I dyed my hair red a few years ago. It was uncharacteristic of me. I’m an introvert, so I don’t generally like flashy displays of colour. So, why did I suddenly feel the urge to dye my hair red?
As I look back now, it seems clear that I was experiencing a standard mid-life crisis. There was a well of anger building in me that I was struggling to contain. Thus far, I’d spent my life in service to others – my husband, my children, my in-laws, my parents. While the demands of my children were lessening, those of my parents and my in-laws were increasing, and I was tired of fulfilling all the expectations of others, while failing to provide for myself. The red hair was the outward manifestation of a primal scream I could no longer contain.
In the grand scheme of things, I suppose changing the colour of your hair is pretty mild. Other people completely upend their lives during mid-life, divorcing their spouse, quitting their job, buying an expensive sports car and getting drunk in bars. While radical behaviour of this sort is alarming, psychologists say it’s completely normal.
Mid-life can be extremely challenging. There are no longer any goalposts to guide you, as, for the most part, they’ve all been crossed. By the time you’ve entered the middle decades of your life, you’ve probably already done the marriage thing, the children thing, and the job thing, with variable degrees of success in each. What’s left to accomplish? A void opens up before you, and you know that if you don’t make some kind of change, you’ll continue living the same, tired life for the next twenty-odd years, with little variation to stem the boredom, and then you’ll croak. It’s enough to make anyone a little crazy.
Yet, while this time of life can be painful, it’s a rich and important field to cross. With old age approaching, and our health beginning to fail, it’s the last chance we have to create the life we want. All the parts of life that have been neglected in previous decades suddenly cry out and demand immediate attention. If this period of mid-life is precipitated by trauma, such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or the start of a chronic illness, it can be a particularly difficult time. Navigating it successfully can be a challenge.
It is here where our own personal store of resilience will be required to pull us through. Luckily, even if you think you lack resilience (and trust me, you don’t), you can strengthen it. Here are some suggestions for how to cultivate this essential life skill:
- No matter how bleak your life feels at the moment, remember that you are the hero of your own story. There’s no story worth reading that doesn’t have a crisis in the middle of it. When you think of your life as a story, it gives you a chance to step back and look at the overall picture, rather than focusing on what is wrong with the present.
- Remember past traumas in your life and remind yourself that you not only got through them, but you grew through them too. As the saying goes, “every cloud has a silver lining”. Past episodes of your life gained you wisdom and experience, and you will gain something from this one too. In fact, the only way a person truly grows is through the passage of fire. When the chaff is burned away, a pearl of great value is revealed underneath.
- Develop compassion for yourself and learn to love your imperfections. You may feel that this current period of malaise is caused by a poor choice, or a failing of your character, but difficult life events usually have more than one cause. Whatever personal failing you are focusing on today, remember that this same quality was the reason for a big success in the past. And then, love yourself for that perceived character flaw. Perfect people aren’t lovable or memorable, but imperfect ones are. As a side benefit, once you develop understanding and compassion for yourself, you’ll feel it for others too.
- Be grateful for what you have. No matter what you may have lost, or want desperately to change, there’s always something in your life that’s good. Whenever I felt down as a child, my mother would say, “No matter how bad and alone you may feel, remember that you always have at least one friend”. I always found this advice to be true. No matter what disaster befell me, I could always look over all the people I knew and find at least one friend to be grateful for. Although we often overlook it, all of us here in the western world have plenty more things to be thankful for, even if its only the warm bed we climb into at night, and the roof over our heads that keeps us dry.
- The stress of life is inescapable and there’s no way to divorce yourself from it. I’ve often yearned for it, but there is no magical world where everything always works out, with minimal effort. Not only is stress a natural part of life, it’s the motive force which propels us forward. Without physical and psychological stresses, like hunger or the fear of being fired, we’d probably just lie in bed all day. So, rather than despair over the fact that you have stress, learn how to better manage it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, no one will give you a medal for pushing yourself too hard. Learn to take breaks, like having lunch with a friend, meditating each morning, or going for a daily walk in the park, and watch as your ability to handle stress steadily improves.
- As you move forward with your life, don’t get stuck on short term pleasures. This is how people drain their bank accounts, become alcoholics, and gain excess weight. While you do need to satisfy some cravings, you’re life will only get better if you start a project that improves your happiness in the long term. So, take an evening course, volunteer somewhere in your local community, or cultivate closer ties with your family. These activities nourish something deeper within us – our need to be valued and loved, and are more fulfilling in the long run than a bar of chocolate.
I’ve learned over the last ten years that middle age is filled with pot holes, slippery slopes, and outright crashes. It’s impossible to avoid them, so there’s no point in bashing yourself when they occur. Acceptance of these facts has only come after many nights of crying, fretting and plotting. Thankfully, I seem to be rounding the corner. Although my hair is still red, the shade has softened. It is my hope the suggestions here help others also struggling through this difficult time of life.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Waterloo, and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.