This will start a little dark. I promise, it gets better.
When you were younger, you maybe had a vision of who you were going to become. Maybe you aren’t living up to the plan you made.
Or perhaps, you never had that vision nailed down. You figured that you’d sort it out down the line. And you now wonder where the time went, and why no concrete vision ever materialized. No thread wove through your timeline.
Or you look back at some opportunity you once had that you didn’t take. Or something you had that you then lost—a relationship, a job, a friend—and you wonder how your life would look now, if only you hadn’t lost it.
Or you finally got a correct medical diagnosis after years of suffering, and you think about how much struggle that issue caused, and how things would have been different if you’d gotten treatment back when it first showed up.
Each of these is, in its own way, a crisis—of identity, of self. It’s painful to feel like you aren’t who you could have been and to not really know who you’re supposed to be now. And for those of us in or around our forties, we get the extra benefit of that identity dysphoria being identified as a “midlife” crisis. So in addition to your shot of self-doubt, you get a memento mori chaser. (Wasn’t college just a few years ago? How am I at “midlife” already? And how have I not figured out who I am by now?)
On top of all of that, it’s easy to feel lonely through it. It’s not fashionable to talk about your midlife crisis on social media. Succulents get far more likes than anxiety. So it can feel like you’re all by yourself in this.
But, I promise, you aren’t alone.
I’m by no means on the other side of my own midlife crisis. And, can I say, the whole “over the hill” thing? They got it wrong. This is a valley if I’ve ever seen one. As someone who’s trying to climb up the other side of the valley, here are four things I’m trying to do to get there. Perhaps they’ll help you.
1. Understand that therapy is a wonderful thing.
A caveat: Therapy can be expensive, and especially in a difficult economy, I totally understand that it can be tough to make that investment. If you can’t make it work right now, you should feel zero shame. But if you can afford it, finding a therapist who you click with can really help you better understand your own heart, brain, and relationships. Insurance sometimes covers it, so be sure to check and see if it might work.
I started working with my therapist about nine months ago. To be honest, it’s not like angels with trumpets descend from heaven every week. Come to think of it, I have yet to see an angel. Or a trumpet. But my therapist asks really great questions, and is able to insightfully follow up on fleeting things that I say. And working with a therapist, I’ve found that my own communication with my family has improved.
When I was growing up, therapy was—at best—the punchline for a New Yorker cartoon. I’m so glad that people these days are more open about talking about the successes they’ve had with therapists.
2. Know that you’re allowed to grieve for the “you” that never showed up.
It can really hurt to have plans that don’t work out. It’s a very real sense of loss. When we discover that we’ve lost someone we care about, we mourn and grieve. You can treat this “lost you” in the same way.
Who was the person who you were going to be? What did you love about them? What did you appreciate? What were they kind of annoying about? What did you take for granted?
And just as you carry a piece of your lost loved ones in your heart, you can carry a piece of the lost you in your heart as well.
3. Practice gratitude for the person who did show up.
Eighty percent of success is showing up, and . . . hey . . . look who showed up. It’s you! You’re here!
It can be hard, when you’re in the middle of a bout of “but what am I really here forrrrr” to remember all you’ve done. You’ve learned some stuff. You’ve made some stuff. You’ve had an impact on the people around you. Grab a notebook. Write down a gratitude list of the things—about yourself—that you’re grateful for.
If you have trouble thinking of things, send a friend a text message: “Hey, friend. Can you help me with a thing? Can you send me a text with something that you appreciate about me?” I promise they’ll respond. Knowing what they appreciate about you will help you appreciate that part of you a little bit more as well.
4. Think about some way you’d like to improve yourself, and move—in the tiniest increment possible—towards it.
One of the traps of the midlife crisis is feeling like you’re totally stuck. “This is where I am. Probably forever.” It’s helpful to know that that’s not true.
Even before COVID-19 shut everything down, I was lamenting that I hadn’t traveled as much as I wanted to. I didn’t have money for a big trip, but was feeling like I needed to see something different. So I made a list of places I wanted to visit someday.
I then thought to myself: “What’s the absolute simplest thing I can do locally that could serve as an extremely weak approximation for that trip?” And I wrote down my answers. For example, one of the places I want to visit? Japan. But right now, I can’t visit Kyoto. So what’s the weakest approximation that I can do today? Well, I’m in San Francisco, a few blocks away from the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. So one morning I walked over to the garden to walk around. I’d never been there, but it was fabulous. I sat, meditated, and bought a cup of hot tea and drank it in front of a koi pond. Was it Japan? No. Not at all. But it was lovely.
Maybe you want to read more. Or you want to exercise more. Or write more poetry. Or floss more. What’s the smallest thing you can do to put that more in your life?
It gets better
So . . . that’s what I’m going to be working on myself, as I work through this valley. I hope you’re able to be kind to yourself, to create room for your feelings (of both grief and, hopefully, pride), and to look for ways that you can continue to grow and change.
We’re all a work in progress. And we all have brighter days ahead. Take care of yourself, and keep on keeping on. I promise, it gets better.