As the 78 million baby boomers have segued into midlife, a noticeable shift toward a sense of renewal, new growth and new possibilities has taken root. That's a welcome contrast to the old view of steady, inevitable decline and loss. Yet there's a real danger that can cripple or undermine your prospects for midlife vitality and positive growth.
To explain, let's recognize first how inspiring it is for midlifers to learn about ways in which many are forging new paths toward growth and wellbeing in their lives. Some create new energy, passion and commitment in their intimate relationships, as I've described in some posts here. Some find other sources of personal connection without a partner. Others find new directions in their work and creative expression -- whether in a redirected career or embarking on service-oriented work, such as promoted by Encore.org. For example, baby boomers who leave their careers to do work that involves helping others report feelings of growth, connection and service. Embarking on new directions takes courage and risk, as Marci Alboher recently described in the New York Times, but that "the payoff is continuing to grow and expand your life rather than stagnate and decline."
All of the above are significant, positive shifts of consciousness and action. So what's the danger? From my experience working with midlife baby boomers (and from my own challenges along the way), I identify two pitfalls that can undermine your renewal and continued growth: One is failure to recognize or deal with inevitable, long-term consequences of actions whose tentacles live on into your future -- your karma, the law of cause and effect, of actions and their consequences. The other is not knowing what enables you to "reboot," to change your ongoing karma from this point forward. That is, you need to know what will interrupt any continuing negative consequences of past actions in your present life.
Facing Your Karma
Your past actions remain a part of you. They're part of the tapestry of your life, for better or for worse. Their consequences continue to live on and impact you. You have to face and deal with their residue, and that includes the ways you dealt with past challenges, decisions, relationships and career issues that create continuing problems. You can't undo what you've done along the way that creates dilemmas or challenges for your future. But you can learn to accept the consequences that remain alive. You can learn what you contributed to life experiences that didn't work out so well, or that created problems down the road for yourself or others. Or else you'll keep repeating new versions of the same thing.
The upshot is that even as you try to learn from your experiences and are able to grow as you become older, your unwise decisions or the consequences of too little self-awareness at the time nevertheless remain part of you. You have to accept them in order to clean them up and free yourself.
For example, some are were hurt by ignorant, abusive, or narcissistic parents. Some engage in unwise actions or decisions along the way. The key to redirecting your karma is to awaken and accept your responsibility for dealing with the residue. Forgiveness and compassion toward yourself can help open the door to real change and avoid remaining caught within a continuous loop.
You can interrupt that loop by letting the consequences of your past inform you about what you need to rectify, starting right now. When you shift your mindset and undertake new actions, you're incorporating all the consequences of your past with awareness, but in a way that yields greater wisdom for your current and future actions.
For example, you can learn what went wrong in your past failed relationships or mistaken career path, learn what the residue of the loss or regret is in your life today, and from that identify what you need to change in your present and future actions.
Creating New Directions
That points to something else that undermines midlife vitality: not knowing what perspectives and actions help interrupt the karma you live with and open up new possibilities in your life today. Keep in mind that one impact you always have on your life is your conduct in your life in this moment and in the future. Research shows that living in the present has positive impact on your overall wellbeing. Other studies find that your social, mental and physical engagement in the present are much more important for maintaining vitality than what you did earlier in life. Remaining fixed in the past without accepting it or learning from it is undermining.
Reviewing and regretting your mistakes over and over, experiencing the same negative emotions, keeps you stuck within that repetitive loop without learning or changing. Research shows that depressed people tend to remain stuck on negative thoughts, while people who focus on positive emotions within their present situation experience greater wellbeing. Freeing yourself from the imprisonment of your past requires looking to the upside in whatever situation now exists. That builds flexibility in the face of change, and you can create a positive vision for the present. We know that the brain can modify itself and strengthen emotional attitudes that support positive change, as Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley describe in The Emotional Life of Your Brain.
Looking in front of you and not behind brings more openness into your life -- more positive emotions that are crucial for rebounding from adversity and stress, and for becoming appreciative of whatever good you find in your life right now.
Another an important part of changing your future is learning to embrace change and impermanence, as I've previously written. That's a valuable ally for midlife: accepting the constant flow and change of life, and staying aware that you can't hold onto anything or make it fixed in place -- ever. Children grow up. People you know die. Physical and emotional changes take place. To maintain health and vitality within those changes, you need a mental and emotional perspective of acceptance. Change and impermanence provide new experiences to learn from; and that's far better than denying or resisting them.
Both in your intimate relationship and in your work, as you embrace impermanence, inevitable change and uncertainty, you help pull yourself out fixating on the sadness, regret or guilt over past actions. You're able to put your energies into other venues, other experiences. Some rectify what you can from the past; others create greater fulfillment and positive energy that will accumulate rather than fade away.
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.
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