I saw a funny quote on Instagram the other day. It said: “One minute you’re young and having fun. The next, you’re turning down the stereo in your car to see better.”
Did midlife sneak up on you?
Were you happily cruising down the highway of life then one day, you suddenly caught your reflection in the rearview mirror and went, “Whoa, wait a second, I’m in midlife?”
It sounds ridiculous to say that midlife caught me flat-footed. (Hello, who gets caught by surprise by something that’s been happening every day for a while?!)
It’s not like I was 32 yrs old and then one day woke up at 50. Although, that’s exactly how it felt for me.
The good thing was I didn’t get especially depressed or down on myself when I realized that I was in fact in midlife. Instead, I tried to do my characteristic squaring off my shoulders and went, “Okay Lou, we’re here. Let’s get to work.”
And by “get to work”, I meant, “Lou, let’s not make a big deal out of this. Let’s make sure we’re staying productive, independent, and as self-sufficient as we have always been.”
The thing I didn’t know was that I was going into this armed with all kinds of preconceived notions about what being midlife meant. These were ideas I picked up through the years — from friends and family, from co-workers, from the media, from books.
Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. I didn’t know this at the time and so it was baptism by fire in some respects. Over time, many of these long-held ideas proved to be misconceptions. Some were downright untrue, for me at least.
One other thing that was surprising — something I didn’t imagine would apply to me: I had hidden and unacknowledged fears about aging.
Goodness, where did those come from? And worse, those hidden fears were actually coming out ever so subtlety, in my everyday language.
I said things like, “You look good for your age” or “It’s awesome, your mom can STILL do xyz”, where xyz was clearly something that younger folks did easily.
I didn’t know any better until I started turning these rocks over and seeing what was really going on underneath.
This deeper examination of what midlife (and aging) means to me started about three to four years ago but got going in earnest last year.
Turning the boat… not quite the Titanic
In early 2020, I decided to incorporate midlife-related topics in my weekly newsletter. I had only been talking about career-related matters up until that point. But I figured I was researching and discovering all kinds of things relevant to mid-lifers, why not share my learnings?
The readers responded well to the shift in topics. I received lots of early validation that I’m talking about something that they too found relevant and important. By mid-2020, I decided to go all-in and called the newsletter Midlife Cues.
A similar shift on the Second Breaks podcast followed in early 2021 and that move proved to be impactful for me.
Having conversations about the middle years with other mid-lifers has been a huge education for me. It was the crash course on midlife I needed to have.
In the four years that I’ve been doing the podcast, Season 7 has been the most consequential for me as I examined and re-formed my own thoughts about midlife and aging, and in figuring out who I want to be in this phase of my life.
In Season 7, I asked all my guests two questions: (1) what the phrase celebrate midlife might mean for them, and (2) how different they are today from who they were in their 20s.
Their answers — all insightful and inspiring — have been such gifts for me.
Our midlife isn’t like our parents’ midlife.
Here’s one thing I’ve realized. Our midlife isn’t like our parents’ midlife. And I would venture a prediction that our children’s midlife won’t be anything like ours either.
I know this sounds so obvious. Even as I write the words, there’s a voice in my head that goes, “No duh, Lou.”
But as obvious as this may be, many of us still carry preconceived notions about what this phase in life is going to be or is supposed to be like.
With all the changes and developments in the world that have happened in the last couple of decades, many of these long-held ideas are passé or are no longer applicable.
So when I say that our midlife isn’t going to be like our parents’ midlife, part of it’s due to generational differences and part of it’s the result of technological and medical advances.
I couldn’t look to my parents or my older sister’s experiences as a blueprint for my own midlife.
What I discovered and formulated instead are some guiding principles for making these years the best that I can possibly make them.
Guiding principle #1: Redefine your terms and your boundaries.
We’ve arrived! This is the time of our lives when we can (and finally, for some of us) own what we want, live according to our values, and go after the things that bring us joy.
Obviously, some of us are lucky and have been doing these things all our lives. Hooray! I’m waving the pom-poms for you! Keep doing what you’re doing. And if you feel like it, please be telling your midlifer friends all about it so they can be inspired to do the same.
But for some of us? That’s not been our experience. We have been living on other people’s terms and meeting their expectations, doing their thing instead of ours. We’ve been on a path someone else told us we should be on. So, now is the time for us to say, “Hang on one second. I don’t really want to be on this path anymore.” Because my friend, honestly, if not now, when?
“For me, celebrating midlife is like coming home to myself — to my fullness, to the way I’m supposed to be.” – Shulamit Ber Levtov, Episode 170
Some of us were on the path that we did choose ourselves but it’s been so loooonnng ago. The issue is we no longer enjoy it. We’ve changed our minds or we’ve discovered something else we want instead. I know this one very well because this is my story.
So, now is the time for us to say, “What if I try on something else for size? Because again, if not now, when exactly? Besides, what’s the worst that can happen if we dipped our toes into a different pool and tried on a different swimsuit?
One of my guests this year was Shawn Fink, a coach who helps her clients through what calls a Journey Toward Wholeness. In Episode 162, Shawn talked about the sense of fragmentation that many midlifers feel when they get to their age — something she herself experienced.
“If I can be really honest, people only saw me as a mom and all the time though, I was much more. There were parts of me that I never really got to bring to the forefront. It was through that feeling of being fragmented that I felt so unsettled. […] And the same thing has happened to my clients. They reached a point where they’re like, ‘Well, who am I when I’m at work? Can I bring all of me to work and will you accept me as I am?’ I had clients who felt like they couldn’t even be themselves in their own homes because of their partners and they’ve had to really downplay the things that they love.”
Many of us get to our age and realize we’ve built a life that’s not entirely all-encompassing of the person that we are. Or maybe we’ve outgrown what we’ve worked hard to build. Now in midlife, we have a golden opportunity to reconcile this and to align the person others see with the person we see ourselves to be.
Guiding principle #2: Shine the light on any lurking fears about aging.
I was unaware that I harbored fears about aging until I reached my 50s and got curious about why I did (or didn’t do) certain things or said certain words.
When I asked my good friend, “Do I look old in this picture?”, what was I really asking? What’s behind the question?
When every article that talked about brain health or cognitive decline pulled me to read it and save it in my crowded Evernote folder, what’s fueling the almost maniacal obsession with those types of information?
When I decided to stop coloring my hair, and there was this tiny voice that kept asking, “Are you sure?”, what was I really worried about?
I think that there are some fears that are legit. And being aware of them can help us modify our behaviors so we can do something about whatever it is we’re afraid of. My fear of cognitive decline—and losing my independence as a result—underpins many of my habits. It’s why I prioritize sleep, over everything(!), why I’ve been practicing meditation, why I make sure I’m always learning something new. And why I’ve been diligent about my digital “second brain”.
But some fears may be unfounded or misplaced. I think it’s worth examining those too so we can avoid having those kinds of fear drive the bus.
One question I found helpful is “Who do I want to be in this situation?” Almost always, the answer I come up with is the one without my fears in the driver’s seat.
Guiding principle #3: There are no midlife police.
Forget what so-and-so said about how someone of a certain age should look or sound or act or behave. In midlife, just as in every other phase of our life, “you do you” is an awesome principle to follow.
Not to mention, many of those so-called standards are dated. There’s this popular meme that went around a few months ago that showed Rue McClanahan, portraying the character Blanche Devereaux in the 80s hit The Golden Girls, side by side with a seriously toned Jennifer Lopez performing during the 2020 Super Bowl Half Time.
The meme may have focused on their appearance and how the times have changed in terms of what we might expect of a 50-year-old woman to look like.
But there’s one thing we must remember. Rue McClanahan and the character she portrayed, owned her sexuality. She kept things sassy and sexy, and never let age define her. Just like J Lo. How that shows up today versus thirty-five years ago may look different but the spirit remains the same.
I think Gail Gensler, my guest back in Episode 163, said it best:
“My new mantra, now that I’ve turned 60 in January, is ‘It’s 60, so what?’ I don’t care what’s going on around me. It’s not about what’s going on around me. This is my journey. And as far as I know, I only get one journey.”
Amen to that.
Guiding principle #4: Shoot for Joyful. Not graceful, not anti, not positive, not even successful.
You know, when you start really paying attention to marketing messages used to target mid-lifers and the older generation, you’ll notice a few catchy phrases bandied about: aging gracefully, positive aging, anti-aging, pro-aging, and successful aging are some of the most common.
Personally, I developed an aversion to the phrase anti-aging fairly quickly. Why be anti about something that happens naturally? I also hear the underlying ageism and fear of aging sentiments in the phrase. So I don’t use it.
Aging gracefully was a phrase I used to be okay with until I examined the thoughts and images that came to mind whenever I used the phrase. It’s mostly only used to describe women, I’ve noticed, and it’s got a whiff of patriarchy. So I stopped using it too.
I’ve been pro-aging for a while. It goes without saying, given my anti anti-aging stance. 😊
Phrases like successful aging and positive aging were interesting and I’ve been on the fence about these phrases.
What do these phrases really mean? What is it like to be positively aging? And what is it like to be successfully aging? Aren’t we, by virtue of still being alive, positively and successfully aging by default? Are these simply marketing phrases, crafted by the creative geniuses (ahem) hired by conglomerates intent on getting their hands into our pocketbooks?
Ultimately, I realized all these phrases signal a standard usually defined by a culture and society that’s based on patriarchal values.
What I found most helpful are ideas about living joyfully in our middle years and beyond. Not happy, but joyful.
Joy and happiness are both wonderful feelings to experience. And while the dictionary may tag these words are synonyms, they are actually quite different.
Here’s one explanation by lifestyle mentor Rachel Fearnley on Psychologies
Joy is more consistent and is cultivated internally. It comes when you make peace with who you are, why you are, and how you are, whereas happiness tends to be externally triggered and is based on other people, things, places, thoughts, and events. — Rachel Fearnley, Lifestyle Mentor
Joy comes from within. It is a practice and a behavior. Joy endures hardships and trials and connects with meaning and purpose.
To live joyfully in our middle years and beyond, I think, is a perfect goal.
Guiding principle #5: Take care of yourself—mentally, physically, emotionally.
Look, the reality is many of the things that we did easily and naturally in our 30s just won’t be the same anymore.
I used to be able to party all night then bounce right back in the morning after two hours of sleep and a good shower. That doesn’t happen anymore!
“30s may be the new 20s, but 9 pm is the new midnight.” – Unknown
To expect our bodies to behave the same way as we did in our 30s is maybe a tad unrealistic and a sure-fire way to feel frustrated and “feel old” (whatever that may mean to you).
Some of the hormones that were keeping things in balance before are leaving for retirement. So, we have to “manually” and deliberately keep things in balance ourselves.
Estrogen (in women), Testosterone (in men), growth hormone, and melatonin are the hormones in the body that most commonly decrease function with age. According to Professor John E. Morley at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, “In women, the decline in estrogen levels leads to menopause. In men, testosterone levels usually decrease gradually. Decreased levels of growth hormone may lead to decreased muscle mass and strength. Decreased melatonin levels may play an important role in the loss of normal sleep-wake cycles (circadian rhythms) with aging.” Source
Stress is a part of life. At any age, we have to face difficult situations and overcome obstacles. Our stressed-out brains usually sound an alarm that releases potentially harmful hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Ideally, the brain turns down the alarm when stress hormones get too high. Unfortunately, our body’s natural defenses against stress gradually break down with age. So, we have to be aware of our stress levels and come up with a personal set of stress relief techniques.
Some medical issues come to be associated with aging because their onset typically happens in midlife and onward. Diabetes, hypertension, obesity, cognitive decline, to name a few.
Age management physician Dr. Mickey Barber says it’s never too early and it’s never too late to start taking care of ourselves.
There are things that wear out. I have a new shoulder. I had my shoulder replaced in November. And so there are going to be parts that might need some work. But if you can say healthy, avoid medications and really take care of yourself, I think the likelihood that you’re going to be successful in the aging process is much better. I mean, even if you’re 70 and you maybe haven’t been doing everything in a healthy manner or the right way, it’s still not too late. On the other side of that coin, if you’re 30, great! Let’s get started now. I mean, you’ll be so ahead of the game. So I don’t think that there’s a right or wrong time to get started.
Midlife can be the most powerful time of our life.
In my teens, I thought people in their 50s and 60s must have achieved all that they wanted to achieve in their lives and that it’s cruising time for them from that point onwards. Oh boy, that idea was so starkly different from my own experience.
Coach and creator of the Power Profiles, Sara Smeaton said: “Midlife is a unique time in our life when we have the same amount of experience behind us as we have possibilities ahead of us. It can be the most powerful time of our life.”
It’s true, we may be “over the hill” by the time we get to midlife. But who’s to say that the other side of that hill isn’t as fun and adventurous as the climb? Besides, it’s more than likely we’re just getting ready to jump onto another hill altogether. And you know what? There aren’t any midlife police to stop us from doing so.