Feeling Stuck in Midlife? Here's How to Move Forwards
Feeling stuck in midlife is a common challenge, as can be a lack of confidence
The Midlife Coach Andrew Waddell explains the way forward: first you have to work out what you are scared to let go of
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There are lots of experiences that are associated with midlife – being pulled between our dependencies at work and home; apathy or frustration over our career; and, of course, loss of self-identity and purpose. Considering these challenges one would think that midlife would also be a time of motivation for change – a time for calling on our life experience and maturity to find a better way forward. So why instead is the overwhelming feeling one of stuckness and lack of capability?
Kurt Lewin, the godfather of change management, is famous for several theories on the subject, from his Change Model to the rather more intriguingly titled Force Field Theory – but the essence of his thinking was that change is hard for two simple reasons. The first of those is that humans struggle to change if there is something in there present life which they are protecting. And the second reason is that we often hold strongly felt assumptions about what life will be like if we succeed in our change – and these may include negative associations. So let’s take Lewin’s theory and place it into language and context that is relevant for today’s midlifers.
What are we protecting?
When we talk about there being something in our life that we are protecting, it is actually a predominantly subconscious sense. When we are children and emerging adults, we learn lots of life lessons either from actual experiences or from observation of others. Children are incredibly perceptive and are adept at emotional labelling – the association of an emotion with an event or occurrence. These experiences – our lived experiences – form what I refer to my clients as their ‘swim lane’.
Imagine life as an Olympic swimming pool. When we start out we don’t get to choose where to dive in from – we already have a designated lane. Our lane is defined by all of those complex facets of societal distinction including social class, affluence, ethnicity, parental roles, birth order, geography, and so on. As we swim further into the pool, we are restrained by the swim lane from exploring the rest of the pool, from striking out sideways. Each polystyrene lane marker or buoy is an experience, an observation or an assumption. But rather than seeing them as stopping us explore the rest of the pool, we see them as protecting us from it.
One example of this is financial risk. Maybe as child you experienced your parents arguing about money; maybe you grew up in a recession and saw news articles about unemployment; maybe as a child you were constantly hungry. Whatever the experience, you grew up with a fear association around money. Fast forward to midlife, and the desire to change careers – to leave behind the corporate world and set something up yourself, or move into a space where you can contribute to your community or society. But you’re stuck – unable to make the first step even to explore this. Even though you know you’ll feel more fulfilled, more in control, and more valued; your financial swim lane is holding you in place.
Lewin stated that until a person is able to acknowledge the thing they are protecting, they will remain stuck. Many of my clients through coaching come to recognise a financial fear. It’s normally wrapped up in a need to maintain their lifestyle – their mortgage, their annual family holiday, their car, their gym membership. The work we do is to explore this fear and the assumptions they are making that this lifestyle will have to be sacrificed in order to change. Much of this work is around evidencing the skills and capabilities they have that gave them this lifestyle in the first place – rather than seeing their salary as enabling it, it is in fact themselves that has enabled it. They may indeed need to walk away from the salary to find happiness, but crucially they bring their experience and their knowledge with them.
When I was in therapy some years ago, I remember getting to a place where I felt ready to stop. I wasn’t ready at all and realised this when my wonderful therapist explained that whilst self-awareness is necessary for change, it does not create the change. That is another task in and of itself. And so simply understanding our swim lane and how it creates a limiting sense of self, isn’t enough to overcome the stuckness, though it is the critical first step. Next, we need to explore the assumptions and associations we are making around succeeding in our midlife change – both the positives and the negatives.
It sounds counter-intuitive to say we have negative associations around succeeding at something. Surely if it’s a goal we want, then it’s all positive, right? Well let me give an example from my own experience. I spent 20 years in the advertising industry, rising to the level of Chief Operating Officer of a large London agency. It was hard and unrewarding work that kept me away from my family and delivered little in the way of fulfilment or societal contribution. I desperately wanted to find a role where I was in control of my life and could give back and coaching was high on the list. However as much as I had grown to hate my job, one of the scenarios I found myself playing out in my mind, was how I would introduce myself to someone new. My identity had become so wrapped up in my title – COO – and the external view of the ‘glamour’ of advertising, that I had feelings of shame and failure at losing them, even though I wanted to change – it’s part of what’s called the ‘trade’.
The trade comes in different forms for each of us. A frequent emotional conflict around career change is that whilst the goal is often an easier, less stressful life, the path to getting there involves even more work and anxiety. For someone who already has no time due to a demanding job and busy family life, the idea of taking on more can stop change dead in its tracks. And I don’t have a magic solution for this one. In order to find happiness and fulfilment we may well need to take on more in the short term. For me it was a Masters on top of a full-time job. For others it’s weekends and evenings spent researching, training, networking and strategising. We have to acknowledge and make peace with our trade; and remember that the huge difference in this work, is that it’s our work, and we’re doing it for ourself and those we love.
Stuckness in midlife change is inevitable and normal. If it was easy, everyone would be happy and fulfilled and sadly we know this is not the case. The key is the combination of self-exploration coupled with an active strategy for change: understand the short versus long term goals; build motivation in the form of smaller micro-goals with suitable rewards attached; and seek the support we need from our network, and our network’s network. For me, as for many who have successfully started their midlife change journey, the first step is to reach out and start talking about it – whether it be to a friend, a colleague, a coach, a mentor or a therapist. And remember that everything you have achieved today is a direct result of your abilities and skills, and it will be these same attributes that will see you overcome your stuckness and achieve your midlife goals.