Finding Fulfillment in Midlife and Beyond
After reading clients’ autobiographies over the past four decades, I’ve concluded life is a story that needs to be rewritten in midlife to reflect the desires of the authentic self. This core of the personality begins to emerge in the late thirties to mid-forties, signified by dissatisfaction that indicates rebellion is underway. Youthful goals are no longer as important as finding answers to questions of ultimate concern: who am I, why am I here, and what should I do with the rest of my life. By contrast, my younger clients need to go for the personal gold, experiment with many options, try on different personas, and compete for recognition from peers and authority figures.
Navigating the transition through midlife and beyond takes courage and persistence, since the younger self holds on with all its might in a culture that values external success more than inner success. Added to societal and family influences is the normal fear of getting older most prefer to ignore. This is especially true if parents and other relatives died too early, or they did not age well.
The usual reaction to fear of the unknown is to hold on to what you have, like a bear that hugs his adversaries as a way to defeat them. But holding onto earlier stages of life provokes the well-known midlife crisis, with its regressive symptoms of alienation and depression. Many transfer anxiety into chronic physical ailments, medicate their spiritual malaise, volunteer for multiple causes, or use escapes to avoid the challenge of change. The solution is to let go of everything that has outlived its usefulness, including the belief that age equates with loss. Removing these blockages to growth redirects life energy into goals that bring personal fulfillment, particularly in your work.
As examples of blockages to growth, one of my clients had stacks of files, magazines and books that littered her environment, inherited furniture she felt obligated to keep, knickknacks that took up every spare inch, and a garage crammed to the rafters. It didn’t cost anything for Janice to sort through all of this stuff, but it did take determination, and enlisting the aid of a co-hoarding husband.
Janice started with the smallest room in her house, and then worked through each room, closet and drawer, allowing for time to process emotions like sadness that came up as she discarded stuff. She also felt excited about the possibilities that came to mind as her surroundings became more orderly. As you may suspect, opening up space provoked disagreements between Janice and her husband, anger both had suppressed for years. Being honest with themselves and each other was frightening, but the clearing process got their grievances out into the open, where they could be discussed and resolved, with the help of a therapist.
Refusing to change is the most effective defense against death anxiety. When nothing changes you live in the illusion that time is not moving forward and you are not getting older. You come to the end of your life feeling regret about what you were too afraid to do. Resistance is also the enemy of creativity: the urge to transform that improves your life and the lives of others. This is why creative people are the target of so much hostility: they threaten the status quo. They also have the least regret, since they take the risks that scare them.
Begin your transformation with clearing the clutter from your life. If you need help ask a friend who can keep you on track. Offer to help this person in exchange. If need be, hire an organizer to remove everything except what you use and love. Then your environment will symbolize a mind that is open to the new and unexpected. And who knows, you may enjoy organizing so much it becomes a way to make a living.
Now That Your Mind is Clear
Given an unpredictable economy, rising costs of living, and the likelihood that safety nets like social security, dividends from investments and savings may not be enough to cover expenses when you are older, now it is not just a matter of if you should follow your passion. You absolutely must find the work that engages your heart in order to weather the turmoil that will be around for some time to come.
The work that is closest to your heart holds your interest over a long time. No one has to tell you to do what you like to do; you just do it. What changes over time is the form of what you do. For example, you work as an accountant for an employer, then you decide to start your own accounting business on a full or part time basis, get certified as a fraud investigator you teach what you know. If you succeed in a business or profession you become a coach. Your years as an elementary school teacher prepare you to write children’s books.
When you look at passion as a process of getting there, every job or business is a course you take that prepares you for mastery. You move through economic downturns because you get better and better as you get older, expertise that makes you virtually recession-proof. Once you are in the niche that nourishes your soul and serves your clients or customers you will be the center of calm in a stormy world.
To use a business analogy, owners and managers who survive and thrive in difficult times adapt to changes in the marketplace. They get rid of what is not working to make room for what works, using automation and technology to boost profits for shareholders and themselves. For this reason, employees today have to think like small business owners to survive, meaning you pay attention to shifts in market demand so you do not get blindsided when change arrives. A streamlined way of thinking, like any well run operation sets the stage for new and more profitable ways to serve consumers.
Similarly, to survive and thrive in midlife and beyond you will need to eliminate habits that are not working: surfing the Internet and smart phone, watching too much television, using alcohol, food and cigarettes to numb the emotions, and spending time with relatives and friends whose negativity saps your energy. When distractions are out of the way (and this may take a while) you can rewrite your life story so that it ends well.
Your New Life
Describe how you see yourself now, mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically. On a scale of 1–10, how self-disciplined are you? How do others see you, others can be family members, spouse or partner, friends and co-workers. If you were your authentic self, the part of you who can live without approval, how would you describe yourself? What is the difference between this person and how you and others see you? If you could change anything about yourself what would that be? Trust yourself more? Take better care of your body? Be honest with others? Set and keep boundaries? Finish what you start? Slow down? Take more risks?
Look back on the trajectory of your life. Make a list of the choices that never worked, no matter how hard you tried. How did these choices affect you? Next, make a list of choices that always turned out well, in spite of your fears. How did these choices change the way you thought about yourself? Be assured, when you stop making choices that don’t work, and you repeat the choices that always worked in the past, you will create a fulfilling life.
This piece was cross-posted on Nancy’s blog at http://thirdage.com/blog/the-search-for-fulfillment-in-midlife-and-beyond/.