The Menopause and Letting Go of Old Identities
The menopause is often a powerful process of change
Menopause mentor and author Kate Codrington explores the benefit of letting go of old identities that no longer serve you
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‘I have let go of every role utterly, some I have dropped, some I do better and some I have changed so radically that people no longer want to interact with me.’ – Tanya*
In perimenopause, more than any other time in our life, we have the opportunity to declutter identities that no longer fit us. We may have adopted particular ways of being when we were girls – ‘the kind friend’ or ‘the creative one’ or ‘the funny one’ – because we were rewarded for them. Over time, we find it’s easier to wear this mask than to express the often contradictory mix of strengths and vulnerabilities we feel. These masks have become hardened over time, and now, for us to be reborn through the menopause transition, they are cracking in preparation for being shed.
‘Can’t be arsed is a mantra that seemed to have stuck with me. I don’t need to get involved in other peoples’ drama and expectations of what I should be. I love the freedom this brings.’ – Kate
Sometimes letting go of a particular role feels like we have to let go of our entire identity – and our egos definitely don’t like that. This brings to light a core aspect of menopause, in which, like any initiatory process, we have to let go of who we think we are. As far as our ego is concerned, we do have to die to move forward. Joseph Campbell, a Jungian- influenced professor of literature with a particular interest in myths, wrote about a process called the ‘hero’s journey’ – an archetypal voyage of maturation that humans embark upon. In it, he describes this part of the initiation as ‘the abyss’, where we must die and be reborn.
It’s the ‘It’s A Royal Knockout’ tournament of 1987, Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’, or Madonna’s 2019 Eurovision performance: identities were exposed as unworkable and it was clearly time for a rethink. Incidentally, Joseph Campbell was responsible for the wonderful phrase ‘follow your bliss’, which is an excellent path to lead you out of the abyss.
‘Each and every day I’m working on shedding identities. When I first started the process, I imagined that I had little hooks in the flesh of my lower belly and I was slowly unhooking them, one by one, handing back roles that I once embraced and enjoyed, but was now ready to drop or spread amongst the rest of the family.’ – Jessica
Another Jungian, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, speaks of menopausal women ‘hanging their skin on a spike in the underworld’, which echoes Jessica’s statement. Ouch.
For parents of older children, the empty nest means there’s no role for the mother. Stress and anxiety make the ‘big job’ unendurable. These crunch moments bring us to the abyss where we’re forced to shed the role and it feels terrifying, with our inner critic running rampant. Naturally, we move away from these challenging feelings, imagining that the emotion is going to cause us fatal damage, and instead spend lots of time and money trying to ‘fix’ the issue.
‘I think I might give up being a violinist and become a nurse instead.’ – Maggie
Menopause requires us to lose it, to let go, to release. In one sense, these crises are trying to move us to where we can admit, finally, that in this liminal space we don’t yet know who we are becoming. Menopause wants us to be all of who we are, to open up the possibilities so we can be helpful and withdrawn, a caregiver and an adventurer, a leader and vulnerable; losing our outgrown armour gives us the possibility of being bigger.
Being forced to let go of identities can feel like a death but often it’s not the job that has to go, but the motivating force behind it: the desire to be seen as ‘successful’ or ‘motherly’ or ‘competent’ that hook into us. If we can heal the motivation behind the role, it may not mean we have to let go permanently. Nevertheless, we must be willing to make the commitment to ourselves by stepping into the unknown so we can grow up.
‘In some ways I feel like I’m becoming more myself. As if I had a “tough girl” act going my whole life and now I’m just standing in my strength and all the sensitivity.’ – Kathleen
Try this practice
Look out for times when you feel your mind and body starting to grip harder; this might show up as obsessive thinking, repetitive thoughts, ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’, or fear in the body manifesting in the form of physical tension. When you spot these, give them love, treat them like you’d treat your best friend when she’s upset or a hurt child. Love them. Hold them. Stroke them and give them the words you long to hear from your mother or your lover. This is your medicine.
Breathe into the physical tension, allow it to be there and create softness around it.
Where roles don’t fit but it’s hard to let them go, you could choose to ‘shelve’ them for a period of time and come back to review your situation on a particular date.
Follow your bliss.
Kate Codrington is a women's health mentor and the author of Second Spring