Despite the volumes of books and magazine articles advising midlife baby boomers how to prolong or renew their health, happiness and vitality, I continue to hear many of them tell me about feelings of stagnation and loss. Or worse, a sense of being on "a long slide home," as one 50-something put it.
- You happened to catch an old episode of "Sesame Street" or "Mister Rogers" on TV, and you felt engulfed by a wave of nostalgia and loss over your children, who are now grown and building their own lives without you.
- You worry about whether your career has peaked, especially when you're reminded every day of the hordes of younger people coming up right behind you -- or who've now moved ahead of you.
- You're divorced and dealing with new challenges as a single person.
- Or, you're married/with a partner, but feelings of passion and intimacy have faded like autumn leaves.
- You're stressed about your financial future in your later years, given our economic uncertainty.
I think there's a core reason why such feelings and experiences aren't helped all that much by the midlife guides and programs out there: We've learned to experience midlife through a mentality that keeps us frozen within feelings of loss, regret and fears about change. That paralyzes our capacity for consciously-created actions, ones that can generate renewed energy, creativity and engagement in the period of life we're now living through.
What can help free you from that sense of sinking, sliding and stagnating -- the "big three" of midlife despair -- is first, learning to mentally reframe your current experience of loss, regret and the like. And secondly, using that new perspective to identify and undertake actions that serve something beyond preoccupation with yourself.
Reframe Your Perspective About Loss, Regret and Change
In our culture, we tend to equate change with loss and therefore experience it as painful and bad. Most of us can recall something that we wanted to "possess" forever -- a special moment, a period in a relationship, a particular experience. The difficult part is accepting those feelings while also embracing the reality that all life is in a state of transition, from one state to another. All is impermanent. But that awareness will activate your capacity for engaging life and creating positive experiences with what now exists at this moment in your life.
What we call "loss" is the conventional emotional experience of change, transition and the impermanence of life. It's your response to the desire to stay attached, holding on, to something that's ended or evolved in a different direction. It may be a relationship, your growing child, your physical state or some experience you once "had."
It's hard to see or accept the other side of that coin: that every "loss" contains a new experience as well, that you can do something with or learn from. For example, if you accept that your son or daughter is no longer a young child, that opens the door to building a different kind of relationship as he or she grows and matures. But you won't see or embrace that side of the coin if you're fixed on fear of letting go of what you've "lost."
The key, here, is to fully absorb your emotional experience of what's changing or evolving, including feelings of sadness or regret. But, at the same time, accept and feel gratitude for what now exists in the life you have at this moment in time. This enables you to continue to evolve, as I've written about in a previous post.
Fear of letting go and accepting change is powerful. It can fuel a desire to stay fixed, just as you are, even as you suffer -- whether from a specific loss or a sense of life having gone awry. You might feel as though it's safer to suffer, because at least that way you feel alive. Or worse, as one midlife person told me upon learning that he had a serious illness, "I don't mind dying, because I've never really lived."
Learning to reframe the experience of loss is hard. It requires embracing the unknown, what can look like darkness and uncertainty that lies in front of you. That fear can freeze you into unhealthy nostalgia and fantasy about what you once "had" or embellish in your mind a time in your life that might not have been quite as positive as you now want to recall. I frequently see examples of aging baby boomers who retreat into such nostalgic paralysis.
Fears of loss and change often lead to trying to cope with and manage decline, an attempt to slow down the impact of the involuntary events that are part of midlife change. You're probably well-acquainted with them: children growing up and leaving home, unexpected changes at work that impact your career, an aging body that doesn't look or act the same as it used to, unexpected injury, illness or death of friends or family members. Involuntary events and experiences are part of life in general but are often more visible and pronounced at midlife. However, when you equate managing involuntary events with a healthy midlife, you remain mired in fear and stagnation. You're unable to become unstuck and engage life with passion, energy and gratitude.
In contrast, healthy midlife builds from voluntary events and experiences that you set in motion. That builds the positive resiliency you need for life in today's world, as I've written about in some previous posts. It involves reframing how you envision loss and transition -- away from fear and holding on, away from a coping, reactive mentality in which you keep looking at what's behind you and toward a conscious vision of how to engage your powers and energies towards something larger than your self-interest. As the novelist Graham Greene wrote in "The Heart of the Matter," "One small act of daring can change one's entire conception of what is possible."
Live for More Than Your Ego
Much fear, sense of loss and focus on the involuntary events of life is rooted in fixation on your self, your ego, in the sense of too much self-interest, self-absorption and perhaps self-pity. What helps is expanding your perspective beyond that preoccupation and engaging your energies with a purpose or aim that's larger than just "you." In that sense, learn to "forget" yourself.
This is a shift toward being highly engaged with your mental, emotional, creative and other powers, yet disengaged at the same time. That is, you let go of ego-expectations for "getting" something for yourself because of your acceptance and awareness that change is ongoing and continuous. Of course, psychological health throughout adulthood, not just midlife, includes flowing with the involuntary changes and experiences but, more importantly, focusing your powers on voluntary actions. The latter enable you to continue evolving all of your life's dimensions -- emotionally, spiritually, creatively, spiritually, intellectually.
Ironically, the failures and losses you experience along the way into midlife are helpful allies. Those experiences can strengthen courage to undertake new actions because you've learned something about what works and what doesn't, and why. A healthy midlife perspective is to think of "failures" as ineffective solutions to problems at the time, and "losses" as a transition into a new opportunity contained within the reality that now exists.
I find that the most energized, engaged and positive midlife men and women share some features. Keep in mind that most everyone has these capacities:
- They don't identify so much with what they've lost or failed at, compared with others who become defeated or stagnated by them. In contrast, they are much less inhibited by the past regarding new actions, new risks and new possibilities to stretch toward.
- They can see through the banal, shallow and inconsequential values and preoccupations that dominate so much of our culture -- the gossip, the concern with appearance, the social status and recognition, and so forth. They focus their energies and intent on what they identify as more meaningful and lasting.
- They can see -- and accept -- the end of the road more clearly than ever. That perspective fuels a greater sense of urgency, new determination and vision. They know what's really worth going after and what to let pass by. That helps you become more of the "author" of your own life rather than a character in a story that's been written by someone else.
- How do you want to use your mental and emotional energies in your remaining time, and toward what end?
- What will those choices have contributed to others, or to the world? How does that sit with you?
- What kind of legacy or "footprint" will your actions and decisions create? Will you be satisfied with that impact? If not, what's missing?
- From your answers, reflect on what changes you might want or need to make.
Here's an exercise that can help you apply an expanded perspective about loss, change and self-preoccupation to actions that serve something larger than "getting" for yourself:
Imagine that you've been informed that you have just a few years left to live. From that vantage point, reflect on what you might want to alter now -- or wish you had altered -- regarding your values, perspectives, priorities and actions. Don't compile a list of "50 things I want to do before I die." Look beyond that kind of self-interest, toward:
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him click here.