05/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Fear Of Failure

Q: I am in a crisis. I feel huge distress. I'm not usually like this. Most of the time, I am a healthy, free-wheeling 70-year-old with lots of energy and spice. I have children and grandchildren and I love spending time with them all. At the same time, I have lovers who I sometimes meet in exotic locations around the world. I have worked all my life in the medical field and I now am a freelance consultant. So what's wrong, you ask. Let me list what has happened in the last year alone.

1. For most of my life, I've had a special group of friends - not just one or two best friends, but actually four of them. Maybe more to the point, most of these women are younger than I am -some by 10 or 15 years. (My children, not to mention others, have always been amazed at my ability to maintain intimate relationships with woman younger than myself.) The fact is that most people think me and my friends are about the same age. But in the last year two of them have died and now the remaining two are sick and require care. All at once, I am a caregiver to my one-time jolly fellow adventurers.

2. I have had a flirtation for the last six months with an old boyfriend who contacted me maintaining that I had always been the love of his life. I was looking forward to some adventures with him. But it turns out that he is married, and doesn't even seem to want an affair. He wants to be friends. Phooey!

3. My son, who has had a slow start getting his life together finally seemed to find himself. He became a nurse. He liked it because he knew he was doing something important and valuable. People needed him. And his patients and his colleagues in the hospital became his family. (He never married and has no children.) Of course I would have preferred for him to have his own family, but at least he felt loved and appreciated.

To make a long story short, he lost his job - and he did so because of his own incompetence. (For legal reasons, I'd rather not go into what happened.) I don't know what he will do now. I'm afraid he'll return to his previous life which was aimless and self-destructive. He won't listen to any advice I give him and even seems reluctant to spend time with me, even though I know he loves me.

All of a sudden I feel like a failure. I've never felt that way before!!!!!

A: Well you are certainly feeling something, but I don't think it is, at its core, a sense of failure. I think the distress and crisis is FEAR. I think in fact that you are beginning to accept the reality of what age is doing, how your power over your environment is diminishing and that you are approaching the end of your own life. This is not failure. This is life itself.

Let's review it all.

Your friends, although younger, are dying around you. What can more powerfully make us aware of our own mortality than the death of those closest to us? This is of course an incredibly scary thought. And for someone like you, who has not spent any time before even thinking about illness or the end of life, this comes as a rude awakening. And yet your journey has more likely been richer than most and certainly more energetic and long-lived than most. No psychological insight, no brilliant self-awareness, can alleviate the dark realities of life, one of which is that it is finite. But just labeling it, understanding what is happening, can refocus you and put you back on a positive path.

The end of life brings all of us to moments of reflection and evaluation. Did we accomplish all we wanted to? Were we successful in all the areas we wanted? Are we going to leave a useful legacy? By getting an old boyfriend back you think you would be showing how, once again, you always get the guy and proving that you remain a sexy broad. But that didn't work out, and that's probably for the best. You are probably only a reflection of his own self-evaluation. He was cleaning up areas of his own life that he, looking back, did not feel satisfied with. He needed to get you back. Drop him!

More disturbing, though, is your apparent conviction that you are in some way responsible for your son's inability to pull his life together. Every parent carries this burden. That's understandable. We are all, in one way or another, partially the architects of our children's lives. But at some point, kids need to grow up, become independent adults -- and parents need to let go of the responsibility. Of course, it is almost impossible to rid yourself of worry and blame for your son's plight, but you nevertheless have to recognize that things have irrevocably changed - you've lost the magical ability to make the boo-boo go away. I don't say this flippantly because I am also a parent of adult children and almost daily I have to remind myself that my sphere of influence has been greatly reduced -maybe eliminated.

So, your feelings are understandable. You fear death. You're distressed that your control over your life is diminishing. And you're concerned that you are not leaving everyone in the ideal situation that you hoped for. All of this came over you rather abruptly and not in a trickle either. You got inundated. Your feelings - what you call failure - are all appropriate responses, albeit painful, to your stage of life. Keep in mind what is actually going on and, in addition, retain a firm memory of your achievements. Cherish your extraordinary memories that most people would love to have, accept the love that your children have for you, and keep going!!!! CHEERS TO YOU!!!!

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