'The more things change, the more they stay the same. ’ Have you ever had that thought? Have you also noticed that, the harder you push to change the way things are, the less progress you seem to make? Although this experience isn't confined to guys passing through midlife (it's a common experience for anyone motivated to implement change), for most people, the midlife transition, buy its very nature, takes the option out of change. Midlife elevates change from a want ('I'd really like to . . . ’ ) to a need ('I've got to . . . ‘). At other times, and in other situations, there are plenty of ways to avoid having to deal with change as a necessity. At midlife, such avoidance has consequences, and some of them can be serious.
Sadly, our cultural expectations about how men are ‘supposed’ to think, feel and behave (refusing advice, help or support) put many guys into an emotional bind: on one hand, they confront their current path as heading nowhere; on the other hand, they lack the tools to discover or choose other viable options. As a result, the more indepent-minded a man may be, the more likely he is to adopt avoidance techniques - any of a number of self-destructive addictive behaviors - rather than surrender his cherished self-reiiance and to admit vulnerability. The resutls, if not disastrous, can result in a great deal of unnecessary pain and suffering, not only for him, but also especially for those who truly care about him.
The classical midlife crisis scenario is so avoidable. If you are frustrated facing the challenges of the midlife transition, let me assure you that the solution consists in a simple (but not easy) two-step process: 1) understand and accept the nature of change, and 2) change your mind. The miracle of this approach to the midlife transition comes from the fact that you don't really have to do anything special. Consider this: if you keep coming up with the wrong answers, perhaps it's because you're asking the wrong questions! In the case of change (yes, any change), seeing the situation differently can fundamentally change your attitude not only toward the situation, but also toward your response to that situation.
Here's an example from this morning's paper. A woman wrote in to Carolyn Hax's advice column about people's reaction to her children. Her two kids, generally well-behaved, would occasionally become upset and make a scene in public. She disliked the general disapproval of the people around her. What would you do if a child were having a tantrum in the restaurant where you were eating, or behind you on the plane you were on? Think about it. Now consider this: both of her children were autistic, and, at times could become completely overwhelmed by being overstimulated by noise, by bright lights, or by the activity around them. Now how do you feel about the situation? Now what would you do? What changed? Why?
Here are the two principles of change that could fundamentally alter your approach to the midlife transition. First, trying to change your environment directly just won't work. Whether or not you're aware of it, your entire environment (your career, your business, your family) is a system. Besides the purpose for which it was created, every system also has an equally essential secondary function: to remain in existence. Therefore, whenever you apply pressure to a system to change, that system will push back. It doesn't matter at all whether or not the change would benefit the system. The system will see your intervention as a threat to its existence and will resist you. I can offer you a number of good examples:
- Trying to motivate a teenager to assume more responsibility in the home
- Trying to get your life partner to stop doing something you find annoying
- Trying to motivate your employees to be more productive
- Trying to convince any group to make changes in its culture
Once you realize that you're actually powerless to change persons, places or things (this may take some convincing, but, after enough trial and error, most people eventually get there), then the question must arise: ‘How am I to deal with a situation that I consider to be unacceptable?’ The realization that you can't change anything outside of yourself leads you to stop asking the wrong question ('What can I do to change this?') and to start asking the right question: ‘What can I change?’ Posed like this, the answer appears obvious: if you can't change anything outside of yourself, all you have left to change is you.
Basically, for any midlife situation (or any situation at all, really), you have only three options: avoidance (self-destructive escape mechanisms), confrontation (provoking retaliation from the system), or changing your attitude and behavior to model the change that you want to have happen around you. It's very much like the Japanese martial art called Aikido, which Wikipedia describes as, “Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. " Changing yourself (and allowing yourself to take advantage of all the advice, help and support available to you) can result in some very surprising results. They may be surprising because it's all too easy to forget that you're a part of any system that you want to change. Therefore, like in Aikido, when you move, your system must also move to adjust to you. Systems also exist to support their members in self-actualization. So, instead of your system fighting you, you could actually find them becoming your support. How about that?
Can you win the uphill battles of midlife? No, and yes. No, you can't ‘win’ (the odds are stacked against you), but yes, you can actively surrender and become involved in the process and achieve even greater results than you had previously imagined. Now, how about that?
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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