To many of us mid-life sounds like a dirty word - well, a dirty hyphenated word to be accurate. You can't even think "mid-life" without the word crisis following it, can you? It's kind of automatic that these words flow together in our brains. But think of a mid-life crisis and what picture comes to mind? A speeding red convertible...one hand on the wheel, the other holding down the comb-over...salacious wink at the red light?
I think most of us see a similar image in our minds eye. But men aren't the only ones suffering from this mid-life manifestation. Women also begin to question themselves mid-stream. We wonder how we got where we are and why we're not quite happy here. We have our doubts and regrets and a desire to get more out of life before it's over; we just don't wave a giant banner over our heads like some people. Nothing says crisis like a fake tan and a new toupee.
So what is it like for women? In some ways, I believe it can be a rougher road than it is for men. Men are brought up to go for what they want in this life. Yes, they often take on the duties of husband and father and sacrifice some of their needs to these obligations, but it is different for women from the start.
Women tend to value relationships highly, and in our culture, grow up learning to put others needs ahead of their own long before the husband and children come along. While no one story fits all, many women lose themselves somewhere in girlhood. We live a life full of shoulds and oughts and let ourselves be molded and driven by the needs and desires of others. The result? An adult life characterized by a weak sense of self and dedication to satisfying needs that are often not our own.
When a woman has a mid-life crisis she may recognize what she doesn't like about her current situation, but when asked what she does want out of life, she may have a hell of a time coming up with an answer. It has often been so long since she even thought about what she wanted from life, that she no longer knows.
For men, mid-life crisis may mean wishing for the independence and care-free bachelor lifestyle they once enjoyed. For women though, it may be wishing for a life they have never known. A red convertible or a fling with the secretary won't suffice; there are no quick fixes here. (See my prior post on Racing Towards Mid-Life). Women need to first rediscover who they are and what they want before they ever try to go and get it.
Not everyone is the same, of course. For some, mid-life is a barely noticeable bump in the road. For others, it is truly a crisis. For most, it is somewhere in between - something better labeled as a challenge. And as many versions as there are of the mid-life experience, there are that many ways of dealing with it. For those of you who are having trouble, here are some of my ideas for navigating the choppy waters of mid-life:
Step 1: Acceptance and Commitment
Once you realize that you have a problem with your life as it is, you need to commit to doing something about it. As much as we wish it would, whining and complaining won't change things. Committing to change is the first and most critical step, but often not the easiest. Unless you are single, childless and without any family ties or obligations, changing your life will have an impact on those you hold near and dear. It's unavoidable and, let me warn you that at first, nobody is going to like it.
To find your own path to happiness, you have to make some time to focus on yourself. That doesn't mean that you tell everyone you love to take a hike while you move off to "all-about-me" world. Relationships and obligations are important but, if we want to really improve the quality of our own lives, we need to become more discerning. We need to determine which obligations and relationships are truly important to us and to let go of the rest. Be prepared for lots of pouting and be ready to stand firm.
Step 2: Getting Back to Nature
This might imply spending time in nature and, although that is not really what I am referring to here, I do believe that spending time in nature can help us to relax and to think more clearly and creatively (For more on this, see my prior post on Why Getting Back to Nature May Prove to be the Best Therapy ). For our purposes here though, what I am referring to is getting back in touch with your inner nature.
Your inner nature is who you really are minus all of the roles and identities that you have assumed over your lifetime. Reacquainting yourself with your inner nature means taking some time to think about what your real values are and where your natural talents and abilities lie. Sometimes it helps to think back to early girlhood and recall what you spent your time doing...what you lost track of time doing. Clarifying what you value, what you enjoy and what your strengths are is a prerequisite to clarifying what it is that you want to do from here on in. Goals that don't utilize your strengths or that are inconsistent with your values will only frustrate you.
Step 3: Remove Obstacles
You know what you want but now you need to figure out what's stopping you. External circumstances like a lack of funds or too many obligations may be getting in your way. Thinking out of the box is required to find ways over or around the things that are blocking your path. Women often assume the role of helper but too often we feel uncomfortable with the idea of asking for help. Try it, you might be surprised at how willing people are to give you a hand.
Internal obstacles also prevent us from doing what we want. Is a fear of failure stopping you? Are you a perfectionist? Is negative, pessimistic thinking standing in your way? These internal hurdles can often be the toughest to navigate. Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman and other books may be helpful for changing your thought patterns and adopting a more optimistic approach to life. You might also want to read this post: The Pursuit of Happiness. Need more help? Searching out a life coach or a cognitive-behavioral therapist may be a good idea.
Step 4: Clear the Clutter
You can't add anything new into your life without getting rid of some stuff to make room. Figure out what obligations you can let go of. If you can, pay people to do time-consuming chores to free up your time. Or, delegate some jobs to children or barter with friends and family. Learning to say "no" to things that aren't that important can help you to find time for the things that are. This takes assertiveness and can be excruciatingly difficult for some women. For additional help see my prior post on Becoming More Assertive and look at my reading recommendations. Most of us have a full plate - we can't possibly add in time for ourselves unless we get rid of something else first. It can be done.
Step 5: Make (and follow) a Plan
Now that you know what you want, you've made room for adding new things into your life and you've removed many of the obstacles...you need to start working towards your goals. You can't just sit there and expect that it will all come to you. But don't worry, this is the fun part. If you've done steps 1-4, the hardest part is behind you.
Set your goals and break them down into smaller tasks that will lead you forward. Don't be overwhelmed. It's true that every journey begins with a single step. Take that first step and then take another. See how it goes, make adjustments as needed and believe in yourself. Most importantly, remember that we spend most of our lives on the journey, not at our destinations. Make sure you take time to enjoy the trip!
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