For many of us who have children, we know that their bodies do not grow at a constant speed. When they go through an exceptionally fast period, otherwise known as a growth spurt, we observe more temper tantrums, squirmy bodies, or vicarious balances. They are reacting to the discomfort of rapid changes within themselves. They do not understand it or know how to express it, so they react to it the only way they know how—by acting out their confusion. What many of us know but forget is that we continue to grow throughout our lives. While our bodies reach maturity by the mid or late 20s, our brains continue to evolve as we accumulate life experiences. In recent decades, science has proved the brain’s ability to change through learning very late in life. It is important to recognize our adult self also can go through difficult developmental periods just as teenagers during adolescence. Common wisdom points toward midlife as a difficult period for many of us. We have all heard about existential crisis, career transitions, or marriage breakups. Many call it the midlife crisis. I prefer the Chinese term: 中年危机。 The word 危机(crisis) denotes the coexistence of danger and opportunity. I view this dreaded period as a midlife growth spurt. It is a special opportunity for rapid personal growth.
This period is undeniably rocky. Physically, many experience signs of aging. Some question the meaning of a career pursued for survival. Stresses from long-term relationships with children and partners surface even if we love each other deeply. Finally, the death of some close to us such as parents or other relatives starts to make us think about our own mortality. While all of these signal “trouble”, they are also unique opportunities for us to reshape the meaning of our relationships with our family, career, and our internal worlds. The multiple challenges that we face force us to accept new ideas, approaches, help, and relationships. The “危“， or danger, here is that the “new” ideas could be finding the easier way out of this difficult period. For example, staying at a job we hate because of the stable pay even if we have enough money; Using plastic surgery to cover up sagging skin; Finding a new lover to prove we are still desirable. These are like the temper tantrums of toddlers when they do not know how to handle the growing pain. The opportunities for real growth are abundant if we rise to the challenge. This uncomfortable period creates the opportunity for our real courage to come out. This courage will fuel our emotional growth. Physically, our biological rhythms are ready to counterbalance some of our youthful anxieties. We can retain the majority of our energy with better control over how to distribute them. Careerwise, we have accumulated more self-knowledge and financial resources to pursue some of our long-ignored passion. Emotionally, our maturity will guide us to look beneath the misleading hypes of romance and beauty to recognize what real love is and the ways to express them to those we love. In finding new ways to define life for ourselves, we shed the burden of what should be and gain the reward of having what feels natural to our mind, body, and spirit.
Naturally, taking advantage of the “机”, or opportunity, for renewed energy, passion and direction requires effort from us. In order to fully realize the potential of this midlife growth spurt, I want to share the 8 key tasks of mid-life as I have understood through my own midlife transition and that of many of my clients:
- Accept the Past:
Recognize the regrets of the past are necessary lessons, it is okay AS LONG AS we learn from them. As human beings, we are biologically programmed to pay more attention to the negative as a survival mechanism. We automatically underestimate what true assets we have. Therefore, accepting and appreciating what we have can be very healing.
- Growth-mind set is key for our midlife;
Once we have accepted the past, we must focus on the growth potential of the present. We deserve to invest in our own lives and not be lost in that of our posterities or those around us. If our basic survival is not threatened, we can afford to take risks and make mistakes. In the end, we have nothing important to lose and everything important to gain.
- Realize that children are blissful and optional.
Whether you have them or not, it can be an equally fortunate or unfortunate choice depending on our perspective. As long as we stop wondering what the people who chose differently have and we don’t, we can find joy in the choice we made for ourselves. We might feel we made the wrong decision when we are lonely, or conversely, feel exhausted from childcare. It will be all okay. We will build other relationships and we will have all the time we need for ourselves again. Live it the way we feel true to ourselves at this moment, with or without children.
- Our relationships are not everything–Cherish them but don’t expect more than what they can give you. We value different things depending on how we are genetically and socially engineered. Some might need to get out more from relationships than others. We can only give each other our best. Usually, that is not even close to everything. Ultimately, we are the only ones accountable for our happiness, not our friends, lovers, spouses, or children.
- Balanced pursuit of ambition. Wealth or power is convenient until it becomes destructive. Like many human ambitions, they are neither bad nor good until the price we are willing to pay for them begins to harm others or ourselves. We do not have to deny it. We just no longer need or have the luxury, to pursue them by ignoring everything else. One step at a time is fine. Getting “there”, wherever “there” is, is not the goal. Getting there is most of our life. So let us make that journey as pleasant as we can.
- Finding the beauty in our aging body–They do coexist. Our consumer world has unrealistic definitions we cannot change. However, we always have and always will have control over the self-definition of beauty. I, for one, find aging to be very becoming. I no longer look into the mirror and wonder who this person is both physically and emotionally. We can still admire the commercial definition of beauty with perfect skin, symmetry, and an overdose of youth. The difference now is we can do so without the need to change ourselves.
- Play again. Whether you have a child or not, this is a crucial but often neglected part of the midlife transition. The inner child in us, the one that can genuinely find ourselves beautiful, is always there. This is our chance to rediscover it. It will retrieve the buried parts of ourselves that are under the weight of modern society. Giving ourselves permission to, for example, be silly and unstructured at times. It will only make us better when we return to work.
- Slow down in order to go faster—While we moved at a faster speed than our younger selves, we often are going nowhere fast when we have no inner direction. However, now we can really go somewhere slowly. Armed with our emotional maturity, we will find moving slower is our new goal. Reacting slower to situations that don’t matter helps store up energy to react faster to those that do. And most things ultimately don’t matter. Considering how long-stored stress from fast-paced life can be the source of cancerous cells and other diseases, we must give ourselves room to slow down.
None of this will be easy. It is a process. It will take many years. Our growth spurts span longer later in life. It is not linear and it might go up and down, and back and forth. Have courage, you will find a renewed and happier self at the end of the process. Do it well, so you can do this all over again in future growth spurts.