Written by Cecilia Ding, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT#136122) and U.S. Certified Self-Growth Coach. This blog and others can also be found on Cecilia's website, ceciliading.com.
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
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.