A mid-life crisis, re-assessment, re-envision. Hollywood’s cliché version epitomized by Chevy Chase driving the “family truckster” while flirting with Christie Brinkley and later trying to skinny-dip with her. Of course, it is more than that.
Researcher, Brene Brown, calls it the unraveling. It is a pause. Turning off auto-pilot. A re-evaluation of goals. Clinically, it is called a mid-life transition or stage of adult development. It can be midlife or mid-career but the word “crisis” does not seem to fit. What if it isn’t a crisis but an awakening to our truth? The truth of who we want to be professionally and personally. The truth of wanting our values and beliefs to match our actions. The truth of finding our “why.”
The why that drives us each day and night. This why is not about a promotion, cherry red convertibles, liposuction, or a bonus, it is about deciding how to meaningful contribute to others and grow yourself. It is not chasing fleeting happiness but discovering a path to more fulfillment. This motivating contentment starts by giving to others. It is service and giving and gratitude wrapped up like a messy gift with uneven edges, scotch tape blobs, and a lopsided bow. It is real.
In this world of moral injury and burnout, it drives grit and builds resilience. Your purpose/direction does not have to be curing cancer or caring for people with leprosy. It could be a pet project at work. A project on equity or better patient care that aligns with your personal purpose. Or it could be taking one of your skills and using it for the greater good. If baking is your jam, it could be delivering weekly homemade baked goods to a rehabilitation center or nursing home. This could expand to running an online cooking lesson or sponsoring an event to donate books to the center.
After a while, if you are fortunate enough to have safety and stability in your life, including a roof over your head and a few good relationships, the next question becomes what else is there. This translates to what is my impact. The only way to feel truly fulfilled is through service. For some, this may be donating money (which is wonderful and helpful). But to fully bathe in fulfillment, for it to seep down to your core, you must give of your greatest commodity – your time. In health care, this may be listening to an elderly widow describe her recently deceased husband for five minutes longer than your schedule allows or volunteering at a free clinic. It may be indulging a grumpy neighbor complaining about their kidney stone. It may be giving a kind smile (you can see smiles in the eyes too) under a mask to a patient new to the area while you discuss how she can find comfort and connect online with her Florida church group. Your purpose is where you fit into the big picture. It is about gratitude and giving.
Beliefs/Values + Aligned Service Goal + Aligned Action = Purpose
It boils down to a better state of well-being. Your purpose/direction must align with your actions for this to work. Your “why” must be grounded in both service and gratitude to be truly effective. Simply by helping others, we feel more gratitude for what we have and what we can give. The final ingredient to a successful midlife awakening is social support or work community.
Purpose + Gratitude + Social Support = Successful Midlife Awakening
Without a community or social support, we falter. Humans are hardwired to socialize for survival. It is a cornerstone of all forms of resilience and a must to a successful midlife awakening.
Sometimes, our awakening looks a lot like believing in the person we thought we could be when we were 8-years-old. Before the expectations, shoulds, and musts weighed us down. Who we were and aspired to be if making a living wasn’t an issue – if mortgages, student loans, and college savings didn’t matter. Who did that person want to be? More importantly, why? The why that if ignored limits us. It leads to more frustration, pessimism, and disengagement. Aligning our purpose and actions relieves us of the burden of trying to be “who we are supposed to be” into being “who we want to be.”
If we have the gifts of stability and safety, we may find our focus switching from money, powerful titles, popularity, and physical appearances to a new definition of success. This new definition is about growth, fulfillment, kindness, joy, and service. The switch is from external goals to internal goals. It is about living up to our own values rather than living up to an external definition of “success.” The best ways to meet the new definition of success is through gratitude, service, self-care, and kindness. These elements let us pursue our purpose. Let’s turn off auto-pilot and live a life with intention and purpose. It is time for mid-life or mid-career awakening. Who do you want to be? What are your goals? What do you have to change to get there?
Saloni Sharma is a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician.
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