The Truth About Midlife

Today I turn 40. I’m not usually one to make a big deal about my birthday, but today feels like an important one. This summer has marked two major milestones for me: my 10-year wedding anniversary and my arrival into “midlife.” These past few months have felt very potent, like I’m experiencing a death and a rebirth. The death began when I moved to Prague in 2015 and embarked on a journey into the unknown. This journey has often been disorienting and difficult to navigate. And while I’m far from having all the answers, these recent milestones feel like they are important steps toward coming home to a more authentic, organic and grounded version of myself.

In honor of my 40th birthday, I thought I would share some of my personal truths about midlife. I wrote my recent blog on The Truth About Marriage as a wedding speech that I would like to give to all newly married couples. I wanted to write this blog in a similar way, but it occurred to me that no one sits you down at age 40 to give you a speech about midlife. But perhaps someone should. Like the “birds and bees” conversation that parents have with their adolescents, maybe when we turn 40 someone should sit us down for a “Ferraris and freakouts” discussion.

This blog is my version of that discussion.

First, I can’t help but start with a little bit of science. In my undergraduate positive psychology course I teach about well-being across the lifespan, which includes a short section on midlife. In this section I share that in 2007 a large study examined the relationship between age and well-being in a sample of over 2 million people from nearly 80 countries. When the authors examined a subset of 500,000 people from America and Europe, they found that the relationship between age and well-being was U-shaped. In other words, well-being tended to be higher when people were younger, dip at midlife, and then increase again after around age 60. A more recent study of 1.3 million people from 51 countries came to similar conclusions.

So the first truth that I want to share is that on average, there does seem to be a decrease in well-being at midlife. This midlife dip doesn’t necessarily affect everyone, and it doesn’t always become a full-blown crisis, but on average it seems to be pretty common. The authors of these studies argue that well-being might go down at midlife because people tend to evaluate where they’re at, and often realize that they haven’t met as many of their goals as they would like.

Personally, I always seem to be evaluating my life to figure out whether I’m living in ways that honor what I value, so that’s nothing new. But I have noticed that this tendency seems to be heightened as I enter midlife. I’ve never been one to easily settle for jobs, friendships, relationships or life situations that don’t resonate with me, but lately this tendency is on steroids. It’s as if my mind, body, heart and soul are becoming absolutely unwilling to put up with anything that feels out of alignment with my personal truth.

On the one hand this is really annoying, because it seems like I’m never 100% satisfied with anything. Sometimes I worry that I’m getting stuck in a variety of “grass is greener” situations, where I simply want what I don’t have. But when I feel deeply into my longings, I realize that most of them are (and always have been) pointing me toward the life that is most appropriate for my soul’s current embodiment on this earth. When I put my “soul goggles” on (as Sera Beak likes to say), I can see and feel the full potential of my life, and I know when something is missing the mark.

Sometimes using my “soul vision” involves having discussions or making decisions that feel risky. At midlife I’m finding that if I put these discussions or decisions off in order to stay comfortable and safe, my mind and body react. I end up with physical symptoms, depression, and anxiety. I am simply unable to tolerate anything less than the truth from myself and from others. When something feels even slightly “off,” whether through a white lie, or denying my needs, or “playing nice,” or having an inauthentic conversation, I get so uncomfortable that I want to crawl out of my skin. Midlife seems to be slowly burning alway all that is not true for me.

So what is truth number two? Midlife is going to force your truth out of you one way or another, whether you like it or not. My advice is to be as authentic as you can now, so that it doesn’t come back to bite you later.

Speaking of fire, I need to mention the inevitable aspects of aging that come along with midlife (hot flashes, anyone?). Even though I’m only 40, my body has already started to show symptoms of perimenopause, which is a stage that happens to many women a few years before they completely stop menstruating.

Now, before you stop reading because you think this truth does not apply to you, rest assured that it does (even if you aren’t a woman). If you happen to love a woman, or want to love a woman, or if you have a close female friend or a sister or a mother (so yeah, everyone), you need to know about perimenopause and menopause. Why do you need to know about it? Because it causes fundamental changes in a woman’s body and mind that are guaranteed to affect your relationship with that woman.

Perimenopause involves experiencing some symptoms of menopause, like hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings and skipped periods before hitting complete menopause (which is said to occur when a women goes one year without having a period). Perimenopause can start at a variety of ages, but most women don’t start experiencing it until their late 40s or early 50s.

For some reason my body has decided to jump on this bandwagon sooner than most, which has been a tad disconcerting. From worrying that I’m pregnant because of missed periods, to suffering through uncomfortable hot flashes and night sweats, to trying to manage mood swings and brain fog, it hasn’t been an easy ride. I’ve always known that I don’t want children, so I’m not worried about losing my ability to procreate. But doctors and other health practitioners keep telling me that menopause shouldn’t start so young, which is causing me some concern.

I’ve visited a variety of medical doctors, most of whom don’t know what to do with me. One gynecologist even laughed at me, saying I was far too young for perimenopause. When I argued with him that this was not true, based on my blood tests and peer-reviewed research I’ve come across, he got angry and proceeded to examine me in a way that was not exactly kind. (Note to self: do not make your gynecologist angry before he examines you. Further note to self: stop visiting asshole gynecologists). I’ve also visited alternative health practitioners, and I’ve found that Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture are helping, but nothing makes the symptoms completely go away.

My explorations have led me to alternative perspectives on menopause, which suggest that it is a sacred time to re-evaluate and re-organize your life in ways that honor what is true for you (check out Christiane Northrup’s book, The Wisdom of Menopause for numerous ideas and practical resources). From a Kundalini yoga perspective, hot flashes are believed to be the fires of Kundalini energy rising from the base of the spine to burn away all that no longer serves you. In sharing the teachings of Mary Magdalene, Sera Beak writes,

She reminded women
that the blood flowing out of them each cycle
fed the earth,
and was one of the many physical signs
that they were Creatrixes
who had the power to generate Life,
and when women stopped bleeding,
they contained and increased
their Creative Power
and could steward it as they chose.

And so, after over a year of resisting my perimenopausal symptoms, I’m slowly coming to a place of surrender. I don’t know why my body wants to enter this phase early, but perhaps I’m not supposed to resist it. Perhaps I’m meant to go through this sacred rite of passage sooner than most, because it has lessons to teach me that I can pass on. Perhaps I need the fires of this time to burn what no longer serves, so that I can contain, increase, and stand in my full power as a woman, and steward my healing gifts as I choose. I intend to enter this phase with my eyes wide open, to walk through the flames, and to wait with eager anticipation to see who I will be on the other side.

And so, truth number three about midlife is that your body knows what it’s doing. Stop resisting it.

Truth number three is important because we simply cannot avoid aging. Lately I’ve been called to stop trying so hard when it comes to my health and the aging process. I’m taking so many herbal supplements for perimenopause and general health that it often just feels ridiculous. So I’ve decided to slowly taper off of them. I’m choosing to honor the sacred wisdom of my body and trust that she knows what she’s doing, even if I don’t understand it.

Along similar lines, I stopped dyeing my hair around 8 months ago, which means my greys are coming in. I’ve had grey hair since I was in my late 20s, and I’ve been dyeing it religiously ever since. But lately my body and soul have been urging me to stop covering up the woman that I am. The growing-out process has been awkward and uncomfortable, and I’m not exactly happy about how my hair looks right now. But I’m inspired by a growing movement of women who are going grey regardless of age (you can see photos of some of these women by following @grombre on Instagram). I also prefer to refer to my greys as silver, because they sparkle! I’m hopeful that as I allow my natural color to come in, my silver streaks are going to look cool against the dark brown backdrop of the rest of my hair. (Fingers crossed!).

My skin is also changing as I age. Perhaps as part of the perimenopausal symptoms, I’ve been getting pimples and eczema on my face. For around a year and a half the eczema on my lips and around my mouth has been pretty terrible. It’s hard for me to talk, eat, brush my teeth, etc. without being in pain. Plus the red patches and dryness look terrible. It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes cancel social invitations and/or avoid eating in public because I’m in so much pain and feeling so insecure about my appearance that I can’t bear to go out in public. Keep in mind that I do a lot of public speaking as part of my job, which is extremely difficult when I have a flareup. Again, I’ve been to doctors, dermatologists and alternative health practitioners, but the symptoms don’t go away. I’ve even worked on psychological and spiritual aspects, such as speaking my truth. But the symptoms remain.

Taken together, these aspects of aging are forcing me to find my inner beauty. When I feel too ugly, or too in pain, to leave the house, I need to dig deep inside of myself to find the inner voice that says, “Fuck it.” As in:

“Fuck it if I have grey hair or a rash on my face or a hot flash in public. This is who I am in the present moment, and I am going to show up for it. I am going to show up in my full humanity, because our full humanity is what is truly beautiful. Our embodied soul presence is what makes us beautiful, and it’s all we’ll have long after our youthful beauty fades. I can have grey hair and red skin and hot flashes and still exude an energy that is exquisitely beautiful.”

It takes work to tap into this energy, and sometimes I can’t feel it at all. Sometimes I end up bursting into tears, feeling absolutely helpless in the face of my symptoms. But midlife is forcing me to do this very important inner work. I’m tired of bending over backwards to make my hair or skin or body look a certain way so that I fit in with how I’m “supposed to look.”

During one of my more difficult moments, I heard/felt the following words from my soul:

Look into my eyes right now and see the Truth that rests there.
That is beauty.
Everything else is irrelevant.

When I’m feeling insecure, I make eye contact with whoever I’m talking to, and I try to remember these words.

One final note on aging. Sometimes, when I look back at pictures of myself from when I was in my 20s, I think longingly about how fresh-faced and youthful I looked compared to pictures of me today. At one point during these ruminations, the following words came to me: Right now you are the youngest you’ll ever be. In other words, today is the youngest that I will ever be for the rest of my life. So why not enjoy the moment? If I’m lucky enough to live into my 80s or 90s, I will someday look back at pictures from when I was in my 40s and wish I looked as young as I do now.

All of this brings me to a final (and perhaps most important) truth about midlife. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my first 40 years on this planet, it’s to expect the unexpected. If, at the age of 20, someone had tapped me on the shoulder and told me that over the next 20 years I would do things like: meet my husband on the internet, work at an IT research company, do a postdoctoral research fellowship at Harvard Medical School, and live in Prague for several years, I would not have believed them.

Right now I have ideas and visions about what my future might look like, but these days I’m wise enough to know that when I’m 60 my life might look nothing like what I’m currently imagining. We live in a universe of pure potentiality, where literally anything can happen. Who knows what adventures await in my second half of life.

For me, midlife is a perfect paradox. I’m sitting on the centre of a scale, balancing youth and ageing at the same time. On the one hand, I feel more like my truest self than I ever have. I’ve begun to embody a more organic, natural soul-state that honors my sovereign truths like never before. I’m surrendering to, and standing up for, my most sacred longings. I’m more embodied, more grounded and more connected to what’s important to me.

On the other hand, I also feel more unlike myself than I ever have. Or perhaps a better way to say this is that I feel unlike older versions of myself. And I still don’t know exactly what my new, midlife (and beyond) self looks like. It’s as if I’m going through a second puberty. My mind and body are changing in sacred ways that are often beyond my current understanding. Sometimes this makes me freak out, or get depressed, or feel lost. Other times it feels exciting and new and like I’m finally coming home to my soul after years of searching outside myself.

Midlife involves holding all of these truths at the same time. We are the youngest we’ll ever be, and we are aging. We no longer look like the youthful versions of ourselves, but we hold immense beauty. We are wise, yet we still have so much to learn. We have lots of time left, but time is running out. There are some goals that we might never meet, yet we are meeting the most important goal of all, which is being human. We have regrets that we might never be able to fix, but they led us to where we are now. We are unsatisfied with some parts of our lives, and deeply satisfied with others. We are dying, and we are also being re-born.

Similar to marriage, midlife is a potent cauldron that will set fire to every expectation you’ve ever had about yourself. This fire will transmute your expectations into the alchemy of truth. If you’re willing to open to it, surrender to it, and stop resisting it, midlife will usher you into a new era where your deepest soul-truths can take form in your body and manifest in your life.

It might not be easy, and you will feel lost sometimes. You will need to be brave. You will need to approach this sacred threshold, step forward, and not look back. Because this journey will lead you to the ultimate goal: yourself.