Do you remember that comic strip of the runaway boy carrying a bindle over his shoulder? You know, the polka-dot handkerchief tied to a stick? What if I told you that embracing midlife is like that, only, you’re called to open the handkerchief, examine the contents and decide what to keep? That little boy ran away from home in search of something more – possibly to escape the charge of his parents or maybe just to find adventure.
At this stage of our lives (assuming you’re somewhere around 35 to 50 years old), we enter our second individuation phase. The first happened when we left home, typically in late adolescence or our early twenties. That’s when we staked out the adult world, started to care for ourselves and lived out others’ expectations, or rebelled against them. Outside-in, we measured our lives against what we thought the world asked of us – a good job, nice house, car and a family. That makes you a good adult, right?
Now in midlife, something else is happening. You might face major unwanted changes – divorce, menopause, job loss, empty nest or the death of someone you love. Your life might tick all the boxes – successful career, stable relationship and family life – but with a hollow feeling inside. Welcome to your second phase of individuation.
This is when you’re longing for a more authentic private life beyond success, beyond parenting, beyond the roles that you play in the world. This phase beckons an inside-out measurement of your life – against your deepest values and passions, against the truth of who you really are, not what the world shaped you to be.
This time is filled with change and change is an exotic animal. It bites and scratches, but it also purrs with the right touch. Before you unpack your handkerchief with all its goodies, you need to stake out a suitable camp spot. This means that you need to figure out where you are relative to the changes in your life.
There are three types of change you’re likely to face:
• the natural cycle of change at play in your adult life (like menopause, ageing , children leaving home and other closing life chapters),
• imposed and unwelcome change (like job loss, divorce or losing someone close to you),
• and change that you invite into your life (like losing weight, changing jobs or emigrating).
Each of these asks a different approach from you. The natural cycle of change, once you understand it, makes it easier for you to choose the next step and navigate proactively. The unwanted change needs you to care for yourself and walk a maze different from other change before you take any steps. And the chosen change taunts you to figure out how ready you really are.
Once your camp spot is set up and you’ve tamed the exotic animal of change to a purr, it’s time for the handkerchief-opening ceremony. This needs champagne and candles. It’s a celebration because the stuff in there is actually what you carry on your inside. It’s made up of your thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and habits. These are the stories you’ve made up along your journey through life and, in my experience, they often need a revamp or disposal. Inspecting these often-hidden parts of who we are is what leads you to your true self. This is what helps you happen to your life instead of the other way around.
Our contemporary world, unfortunately, is not geared to help us become intimate with our insides. “Intrapersonal skills” does not feature as a subject at school – we absorb these skills by osmosis from our custodians and what we absorb is sometimes detrimental to our inner health. We live in an emotion-phobic world that asks us to only focus on the perfumed ones. The dark, shadowy emotions we feel must be tucked away, neatly, otherwise we upset the social equilibrium and we’re labelled histrionic or hysterical.
But in those stuffed down, denied and unexplored parts of our psyche lie in wait our greatest gifts – to become the glorious individuals we are meant to be – like the acorn that can’t be anything but an oak. The unpacking calls for a process, in a world with micro waved dinners and instant gratification – it calls for a firm commitment to “enter your forest at the darkest part”, like Joseph Campbell says.
Ah but – if you’re willing – what will go back into your handkerchief, will be the highest truths and most loving habits to shape your most fulfilling life.
Your midlife, however tumultuous it may be right now, invites you to enter your next individuation phase. What you do with it is really up to you. I leave you with David Whyte’s words, “All the birds and the creatures of the world are unutterably themselves; everything is waiting for you.”
Everything is waiting for you.