Creating Psychological Flexibility in Midlife

Remember when we thought people over a certain age were old duffers? Part of why we thought that was how inflexible we saw them acting. Usually by mid-life or later, we have some sense that change is inevitable. Everything consisting of matter changes, including our physical bodies, bio-chemistry and brain, but change is certain in our relationships and our culture too. While it’s true that we become less adaptable with age, it’s not inevitable that we become incapacitated or even limited by an inability to change. The truth is that we can and must adapt to change as we grow older, and even initiate change, if we’re to live satisfying lives. The capacity to make conscious changes with grace takes awareness, cultivating an open mind, a willingness to face up to making internal and external changes, as needed, and practice. Like physical fitness, and mental acuity, our psychological flexibility needs exercise.

We all experience physical changes as we age, such as graying hair, weight gain, wrinkles, menopause, a new need for glasses and other physical phenomena. Some of us notice that we have less stress tolerance, perhaps more trouble with sleep and may have some memory lapses. We may not experience the sex drive we once had, and our relationships change. The nest that was busy with fledglings has emptied, and we may be enjoying grandchildren now. Marriages change too: In fact, women are now leaving long-term in unprecedented numbers during midlife and beyond. We usually can’t halt the change around us or to our own bodies, but we can slow our psychological aging, just as we can slow our physical and mental decline.

When change comes from outside

A critical aspect of dealing successfully with change is to recognize the inherent opportunities in it. Asking, “What might be better?” when faced with an external change, can guide us to making decisions that will improve the lives of those around us and ourselves. Take note, though, that sometimes the question can lead us to conclude that an external change is the only real answer, when what we may be actually doing is running away from facing some internal, rigid set of beliefs. The external changes one contemplates should be thoroughly examined to ensure we don’t make changes to our lives just to avoid internal change. It’s critical to really look at the potential alternatives and make choices.

Change from inside

If you’re feeling stuck, bored, impulsive, dissatisfied, angry or anxious about any aspect of your life, pay attention to why you are feeling it. Look at what you’ve been thinking that might be causing you to feel that way. Is there another way to think about it? What are the alternative ways of thinking about it? Try on these alternatives in your mind: Does a different thought change what you feel? Once you’ve considered the alternatives ways of thinking thoroughly, adopt the one that works for you or consider whether you would be better off choosing another option, such as making an external change.

Consider the alternatives

We know the body changes as it ages, and most of recognize that the world and people around us change with time: These are changes we continue to cope with throughout our lives. Perhaps more subtle are the changes we experience within ourselves psychologically; priorities, preferences, interests and who we are in relation to others can change too.

âÂ?¢ If thinking about leaving a spouse, one can choose to initiate or cooperate in real change within ourselves to improve our relationship instead. We can’t change who the spouse is as a person or how they think or act, but being open with the spouse about what one is feeling may result in the spouse choosing to change.

� As a means of reducing facial lines, rather than Botox injections, high cost creams, or a facelift, perhaps the change to a mind-set of appreciation for the beauty in a hard-won face of lines is a healthier perspective in the long-run. If you still want to slow down the aging of your face, some of the lower cost creams, exercise and diet can help.

� Letting go of grown children is something we often must face, or we burden ourselves and our children with an unhealthy co-dependence. This may necessitate change in us. We can do this successfully by focusing on changing both our communication with them and thinking about them differently: Remembering that people learn by doing, and by making mistakes, focus on thinking of these grown children as friends, rather than as our children. This means not telling them what to do; not advising unless they specifically request it; not judging them; not bailing them out with financial issues, at least every time; and listening respectfully when they want you to be a friendly confidante.

âÂ?¢ Thinking of buying that expensive sports car, even though you can’t really afford it? Consider why you feel the need, but if this doesn’t change your change, think of what the money might be more wisely used for, like retirement, fixing a leaky roof or helping out with your child’s education. If there’s money left over, then, find a used sports car if you still want one.

âÂ?¢ Yes, younger people can be considered prettier and sexier, especially if you fall for the advertising. Don’t allow your marriage or other long-term romantic relationship to wither and die because you are bored or want to escape the challenges of maintaining or re-creating that old spark with your spouse. Many regretful midlife men and women will tell you that, no, it wasn’t worth the fling.

âÂ?¢ The grass often looks greener on the other side, but don’t change your job unless and until you have another one lined up or have made the necessary arrangements to launch your new career successfully. If you have a burning desire to start your own motorcycle maintenance business, photograph the remaining wilds of Russia or some other dream you’ve put on hold, go for it, but do it wisely. There’s nothing wrong and everything right with seeking expert advice on how to do it successfully. If it’s a matter of making changes where you work, carefully evaluate if and how you could do that diplomatically, and develop a contingency plan in case you find you’re not making the progress you had hoped.

âÂ?¢ Don’t move to Bora Bora, yet. Think about it for awhile. What’s the upside and what’s the downside? How long have you been thinking about it? Why do you want to move there, move at all or make some other big change? People in midlife often have impulsive feelings, an urge to do something very different, be somewhere different, be with a different person or own something different. The urge may be related to changing hormones, an unconscious or conscious recognition that death is drawing closer and so one must do it now, the result of a dissatisfying aspect or one’s life or the desire to fulfill a dream. It can be fun to act impulsively at times, but avoid it when it will mean a significant change, unless you think it through thoroughly. We need to take care that we don’t get stuck in endlessly thinking it through, though.

Psychological health demands that we balance our flexibility with thoughtful consideration. Try wearing a shirt from Bora Bora, read about it and talk to people who’ve been there. Test drive that gorgeous little sports car, have it checked by a mechanic and talk it over with your spouse before opening your wallet. Seek marriage counseling before you make any decisions about leaving a spouse. Let yourself grieve over a child who has moved from home and develop a new relationship with the grown child before you decide to become pregnant in midlife.

Exercise your flexibility

Since we all have to make changes throughout our lives in order to survive and adapt, it’s good to practice internal and external change. Our flexibility depends on it. Just as one can’t expect to climb a mountain after lying in bed for months, we have to exercise our capacity for change. If you feel you have to eat dinner at exactly 6:00 PM every day, change dinner time to 5:00 PM or 7:00 PM once in awhile. If you always shop on Mondays, try doing it another day occasionally. If you always think your eldest child is irresponsible, try thinking of all the ways the child is responsible. If you think you are too old to change, try thinking that no one is ever too old to change.

Start small

Starting with small, considered changes, both external and internal, can provide us with the confidence, self-awareness, and psychological and physical adaptability to make more significant changes comfortably. Our psychological functioning is linked to our physical health, so remember that change to one of these will affect the other, even if we don’t see it. Just as we should gradually build up our bodies to master a new exercise regimen, we should build up our capacity to withstand, and even glory in, the wise changes we need to make for creating satisfying and healthy lives. What are you thinking that is standing in your way of satisfaction with your life? What small external changes can you make to be more satisfied?

The flip side of change is even worse than being called an old duffer: When we don’t change, we can become victims of the change around us; lose chances for satisfying relations with those we care about; miss out on opportunities for satisfying retirements or career changes; and otherwise limit our capacities for life satisfaction. If you’re accustomed to backing away from change, now is the time to start thinking, instead, that change can be a wonderful adventure, will keep you younger than your years and is the only path towards creating the life you want.

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