The August 30 reading in Melody Beattie’s Journey to the Heart is about listening to what I want. She asks a series of questions:
- What do you want?
- What would feel good to you?
- What energizes you?
- Which friends feel good to be around?
- What work excites you, infuses you with passion?
- Which hobbies interest you?
- How do you want to spend your time?
When I talk with women who are just starting recovery, who are just getting divorced, or who are just waking up to their own needs for the first time, I always ask what they like to do? Most of the time, the answer is that they have absolutely no clue. They have lived their lives for so long doing what they are supposed to do, caring for others and ignoring their feelings that they have never experimented with what makes them happy. It’s not to say that they don’t love taking care of families or they don’t have full relationships, but they’ve just never been on a journey to explore who THEY are. In so many ways, the world tells us it is selfish to pay attention to our own needs and wants. The result is an astounding number of people who blow up their lives in midlife in destructive ways because they just can’t deal with it anymore. I think it’s really sad. I also think it’s normal – and healthy – to have a midlife crisis.
When you have conversations with people that are real, you find out that most people struggle. If you don’t have those conversations, you would never know. Most people go on everyday, doing what they need to do and suffer silently. Since I write like I do, I hear from a lot of people – people I know and people I’ve never met – who struggle to be authentic. They are trapped in lives built on the values and dreams of their parents, their spouse or a society that doesn’t work for them. For many, the only option seems to be to blow it up. But, I argue that it’s not.
I know that I felt like I slept through my 30s and 40s. I know I was there, and I was making decisions, but, when I look back, it feels like I was sleep-walking. Who made all of those decisions? Why did I make those decisions? I was on auto-pilot, trying to make a living, trying to find a partner and doing what I thought I should to have a normal life. Turns out, I didn’t really want that life I was trying to build. I didn’t want a dream corporate manager job. I didn’t want a husband and kids. I didn’t want to live in a big city. It was not until I started to trust my heart and branch out and take some risks that I found out who I was. I like the outdoors. I’m happy being single. I want to work in a field where I make a difference and can relate to the people I work with. Most of the hobbies I have now, I explored after I reached midlife.
After my second divorce, I forced myself to take a year off from dating. I didn’t want to hitch on to somebody else’s idea of living. During that time, I made a list of things I wanted to try. I hung that list on my refrigerator, and I forced myself to get out and do them. I ran a marathon. I went on a women’s retreat. I made friends and risked letting them see the real me. I learned who I was. I spoke up for myself at work even when I knew my boss wouldn’t be pleased. Funny thing is, he respected me for it. I just knew I’d get fired if I didn’t walk the corporate line, but, as it turns out, they wanted me to be me and bring my ideas and thoughts to the table. That doesn’t mean they took them all, but I had value because I was different.
When my women friends tell me that they don’t know who they are, I encourage them to start exploring that. They don’t have to get a divorce. They don’t have to ignore the needs of their children. But, they do have to quit ignoring their own needs. It seems simple, but, to be honest, it’s not an easy exploration. It takes guts to look inside your heart and take some risks at midlife. For the majority, I think their partners are glad she starts standing in her own power. In some cases, it may inspire them to embark on their own journey of exploration. Men get trapped in expectations as much OR MORE than women. They become workhorses that support families and know nothing about themselves and what makes them tick. It’s no wonder that men traditionally blew up their lives during a midlife crisis and took off in a red sports car with a young blonde. Today, you see women doing the same. It’s what happens when you can’t stand it anymore, and you have no idea what to do except blow up what you’ve got. I would argue it could be done differently. But, you do have to have a partner who will work with you as you open up and become who you truly are.
When I was in divorce recovery, I was stunned to find that most of the people in my group, men and women, had been married 30+ years before they divorced. The kids left home, and they had no compass, less work to distract them from their internal emptiness. I looked it up on the internet, and, apparently, it’s becoming more and more common that people divorce after 30 years of marriage. How can they connect with each other when they don’t even know themselves? Divorce must seem like the only answer, and maybe it is. But, what if they took the opportunity to ask themselves those questions from above. What if they both set out on a journey to let go of their parents’ and society’s ideas of the good life and write their own definition? Honestly, their parents probably realized in their 50s that they wanted something different, too. We just don’t know what goes on inside people’s heads because we don’t talk about it.
A friend of mine told me he makes decisions based on what he was brought up to do. It’s the way we were raised, he says. He thinks about what his parents would do in certain situations and follows their lead. I understand his point, and I do think there is value in that. But, one day I asked him if he wanted his parents’ life. I know this. If you do what other people do, you will get what they have. You’d better make sure that’s what you want. I don’t have my parents’ life. I don’t have kids. I’m not married. It’s more difficult for me to know what they would do in my situation. My Dad told me the other day that he wished he would have encouraged me more in journalism. He told me when I was younger that I couldn’t make money in the field, and I should probably try something else. I’m coming to writing now, and, honestly, I’m glad it happened exactly this way. It means more when I discover it for myself. Some of the blessings of the work of finding myself have been that I did it on my own. The desire to be authentic came from within me.
When I do something for someone, and they tell me I didn’t have to do that, I always answer, “If I had to do it, I probably wouldn’t have done it.” I’m a bit rebellious in that way. But, I’m grateful that today I don’t always do what I should do. I question the things I have to do. Those are somebody else’s shoulds and have tos. Maybe I’ll do them and maybe I won’t. It just depends on whether or not I think it’s the right thing to do for me, my relationships and my future. I make a lot of mistakes, but I can own them. There is power even in that.