When the Familiar Fades Away
During a time in my life when I was leaning into menopause, I felt like my life was overwhelming and fragmented. At work, I was supposed to be the responsible professional; but of course, my position demanded 100% of my energy and devotion. I had two teenagers at home, who also needed my attention and care. My failing marriage also required all of my attention. I couldn’t keep up with the work needed around the house, and my spouse didn’t think it was his responsibility to help. As well, I felt guilty because I couldn’t keep up with social commitments. I was stressed. And, not surprisingly, I started gaining weight. Then everything changed.
My marriage of twenty-six-years ended, my two sons grew up and were on their own, I started reevaluating my career, and I sold my home. What had been familiar in my life no longer existed. I had entered a significant transition period. Transitions are periods where we experience a profound shift as a result of changes and are forced to grapple with who we are and where we’re headed.
Transitions and Midlife
All of us will go through periods of transition throughout our lives. It is common for women to experience a transition period when nearing about fifty or menopause.
If we have raised children, our parenting roles have likely shifted by the time we reach about fifty. We may have careers that feel stale or unstable. If we’ve been in a serious relationship, we may also discover that we’re no longer a good fit together. And, of course, our physical appearance generally starts to change after menopause; we may begin feeling invisible in meetings or when even trying to get service while shopping—this change alone can affect how we see ourselves and the world around us.
What was familiar —no longer exists—at least in the same form. Such changes can feel both scary and sad. But for many of us, midlife is one of the first times where we have the opportunity to consider some of our own wants and needs beyond being what everyone else needs or expects from us.
Making Sense of Life’s Changes
William Bridges, author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, explained that the transition process involves an ending, a period of “confusion and distress,” and a new beginning. The ending is like a death of sorts, so we typically go through a grieving process or period where we might be trying to hang on to what was, but we still have to let go of what no longer exists.
The period that follows the ending of something familiar is what Bridges called the “neutral zone.” It is during this time of uncertainty that comes in-between loss and a new beginning that we have some rich opportunities for growth. As he indicated, sometimes those in-between points in our lives are where we recognize the need to develop new skills to move forward. We also have an opportunity to create a new vision for our future.
Recovering Our Authentic Selves
Some of the wisest women I’ve known have discovered that their most empowering path forward was dependent upon recovering their authentic selves. Tess Marino, is one of those women. Tess said that when she was younger, she felt like she was “flying by the seat of [her] pants with no tether. But looking back, I can see how everything connects, bringing me to the point where I am now.”
Recognizing the bigger story in our lives can help give us direction for the future. Writing about pivotal experiences, passions, and things that bring us joy can help us recognize the themes that point to our authentic selves.
In her book, Rising Strong, researcher and TED Talk speaker, Brené Brown discusses the importance of integrating our stories into our lives. “To integrate,” as Brown points out, means “to make whole.” Some of our stories might be ones that we’ve chosen to hide or ignore. Yet, Brown says, “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”
Embracing all of Ourselves
Discovering our authentic selves means embracing all of ourselves – our feelings, our experiences, our past, our aspirations for the future – who we are and who we are becoming. I choose to look at my life experiences as learning opportunities – that’s a value I embrace. I continue to learn as I move forward. Brené Brown said that she embraces the belief that “nothing is wasted…”
Before she experienced a significant transition period in her life, Donna Beegle had spent nearly three decades being “pretty much homeless.” She had married at 15 and could not read a newspaper or write a complete sentence. Then she returned to school, got a GED, and eventually earned a doctorate in education. For the past 30 years, Dr. Beegle has used her experience living in poverty and has become an internationally recognized poverty expert. Donna’s life experiences were not wasted.
Crafting a Vision for Moving Forward
Imagining a new future can be challenging as we start experiencing significant shifts in our lives. One of my friends and former colleagues, Susan Rochester, has taught people how to use visual journaling to unearth dreams and hopes for our future selves. In her workshops, Rochester provides participants with a variety of magazines and instructs them to tear pictures out that speak to them. She then has them select the most powerful images and paste them into journals and use them as prompts for reflections. I personally thought this intuitive visioning approach was compelling.
Recognizing the whole of your life and seeing new possibilities for the future can be exciting. Transition periods are a natural part of life; using them as an opportunity to grow can lead to a fuller, more vibrant life.
Paula Marie Usrey founded Boomer Best U to help promote positive aging and fight age discrimination. She has also given a TEDx presentation on how to live your best life at any age. Paula recently retired as an Associate Professor of Communication from Umpqua Community College.