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!


Leave a Comment

  1. Shannon

    WOW. Waiting for the book will be extremely difficult! Blown away by how personal your words were to me. THANK YOU for a little snippit of what’s to come in your book… It will be a valued tool on my journey toward rebirth!
    Peace, Shannon

  2. Emme

    OMG, Brene! How’d you know? Seriously. Wow. I am dealing with some pretty serious internal questing right now, and definitely scared of the paths my unraveling seem to be taking me, even though they are pushing me toward my dreams. Can’t wait for the book!(s) 🙂

  3. kelly g.

    Love this excerpt. And like so many others, feel like it came from right inside my own head/heart. I am really looking forward to the book coming out. And love reading your blog. Thanks so much. Kelly

  4. Absolutely beautiful. Stunning…"Authentic." Thank you. Bless you. I’ll be sharing this with a overflowing handful of midlife friends and one who’s not yet. Love. Love. So glad I found you. I am blessed to have. Really. I was going to go up one post and wish you bliss on your vacation and thank you for this post. You smart thang. I saw the comments were off. I hope you received what you needed during your respite. Namaste.

  5. Christa

    As someone who is looking deep into the hole that means I’m almost 40, I truly loved your calling the midlife an unraveling–what a great reframe. And just what I needed right now.

    Thank you!!

  6. Leah

    Cannot wait for this book. Thanks for posting an excerpt!!

  7. Bahiehk

    your writing is stellar.

    cannot wait to get your book and spread the wisdom around!

    love, me

  8. sm

    I will be forever grateful for today. for discovering your wisdom. for you, for sharing. for Ali Edwards for leading me to this treasure. i need that book. keep on writing & sharing. thank you! =D

  9. Erin

    Wow Brene, truly amazing thanks so much for the sneak peak – can’t wait to read more! Love everyone’s comments too – what a beaufiful community you have created here.

  10. DawnS

    I love the way you describe midlife as "midlove"!

    Have you ever read the book by Anne Morrow Lindbergh called "Gift from the Sea" ? There is a passage that goes… "Perhaps middle-age is, or should be, a period of shedding shells; the shell of ambition, the shell of material accumulations and possessions, the shell of ego. Perhaps one can shed at this stage in life as one sheds in beach-living; one’s pride, one’s false ambitions, one’s mask, one’s armor."

    I’m finding that In my life middle age (so far) has been more of a "re-awakening" than an "unraveling". Thank you for sharing your beautiful words of wisdom with us!

  11. When does Wholehearted: Adventures in Growing Up, Falling Apart and Finding Joy
    become available – can I order it yesterday? This is something I so definitely need now….

  12. Ileana

    Wow! This really spoke to me today! I’m glad to have found your blog. Can’t wait for the book to come out. Thank you!

  13. Kelly in Canada

    I can barely read the screen through tears that don’t seem to want to stop for too long these days. I hope that I am at bottom and the rebuilding is going to start very soon but right now I am just groping my way through. I did take the screen off of my kitchen window just in case…I want the dishes to travel a long way if the courage comes to actually lob them.

  14. Susan

    strange to be reading this today – – I have been struggling with some of these things the past couple of weeks. I don’t think mine is a concern about mortality as much as it is a grief over the fact that where I am now is not where I want to be. and reality is so harsh. so many dreams unfilled, so many disappointments . ..and bad decisions and no chance for do overs!
    I will look forward to the book – – maybe it will give me some comfort that I’m not alone and some assurances about what is ahead!

  15. I relate to every. single. bit. of this.
    I began the outer journey to me this past spring and have had my intuitions confirmed again and again that REALLY, TRULY, all those cliches about self-love, being real, have merit.
    Wow. Who knew?

    Thank you for being a bright beacon of truth. For telling it like it is. Eloquently. Powerfully. Beautifully.

    Much Love, Lisa

  16. Jenny

    Very nice piece of writing. Looking forward to more.

  17. Amy

    I think that you must know me and are speaking directly to me. lol It’s amazing how timely this exerpt has been. But maybe that just shows that most people are in the same place. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book!

  18. Ann

    This is a wonderful, wonderful understanding of what happens at midlife! I’m only know embracing the midlife stuff for me at age 49. I traveled through two years of separation, divorce, and ugliness from a husband of 26 years. His choices for midlife unraveling don’t have to be my unraveling. It took time to get to the place where I can utter those words. I’m ready to embrace the next steps in my midlife journey! Thanks for your thoughts!

  19. Megan

    I need to read more and Houston is too far from Australia, so please keep writing! Megan

  20. Jo

    After dithering around and clinging to the sides of the cliff for months – no, years, let’s face it – I am about to leap into that midlife ‘death’ in the hope I will spread my wings and fly. I need this book now! Thank you so much for this inspiring and comforting excerpt.

  21. Ali

    I so proud to call you my friend.

  22. aj

    Thanks for putting words to the thoughts and feelings that have been so long nudging the corners of my heart and mind and awaiting expression.

  23. Lorie

    Thank you for sharing this excerpt from your upcoming book. I have been resisting the unraveling for some time now… I still long to be that perfect pleaser, make everyone happy, and avoid ALL conflict, but I just don’t have the energy for it any more!

    I too have those fantasies of just leaving. On the rare occasion when I actually drive to work instead of riding my bike, I often think "What if I just keep going? Don’t make the turn where I am supposed to? Would anyone notice? Could I just leave all the responsibility and turmoil behind?" Then I tell myself-"you know, if you were riding your bike you would be too lazy to go anywhere, so just go to work!" Ha Ha!

    Definitely looking forward to reading this one! and a read along? have no idea how that works, but I’m in!

    I enjoy this blog enormously, for your wisdom Brene and for the wisdom and hope shared in the comments by your readers.

    PS I especially love the photo at the top of this post!

  24. Michelle

    I’m really looking forward to your new book on midlife. I am right there in the heart of it. Your words, "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," made me respond audibly as I was reading. I am right there.

  25. JKK

    Wow, wow, wow. I can’t wait! I’m so glad I found your blog. I’m so looking forward to your book!