Midlife Skills

Do you feel you’re the teenager in the home these days? Bored, a bit moody and restless? Not quite sure what you want any more? If so, don’t panic: These could just be the signs of mid-life transition – a good time to learn a few new life-skills.

You may be feeling sandwiched between retirement ahead and a new young generation coming up from behind. Somewhere in the middle, your body is starting to show signs of age: a few more wrinkles, a little less stamina. As one man commented: ‘Whenever I look in the shaving mirror these days, I see the face of my father looking back.’ Becoming more like a parent can be disconcerting enough; Becoming older in general can be unsettling in our youth-oriented society, where TV adverts imply that nothing good ever happens to anyone over 25.

The mid-life stage can herald a range of feelings from frustration to staleness. There may be no problem in keeping busy, yet underneath it all we may wonder whether there’s more to life than simply passing time. Beyond youth’s quest for a future role, mid-life brings a personal inquest on decisions taken, opportunities missed, and the outcome of early ambitions. The future is now time left, not time ahead, and options look more limited.

Mid-life transition may emerge gently or be triggered sharply, perhaps by an ending of some sort: children leaving home, the death of a parent, the loss of our health or a job. Coming to terms with these issues faces us with our limitations, and ultimate mortality. They can evoke spiritual questions as well as emotional distress, and leave people feeling disorientated and alone.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung highlights mid-life transition as a significant life-stage, involving a change in our way of living, as we turn from focussing on outer achievement to inner meaning. Jung theorised that such a shift could happen at any age from 18-80. In practice, the mid-life stage is most likely to be experienced somewhere between the 30s and 50s.

Far from being a time where we reach the end of the line, mid-life losses can become part of the process of making a creative transition into life’s second half – if we are willing to engage with them. As children, we learned the basic skills of the three ‘R’s. At mid-life we need to become equipped with the life-skills of the four ‘R’s: Review, Release, Reflect, and Renew.

Review

Mid-life is often a time when thoughts turn to the past. We start to question why we made certain decisions, especially as we realise we’re now living with the consequences in a way we never anticipated. Motives can be put under the microscope. We evaluate how much our key choices were influenced by other factors or figures in our lives. And we may find we are carrying with us the very situations and approaches we thought we had left behind when we grew up.

Looking back can be an emotional experience, especially if we find ourselves critical of what we see. But the life-skill of reviewing our past involves a more objective appraisal. It can be easy to slip into all-or-nothing thinking, where we dismiss the good that has come out of what has been, because we are preoccupied with what might have happened. We need to take time to reach a more balanced perspective. It may also take us time to understand our past – to reflect on the different elements that seem unrelated, but which may ultimately prove to have some surprising underlying connections.

Release

Having reviewed our past, we may realise we are carrying concerns and operating on assumptions that weigh us down in the present. Our second life-skill is to release them, in order to live more freely and fully now. We may need to let go of cherished hopes and ambitions that never came to fruition; lay to rest resentments or grudges we have harboured over the years; let go of regrets about past decisions; stop trying to force what cannot be changed and come to terms with our limitations – external and internal.

The process of releasing can also take its time (Learning to work effectively rather than hastily is a mid-life skill in itself!). It can involve an element of mourning as we come to accept some losses. But in practising the skill of letting go, we become open to other possibilities, and life no longer feels so stuck. As the psychologist William Bridges notes, such acceptance can ‘sometimes open the door to new activities and new achievements that were impossible under the old dreams.’

Reflect

Whether we are outgoing or quieter, mid-life brings the need for more space for reflection within our everyday living. At mid-life we are likely to have accumulated a range of roles and responsibilities. We may well have tended to keep taking things on, without being aware of the two-fold cost: in pushing the limits of our personal resources further and further, and in gradually losing touch with who we really are.

Learning to reflect can help us make wiser decisions about the quality of what we do, rather than the quantity of what take on. It can also help us to become more real about ourselves, as we step aside from all the outer expectations to re-connect with what’s inside us. Facing ourselves will also involve an element of facing up to ourselves, accepting we can be both noble and petty, creative and destructive, self-giving and self-seeking. In doing this, we will engage with our true selves, apart from the image we like to portray for others to see.

Making space to be with ourselves in this way may also lead us on to value our whole beings, mind, body and spirit. We may adopt a more integrated way of living, to incorporate greater care of our physical selves, through healthier eating or time for exercise as well as stillness. We become aware that all aspects or ourselves play a part in our total well-being.

Renew

At mid-life, we realise our total well-being also includes our spiritual lives, as we look towards what is of ultimate value beyond life’s more immediate, material benefits. Committing ourselves to something worthwhile that will be fruitful for others and a more lasting legacy, becomes a greater concern.

The renewing life-skill lies in identifying what it is that engages our highest passions and sense of purpose. For once these have caught hold, we are re-energised with fresh vitality for life’s second half. With a clearer focus on our true priorities, we can cut through the clutter and complexity around us to chart our course ahead; we can shift our compulsion to chase the clock to a considered following of our inner compass.

At a more personal level, we may become aware of aspects of our unlived lives we have not yet allowed ourselves to express for whatever reason. Mid-life can face us with the urgency to pursue our heart’s desire, take the risk of being creative or trying something new. For if not now, when?

Practising the renewing life-skill will involve us in asking some questions of ourselves: What is it that we have always longed to do, but been afraid to try? What do we find so absorbing that we lose all track of time when we’re engaged in it? How could this be for other’s benefit and our personal fulfilment? Re-connecting with our heart’s desire and daring to live it out can help restore our appetite for life. Carl Jung once observed that people are so ill-equipped for the challenges of the mid-life stage, there should be colleges for them, teaching how to make an effective transition. Although no-one has yet taken him up, acquiring some self-taught skills in the above four R’s might help us discover that good things can still begin in the middle.

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  • About Julia

    Julia

    From writing stories for my younger brother, to penning poems for the School Magazine and filling a growing pile of personal journals, the written word has always been part of my life’s journey.

    I started out as an English Teacher and subsequently retrained as a Counsellor. I have counselled in a GP Surgery and worked with various Employee Assistance Schemes and Charitable Trusts alongside seeing private clients.

    Although I have done some freelance journalism and written four non-fiction books, creative writing has become my main focus in recent years.

    My poems have appeared online on sites including Amaryllis, Silver Birch Press, Clear Poetry, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, Riggwelter and Ink,Sweat and Tears. I have been published in Curlew and Bucks Mill Magazine, and anthologised in Our Hearts Still Sing. My first poetry collection, Chester City Walls, came out in 2015.

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