When it comes to turning 50, "The Midlife Crisis" is as inaccurate -- and tiresome -- a cliché as "Reinvent Yourself" has become. Sure, the latter sounds more appealing than the former, but both add little to our understanding of what this life stage is really about.
The truth is, our 50s and beyond are best described as neither dreadful, nor glorious. Take a look at these realistic ways that life can actually improve with age.
1) Self-Knowledge Brings Confidence: We may approach our 50s with trepidation, but studies show that as we pass through these midlife years, most of us actually begin to calm down. How? We reflect back, realize how unaware we were about so much and begin to appreciate that experience has actually taught us a lot. Our needs, desires, likes and dislikes emerge as recognizable patterns so we make better decisions moving forward. We grow more self-confident, less reactive to others' expectations and more responsive to our own. Our external lives become more in sync with our internal beliefs.
2) Relishing the Here and Now: As we turn the midlife corner, we recognize the importance of making the most of the time we have left. Instead of the desire to return to youth, many of us begin to enjoy being just where we are. We not only stop looking back as often, we also feel less pressure to move forward. No longer are we so focused on climbing professional or social ladders. We get out of races we don't want to be running and begin to feel proud of the accomplishments we have already achieved. We may continue seek fun and adventure, but when we do, we take more time to listen, taste, smell and enjoy the pleasure these experiences bring.
3) Accepting Limitations: With age comes realistic expectations. We accept our own limitations as well as those in our relationships with others. Many of us finally realize -- often after trial and error -- that immediate gratification comes at the expense of long-term satisfaction. We curb spending to save for retirement, limit indulgences to maintain our health and remain loyal to build trust our relationships. We come to realize that by getting through the good and bad times -- building families, careers, homes and live savings -- we have beaten the odds. Knowing how fragile the marital bond is today, we gain mutual respect toward our partners for having survived. Long term relationships with mates, bosses, colleagues and friends are rewarding accomplishments that can not be easily replaced by starting anew.
4) Connecting to Extended Family: As we age, we often find ways to connect (or re-connect) to our extended families, even if in the past we found these bonds extremely difficult. We recognize that everyone has faults so we no longer tend to expect these relationships will be ideal. As we see our future has limits, we tend to be more forgiving. Willingness to overcome family grudges begins to make sense, especially when it comes to our adult children and elderly parents. By the time we hit midlife, most of our kids are old enough to appreciate that we did our best. And we are mature enough to recognize the efforts made by our own parents. Interactions among family become less about individuating and more about connecting.
5) Perspective Opens Our Eyes: As we live longer, we realize how limited our small, circumscribed lives have been. Up until now, we have little by means of comparison, viewing ourselves and others primarily through the narrow lens of our family members, peers, neighbors and co-workers. As we accumulate years of widening experiences, we open ourselves to new perspectives that help us understand of our place in history and where we fit in the larger world. This context can provide us a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.
6) Enjoying Being Single: If we happened to be separated, divorced, widowed or never married by the time we hit midlife, we often start finding positives about being independent. We begin to recognize that some of the marriages we envied are, in fact, not very satisfying and the families we idealized are often splintered and disconnected. We may have finally extracted ourselves from our own dysfunctional relationships and are enjoying new found freedoms being single. We start connecting to others who share similar circumstances, viewing them with admiration rather than sympathy. We stop fighting with ourselves and instead find more important battles to engage in.
7) Deepening Our Friendships : As we live longer, with many more years as empty nesters, reconnecting to friends can become more important and enjoyable. Old friends, who we have known for many years -- neighbors, school-mates and camp pals -- are valued more as we realize we have a shared history. While we may have avoided college reunions or returning to old neighborhoods, now these events become sources of pleasurable nostalgia. With greater freedom to relax and less interference from the demands of children and work, there are more opportunities to bond with new friends. As our parents pass and children move on, old and new friendships can begin to fill the nest in ways our family once did.
8) Looking Our Best, Not Our Youngest : Facing loss is part of healthy aging. As we pass through midlife, many of us realize we can gradually let go of the pressures to 'anti-age.' These efforts begin to feel futile, even a bit foolish, and shift toward looking our best, rather than looking younger. While we still care about our appearance, we learn to place more emphasis on other aspects of our identities to fuel our self esteem. We realize that true beauty -- the kind that is ageless, dynamic and always evolving -- can be enjoyed more if we rely in our own internal standards rather than those 'ideal' ones set by others.
No one ever said aging would be easy -- clearly it challenges us both physically and emotionally. But hitting midlife doesn't necessarily lead to a "crisis" nor does it require total "reinvention," a new partner, a new job, a new face. What it can bring are realistic ways to appreciate and enjoy the rest of your life.
Tell us if you have any additional ideas about how life improves with age?
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She has written articles on beauty, aging, media, models and dancers. She serves as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
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