overheard another senior executive make the following comments:

Here I am sitting in my office. People come and go, but there's nobody home. I hope you realize that I'm talking about myself Oh, they don't really seem to notice. I ask the right questions; I make notes; I make an effort to laugh with whoever is there. They assume I'm with them, but I'm not. I'm looking at myself doing all those things and feel strange. It's like I'm on automatic pilot. Whatever happens, it doesn't seem to touch me. Things seem to take place outside me; I feel quite removed from the experience. Sometimes I look at my reflection in the window to see if it's really me; if I'm still there. I seem to oscillate between being part of what's going on and feeling like a spectator. If I'm in the latter state, it's like I'm in a movie or a participant in one of my dreams from which I can wake up any moment. It reminds me of the story of the sage who once dreamed about a butterfly. Afterward, being awake, he would wonder if he was a sage who had dreamed about a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming about a sage.

As these excerpts show, depersonalized individuals experience a split between the observing and the participating self. Because bodily actions seem to happen on their own, there is a heightening of the function of self-observation; the self can merely observe, instead of experiencing emotions or thoughts. Although reality testing remains intact, all experiences have an "as if' quality to them: the person feels like an automaton, physically numb, as if bodily sensations were happening at a distance. There is also, however-somewhere-the awareness that what is happening is only a feeling, that one is not really an automaton.

Because of the quality of unreality and estrangement attached to personal experiences, the depersonalized individual has the dual perception that everything is the same as it has always been but is at the same time different, since it lacks personal involvement. Derealization may also be present: in other words, perceived objects in the external world may have the same quality of estrangement and unreality.

Depersonalization is viewed as a mechanism to mask anxiety-one that results in a loss of affect (Oberndorf, 1950). As such, it can be seen as a primitive defense allied to denial, an emergency measure used when the more usual defenses (such as repression) fail. We can also view it, however, as an adaptive mechanism, a response to danger that makes for a heightened alertness on one hand but a dampening of potentially disturbing emotions on the other (Noyes & Kletti, 1977). One potential precipitating factor for this strange state of mind can be the stress of the middle years, when work-related factors may play an important role.


An exploration of alexithymia, anhedonia, and depersonalization provides us with a certain amount of insight into the kind of emotional malaise some people are subjected to. We have seen how these processes can be viewed both as defensive reactions and as adaptive mechanisms to assist in dealing with stressful situations-situations that may include the vicissitudes of midlife.

As a caveat, it should be noted that it is executives at midlife, at the peak of their careers, who are most often responsible for critical decisions in organizations. Some of these decisions-such as downsizing, with its negative effects on other people's lives-may take their toll in the form of stress reactions (Kets de Vries & Balazs, 1997). For some people, the combination of the stress associated with such difficult organizational decisions and the stress of the challenging midlife transition can be devastating.

Defensive Reactions

Some individuals at midlife resort to psychological withdrawal as a way of removing themselves from active participation in interpersonal problem solving. For them, the outer world feels full of threats against their security and identity. They become emotionally numb as a means of defense.

Others, despite appearances, are not truly emotionally numb. They give this impression because they have withdrawn from the outside world to hide in their own private space. In resorting to this kind of action they may appear dull and boring. The reality, however, can be quite different, as they may have retreated into an exciting world of the imagination. But in acting the way they do, in creating a split between the self and the outside world, a sense of estrangement may occur, To the external world they seem purposeless, drifting.

As we have seen, there are also individuals who resort to isolation as a way of dealing with painful states of mind-the isolation of feeling from knowing. They may recognize the conscious experience but its emotional meaning is no longer there. However, this way of coping with painful reality makes for emotional numbing, creating phenomena resembling alexithymic and anhedonic behavior.

I have also mentioned that some people, as a strategy for dealing with the unpleasant sensations associated with midlife, engage in vigorous activity to induce sensations of an intensity that can breach the wall of numbness. However, this "manic" way of dealing with the stresses and strains of midlife (although much more attractive than withdrawal or isolation) also has its problems. Manic behavior does not make for a stable state; it is only a temporary solution. It is a kind of "flight" behavior, a way of escaping from painful emotions (Klein, 1975). The manic's many grandiose schemes, racing thoughts, and apparent freedom from normal physical requirements (such as food and sleep) eventually lead to a serious state of emotional exhaustion. In the long run, this sort of manic behavior does not make for enjoyment; on the contrary, it leads to mental impoverishment. It is a very ineffective way of dealing with the challenges of middle age, serving only as a postponement of the dreaded depression.

Dysfunctional Leadership Behavior

As is to be expected, reactions such as social withdrawal, loss of a sense of purpose, and depression not only cause serious problems at home but have a considerable impact in the workplace. Studies of leadership have shown that emotional presence-the energizing role of leadership-is a key ingredient in successful company performance (House, 1977; Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Zaleznik, 1989; Bass, 1990; Hogan, Curphy, & Hogan, 1994; Kets de Vries, 1995). Acting passionately makes others feel alive, involved, and motivated. Without passion, there is no inspiration; and inspiration is essential if others are to share and enact a leader's vision and create a high performance organization,

Another important prerequisite is the ability of senior executives to create an atmosphere which allows employees to enjoy their work. Many of the more effective CEOs have discovered that people work harder when they have fun (Kets de Vries, 1995; Kets de Vries & Florent, 1999). A sense of pleasure at work makes for greater productivity and encourages playfulness and creativity. Thus, the ability to instill pleasure in the workplace is an important contributing variable to effective leadership.

Leaders, at whatever level they may be in the organization, can be compared to psychiatric social workers: they are the "container" of the emotions of their subordinates. Such leaders realize that one of their roles is to provide a sense of security, trust, and confidence. Truly effective leaders possess a kind of "teddy bear" quality. Their presence is reassuring. They know how to create a safe and comfortable holding environment for their employees.

Leaders with this teddy bear quality are gifted with empathy. Their emotional presence and "aliveness" puts people at ease. They are extremely good at picking up elusive signals in conversation. And because of their teddy bear quality their employees are willing to "stretch themselves"; to do things they would not otherwise do; they will make unusual contributions. Empathic leaders also have a strong sense of generativity. They take pleasure from helping the next generation, as mentor and coach. They do not suffer from the kind of envy that characterizes other people who experience difficulties at midlife. This sense of generativity is critical for organizational learning (Erikson, 1963; Senge, 1994; Collins & Porras, 1997; Kets de Vries & Florent, 1999). Without it, organizational learning will be stifled and the future of the organization will be endangered.

Obviously, leaders in the pangs of quasi-anhedonic and quasi-alexithymic behavior, and those prone to depersonalization, are not organizational teddy bears. Neither do they demonstrate a passion for learning and further development. Their emotional absence is noted by those they work with. And given the power that senior executives wield in their organizations, their negative mood states and their emotional absence-if prolonged-can become quite infectious, coloring corporate culture, strategy, and structure (Kets de Vries & Miller, 1984, 1987) and eventually contributing to the organization's decrease in performance.


The key question is how the stresses of midlife can be transformed into a progressive process. How can we retain an energizing role and recapture lost passion? What can people do to maintain a sense of vitality? Regaining a love of life takes a lot of work but we have to make it happen.

We should keep in mind that as adults our life situation is quite different than it was in the days of childhood. When we were very young, everything was new; everything was worth giving attention to; it was a world full of new experiences. But as adults, retaining that sense of newness is not easy. We have to search out ways to stimulate our exploratory disposition. A continuous effort has to be made to renew ourselves (without resorting to manic defense solutions).

Various steps, in both the private and the public (i.e., work) spheres, can be taken to maintain this sense of aliveness. We may not always be able to take these steps alone, however. We may need professional help to get the process underway. Understanding what is happening to us at midlife-that our emotions may be flattening, that we are losing our zest for life-is not easy, given the blind spots we all have about our character. Others may help us acquire the courage to address the issues we are struggling with. Dynamic psychotherapy, personal coaching, and/or participation in group dynamics seminars where feedback about personal style is part of the process may provide us with insights into our own behavior.

Self-knowledge is the first step in the process of disentanglement from an unhealthy situation. Thus, it is imperative that anyone attempting to address midlife concerns acquire a certain amount of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995). Awareness makes for insight about one's own motivation; and from insight, strategies can be developed to deal with the problematic situations represented at midlife.

The person has to deal, however, with the unavoidable resistances to change. Encouragement may be needed to take the required steps. Here the role of psychotherapists, coaches, friends, collegues or family members can become important to help the person "mourn" the past, work through resistances, and find new strategies for living.

In private life, marriage can be revitalized when children leave home. Breaking established routines and doing new things together can be a means of avoiding mourning the empty nest. In fact, once the children are out of the house, there may be many exciting opportunities for renewal within the marriage relationship.

New relationships can be built with children who have left home as well. Parents and children relating to each other on an adult basis can discover different interaction patterns. Leaving the parent-child role enables parents to see their children in another perspective. The possible new role of grandparenthood may be of help in creating these new relationships and may come with its own satisfactions. Again, it will provide the individual with opportunities for generativity (Erikson, 1963).

Making new and different friends can be a very effective therapeutic exercise. Most people have a tendency to associate with people in the same socioeconomic bracket, in similar occupations. Mixing with people from different backgrounds can be a learning process for both parties. Joining different organizations may be one way to meet new people.

Some people may take a very different route. They may find excitement in starting an affair, or divorcing and finding a "trophy wife." For many, sexuality becomes a major avenue toward a sense of aliveness (Bergler, 1954). Not surprisingly, there is a peak in the divorce rate at midlife (Keys, 1975). When a marriage has become completely stale and both parties are merely going through the motions-when the partners truly have very little in common anymore-a divorce and a new relationship may be a good way to engage in a new beginning.

Some people may see middle-age as a good time to pursue completely different interests or to go back to interests abandoned earlier in life. This may mean doing something for humanitarian, political or social organizations, becoming involved in a social cause or pursuing altruistic concerns. Time can be made now to take up different, less strenuous sporting activities or to rediscover old interests in esthetic and recreational activities.

In the work setting, a logical move is to set goals that will stretch us. Tackling new, challenging tasks makes for a sense of "flow" -feelings of exhilaration and total involvement about what we are doing (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, 1998). Learning new things is the best way of making the most of humankind's pursuit of exploratory needs. And organizations that put an emphasis on learning create opportunities for creativity and innovation; they make self-improvement a cultural imperative. To learn from experience and adapt successfully to the changes in the business environment makes for a continuing sense of feeling alive.

Some people "do a Gauguin," an expression coined from the name of the artist who gave up his job as a bank clerk and went to a Polynesian island to paint. "Doing a Gauguin" means starting something completely new, making a dramatic change in one's career (Kets de Vries, 1995). The catalyst for this is the feeling that unusual action is needed to get out of a rut. At midlife, it dawns on some people that they have chosen their career for the wrong reasons, for example to please a parent. At this stage in their lives, these people are finally ready to make the jump and do what makes them feel most alive, pursuing activities that they had been interested in for a long time. To experience a sense of renewal, to feel passion once more, they make a complete break from their previous career and find new challenges.

Others revitalize themselves through mentoring. Getting involved in the development of young people, enjoying vicarious gratification by sharing their disappointments and victories, can be an exhilarating and enriching experience. It keeps the mentor young, interested, and involved. As mentioned before, taking the generativity route also helps to establish continuity in the organization. It institutionalizes learning and makes it an intrinsic part of the corporate culture.

In connection with this, there is the notion that each of us has a kind of "generativity script," our plan for what we intend to do in order to leave a legacy for the next generation (Erikson, 1963; Kets de Vries, 1980; Kotre, 1982; McAdams, 1992). This generativity script charts the way to attaining a kind of immortality; it lays out something through which the person will be remembered and which will outlive the self. This creation can be tangible or intangible; be it a child, a book, a business, an idea, or a good deed that becomes a statement of the self, it is a self-expression that will be shared with others. In generativity, the person gives guidance to the next generation through parenting, teaching, leading, and/or doing things for the community. Something of a lasting nature is done-something that will outlive death. Because generativity promotes continuity from one generation to the next, taking that route indicates a faith in the value of human life, a sense of hope for the future.

As someone once said, life is not a rehearsal. A major life task is to die young as late as possible. We must do all we can to avoid being diminished by circumstances and sleepwalking through life. It can be a daunting task-but what is the alternative? Socrates said that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and we can equally maintain that a passionless life is not worth living. At midlife, we must be alert to the dangers of inertia, the tendency to detachment and emotional absence, the panicked rush into action-all negative responses to the crises that accompany this stage in the life cycle. We must recognize and create new sources of energy and excitement, for, as the French writer Diderot said, "Only the passions, only great passions can elevate the mind to great things."


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[Author note]
Manfred F R. Kets de Vries1,2

[Author note]
'Raoul de Vitry d'Avaucourt Professor in Human Resource Management, INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France.
2Requests for reprints should be addressed to Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, Raoul de Vitry d'Avaucourt Professor in Human Resource Management, INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France.

[Author note]
MANFRED F. R. KETS DE VRIES holds the Raoul de Vitry d'Avaucourt Chair of Human Resource Management at the European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD),

[Author note]
France. He is Clinical Professor of Management and Leadership, He did a doctoral examination in economics (Econ. Drs.) at the University of Amsterdam and holds an MBA degree and DBA degree from the Harvard Business School. He is a member of the Canadian Psvchoanalytic Society, the International Psychoanalytic Association, and a corresponding member of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society. He is practicing psychoanalyst. He has held professorships at McGill University, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Montreal, and the Harvard Business School. Kets cle Vries' main research interest lies in the interface between psychoanalysis, dynamic psychiatry, and management. Specific areas of interest are leadership, crosscultural management, career dynamics, organizational stress, entrepreneurship and family businesses, and the dynamics of corporate transformation and change. He has written 15 books and over 120 articles for scientific journals which have been translated in 12 languages. Kets de Vries' books include The Neurotic Organization (with Danny Miller), Handbook of Character Studies (with Sidney Perzow), Leaders, Fools and Imposters, Life and Death of? file Ei:ecutive Fast Lane (Critics' Choice Award 1995-1996). Family Business:Human Dilemmas in the Family Firm,ri and The New Global Leadees (with Elizabeth Florent). He is been a consultant on organizational design/transformation and strategic human resource management and has done executive development work with some of the major U.S., Canadian, and European companies.

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