the midlife journey: an excerpt from wholehearted

In the midst of the remodel I’ve been working on manuscripts for The Gifts of Imperfection, an inspiration guide that will be published in April 2010, and Wholehearted, the story of of the 2007 breakdown spiritual awakening. Writing while they demolish a bathroom a few feet away has been good for me. Now I get this quote by Anne Lamott: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink. Because you’re always on borrowed time.”

I’m also very excited about an event that I’m doing in September in Houston. The event is based on my research and my personal midlife experiences – “The Midlife Journey: Falling Apart, Growing Up, and Finding Joy.” Tickets just went on sale Monday and there’s limited seating remaining. If you live in Houston, join us!

To celebrate all this midlife goodness, I want to share an excerpt on midlife from the second chapter of Wholehearted. Enjoy!

An excerpt from Wholehearted: Adventures in Growing Up, Falling Apart and Finding Joy

Copyright © 2009 Brené Brown

Midlife is not a crisis. Midlife is an unraveling.

By definition, you can’t control or manage an unraveling. You can’t cure the midlife unraveling 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.

Midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:

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 and lovable, 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. The time has come to let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.

If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.

We go to work and unload the dishwasher and love our families and get our hair cut. Everything looks pretty normal on the outside. But on the inside we’re barely holding it together. We want to reach out, but judgment (the currency of the midlife realm) holds us back. It’s a terrible case of cognitive dissonance – the psychologically painful process of trying to hold two competing truths in a mind that was engineered to constantly reduce conflict and minimize dissention (e.g., I’m falling apart and need to slow down and ask for help. Only needy, flaky, unstable people fall apart and ask for help).

It’s human nature and brain biology to do whatever it takes to resolve cognitive dissonance – lie, cheat, rationalize, justify, ignore (if you need examples, look toward Washington, D.C. or Wall Street). For most of us midlifers, this is where our expertise in managing perception bites us on the ass. We are torn between desperately wanting everyone to see our struggle so that we can stop pretending, and desperately doing whatever it takes to make sure no one ever sees anything except what we’ve edited and approved for display.

What bubbles up from this internal turmoil is fantasy. We might glance over at a shabby motel while we’re driving down the highway and think, I’ll just check in and stay there until they come looking for me. Then they’ll know I’m crazy. Or maybe we’re standing in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher when we suddenly find ourselves holding up a glass and wondering, “Would my husband and kids take this struggle more seriously if I just started hurling all this shit through the window?”

Most of us opt out of the dramatic displays. We’d have to arrange to let the dog out and have the kids picked up before we checked into the lonely roadside motel. We’d spend hours cleaning up glass and apologizing for our “bad choices” to our temper tantrum-prone toddlers. It just wouldn’t be worth it, so most of us just push through until “crazy” is no longer a voluntary fantasy.

Many scholars have proposed that the struggle at midlife is about the fear that comes with our first true glimpse of mortality. Again, wishful thinking. Midlife is not about the fear of death. Midlife is death. Tearing down the walls that we spent our entire life building is death. Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth.

It’s a painful irony that the very things that may have kept us safe growing up ultimately get in the way of our becoming the parents, partners, and/or people that we want to be.

Maybe, like me, you are the perfect pleaser and performer, and now all of that perfection and rule following is suffocating. Or maybe anger and lashing out kept people at a safe distance and now the distance has turned into intolerable loneliness. There are also the folks who grew up taking care of everyone else because they had no choice. Their death is letting go of the caretaking, and their rebirth is learning how to take care of themselves (and work through the push-back that always comes with setting new boundaries).

Whatever the issue, it seems as if we spend the first half of our lives shutting down feelings to stop the hurt, and the second half trying to open everything back up to heal the hurt.

Sometimes when the “tear the walls down and submit to death” thing overwhelms me, I find it easier to think about midlife as midlove. After a decade of research on shame, authenticity, and belonging, I’m convinced that loving ourselves is the most difficult and courageous thing we’ll ever do. Maybe we’ve been given a finite amount of time to find that self-love, and midlife is the halfway mark. It’s time to let go of the shame and fear and embrace love. Time to fish or cut bait.

It’s been so fun to work on both of these books. I’d love to know what you think!

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  7. Charlotte

    Wow, there are more people like me? I am not wierd? This is NORMAL??????

  8. Rod

    Thank you. I thought all of this…nightmare…was just me. That I was going "crazy." Having read this, suddenly, so much of what I've been going through (and what I need to do) comes into focus.

  9. Megan

    I've been a visitor here for a while, but was stopped in my tracks by the quotation in the box above. It made me cry. I am working to do just that, to let go of all the things that hold me back, be they other people's judgements or my own. It's not easy. It is most definitely not easy.

    Which is a long-winded way of saying thank you. Your words make a difference in my life.

  10. kate o

    Brene,

    Ordinary wisdom, extraordinary insight. I usually feel like such an oddball, and outsider. Then I read what you write and realize I am not that special…and it is ok.
    For years, I have struggled to love myself, and I turn 51 this week so….
    I feel validated too, because as a parent, I have told myself for years that my greatest lesson to my sons would be teaching them to love and accept themselves. Both are teenagers, and I can honestly say they are happy and healthy and audaciously self-accepting. Never have I heard them talk down to themselves over anything. As a single parent, I feel especially proud of that achievement. Thanks for your work and your sharing.

  11. Jodi K

    Brene’ – just so you know, I’ve had this page bookmarked since I found your site a few months back, and I re-read it from time to time. Each time I can’t believe how relevant the passage is, how much I can identify with it, and each time I secretly wish that there will be more to read! Like all the others here, I am so thirsty to read more, soak this all in and join everyone on this mid-life journey! I’m so thankful I’ve found your work, Brene’ and I can’t wait to read more.

  12. Jennifer

    I thought I was going to short circuit my computer keyboard b/c so many tears were streaming down my face as I read this… I only just found your blog about 2 1/2 months ago thanks to Kindness Girl and her Supersisters; bookmarked the page so I could continue to easily check in…. and for 2 1/2 months couldn’t figure out why you hadn’t written/updated since "hello mudda hello fadda" … and today. Finally. I realized I had bookmarked that particular entry, not "your blog", so every time I clicked to check, it of course took me to that entry… feeling stupid, but so relieved to "find you" again. Thanks for finding the courage to write, and to share.

  13. Jenn

    WOW. I too felt the lump in throat in just reading the title. You have a way of describing what is going on for me that I haven’t found words for. I feel like I’m falling apart, but didn’t know the words until reading the title of your new book. I hope it comes out sooner than April! I have thought about buying a convertible. Probably couldn’t use it much in Oregon. I am looking for a car with leather and sunroof. Insteaf of falling apart I’ve been saying I am stuck. I don’t feel like I am progressing; kind of sludging along. I feel I want to check out a lot. I need to trust that everything happens in it’s own time. I really want to have the attitude to embrace these changes and trust the new me will emerge. Thanks for much for sharing

  14. Laurie

    I very much enjoyed reading the entry. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I, like so many others, am going through this unraveling – wondering, wandering, wanting more and less at the same time. I am grateful to know that I am not alone and am surrounded by so many spirits. I very much look forward to reading this when it arrives. Thank you for putting words to the feelings.

  15. Susie

    I somehow stumbled onto your blog today ~ and what a blessing it was! As I was reading your beautiful words about the "midlife journey", I could not help but compare it to the "reunion journey" I am on with the son I gave up for adoption in 1979. We found each other in January, and I have come to realize that "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" and "The time has come to let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are." These words (and more) of yours are like they are written to my soul to help me deal with my adoption/reunion journey, as well as my midlife journey! Thank you so much, and I will be impatiently waiting for your book!

  16. r313jenn

    I started crying, you articulated EXACTLY what I have been feeling in the past year or so.
    I can’t wait for the book!

  17. Kelly

    wow. i guess i never really considered the fact that, at 43, i am mid-life. i work with college kids who truly keep my young, so I guess i’ve just never seen myself that way, but everything you say here rings true. i used to be one of those "people pleasers" you mentioned but that changed about 10 years ago when i lost my mother to suicide. she was very much a people pleaser, and when she ultimately couldn’t please the one person she really wanted to please (her third husband), she did what she did. i was pregnant with twins at the time and miscarried two days later. i vowed at that point that if i ever was blessed with children, i would take care of me…so that i could take care of them. and i now have 6 year old twins. found out i was pregnant with them on the 3rd anniversary of my mother’s death. they are my reminder and my blessing.

  18. Kim

    WOW – I cannot wait to read the whole book. It is like you have read my mind! I’m right smack in the middle of the "going down" part and your words are so reassuring. I found myself laughing out loud at the fantasies – oh so true! Thank you, just this excerpt has made feel better.