I’ve heard people say “we teach what we need to learn.” I’m pretty sure they’re on to something. As a vulnerability researcher, what I’ve learned and now write about uncertainty, risk and “showing up” has profoundly changed my life.
From the time I was a young child through my late thirties, I believed that growing up was about finding certainty and solving the mysteries of life. It seemed to me that the end game was answers and control – especially control over important outcomes and what people think. The formula was pretty clear: Vulnerability is weakness, self worth is based on what you achieve, and accomplishments and acquisitions bring joy and meaning.
What’s spectacular about my life today, at forty-seven, is finally realizing that the prime of our lives is not about answers – it starts when we finally allow ourselves to soften into the mysteries and live in the questions. For me, the softening came after a long, painful midlife unraveling; fueled by the exhaustion that comes from too much pretending, pleasing, and perfecting.
For me, midlife was not a crisis, it was an unraveling. By definition, you can’t control or manage an unraveling. You can’t cure it with control any more than the acquisitions, accomplishments, and alpha-parenting of our thirties cured our deep longing for permission to slow down and be imperfect.
I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:
"I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.
Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy of love and belonging, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever.
Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen."
Taking off the armor and putting down the weapons requires us to find the courage to be vulnerable and imperfect. It means showing up even when I’m not comfortable or sure. It means trying new things even though I feel awkward and uncool. Growing into my gifts has meant rediscovering creativity. Today I paint and take pictures and get my “craft on” with my children. I also practice setting and holding boundaries. Saying no is hard when you’re trying to please everyone, but it’s way easier than feeling resentful. My boundary mantra is, “Choose discomfort over resentment.” If you are coming toward me with a PTO sign-up sheet and you see me quickly close my eyes and start chanting – you’ll know exactly what I’m saying.
Re-engaging with the world from a place of worthiness – from a place of “I am enough” – has meant owning all of my stories. Even the ones I orphaned along the way because they didn’t fit with who I thought I was supposed to be. Studying topics like shame, courage, and vulnerability has taught me that if we are brave enough to explore the darkness, we are certain to discover the infinite power of our light. And for me, being in my prime is all about love and light.
Photo by Peter Freed.