To know me is to love me. A simple phrase, but one many struggle to embody in their younger years. It denotes a level of self-knowledge, authenticity and self-acceptance that frequently only comes with experience and age.
Great freedom is ours at midlife, when that inner confidence and wisdom gives us the courage to live from our authentic selves rather than from outside expectations.
But too frequently in our younger days, auto-drive kicked in when the pace of life, work and family commitments were paramount in our priorities. Keeping our heads above water and moving forward superseded much, if any, focus on personal development and self-care.
Then perimenopause came a-knockin’ – showing us in ways large and small that a change was afoot. Gracefully embracing this next phase of life requires us to grow in some areas and to let go in others. It’s either that or suffer greatly by trying to cling to the past.
Loving ourselves now – with our shifting hormones, changing bodies and evolving priorities – can require a reboot. Chances are, coping mechanisms and behavioral patterns that once served a useful purpose now stymy the ongoing process of personal development.
We never stop growing and changing, so we never become an expert no matter how long we have been developing ourselves. The Buddhists call this principle “Beginner’s Mind,” which refers to having an outlook free of preconceptions, expectations and judgments. When we are true beginners, our minds are empty and open. We are willing to learn and consider all pieces of information, like a child discovering something for the first time.
Mindful practices of being grounded in the present moment help us to explore and observe and see "things as-they-are." As Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen teacher describes it, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few."
To grow old is a glorious thing when one has not unlearned what it means to begin.
~ Martin Buber
Owning Who We Are Being
The ability to recognize and own who we are being is essential to living powerfully and authentically in our second act. It is easy to look outside ourselves and see what we would like to change in another. It can be quite challenging to accept and acknowledge information about ourselves that differs from who we believe ourselves to be.
Pay attention to whether your thoughts, words and actions match. Do these sync up with who you profess to be? Breakdowns in integrity will inevitably occur for us all. When they do, own up to your part in them, forgive and recommit to integrity. By taking responsibility for your choices and their impact, life energy wasted in self-denial can be redirected to that of self-acceptance and purposeful activity.
To gain a deeper understanding of who you are now, at this stage of life, try the journaling and self-inquiry exercise in our earlier feature on self-knowledge. It develops the ability to observe yourself without making judgments - to become aware of your intentions, be mindful and simply notice what is.
As you engage in the process of observation and increasing your self-knowledge, pay particular attention to two patterns of behavior: blind spots and triggers.
Blind spots are the places we have conditioned ourselves to ignore. Because we believe ourselves to be benevolent and upstanding, we unconsciously ignore behaviors that do not support that image. As Eckhart Tolle says, we become over identified with our mind and lose sight of who we really are.
Acting out of integrity with what we claim to believe also causes blind spots. We are not able or refuse to recognize how our behaviors differ from our beliefs - instead of owning our actions, forgiving ourselves and moving on.
Then there are our triggers. A behavior that worked in the past in a specific situation has been generalized into a habitual reaction. Choices are no longer made on how to respond, rather we react without thought. These can lead to filters, which prevent us from clearly seeing the world around us or seeing the person/people with whom we are in relationship.
These filters are the very things that disconnect us from our authentic selves and rob us of power. They tell us all kinds of things. They say that another person took advantage of us. They tell us to take offense at a tone of voice. They take feedback on an issue and turn it into an accusation to be defended against. They take information that can be used for our growth and development and turn it into justification for emotional reaction or “othering” another. They make us a victim.
However, reactivity in itself is just information. It is an invitation to the process of self-inquiry, and to learn more about ourselves.
When a reactive impulse to another’s behavior comes up, ask: what is it inside of me that made me feel this way? What is it IN ME that assigns certain behavior or intent to the other person?
An old adage teaches that for every finger pointed at another, there are four pointing back at you. A useful exercise in developing personal responsibility is to record all the statements that you want to use against another person – those that criticize, judge or attempt to change their behavior. Replace the “you” in those statements with an “I”, thus beginning a process of self-inquiry around those statements.
Just the understanding that when triggered we do not see the world clearly begins the process of behavioral change, and the loosening of rigid belief systems. It opens the door to self-acceptance and personal responsibility for what we ourselves are creating.
Growing & Glowing Forward
Owning the changes that come at midlife enables us to gracefully remain young at heart and powerful in action. When we release the burden of expectations and regrets that weigh us down, we can start afresh with who we are now. This allows us to celebrate the freedom that comes with living from our wise and authentic selves.
And why is this so important right now? Authentic women are needed to lead the way forward with wisdom and kindness, recognizing the innate value in all living things. We live in a complex world, with shades of grey on a continuum of black to white. There are dangerous elements to it. But we also live in a world where great good is being done.
By understanding and accepting ourselves, we can more powerfully create a benevolent world for those we love.
“Begin with looking inward and managing our own minds and hearts,” the Dalai Lama tells us. “Then look outward from a more balanced place in ourselves and consider the good we can do. Don’t be discouraged by the terrible news we hear; in reality that reflects a small portion of the human story. Beneath the ugly tip of that glacier lies a vast reservoir of sensitivity and kindness — and each of us can enlarge that goodness.”