Self-Development, self-perception

Personal disclosure time: I’ll be 50 on my next birthday in a few weeks. Given the massive upheavals in my own personal and professional lives as I crossed that invisible threshold into “middle age”, I’ve felt fairly attuned to the cultural narratives we have around the “mid-life crisis” and the weighty expectations for “achieving dreams”, for better and for worse. I may not have acquired the jaunty red sports car as part of my transition, but when I replaced my beloved but aging Elantra last fall, I admit I *did* go out of my way to ensure my next vehicle was red. I’m still waiting for the equally-sporty blonde to show up in my life, though.

I had a realization this past week, along the lines of achieving dreams, that I have finally achieved the dream I set for myself ten years ago when I set out on the path to become a full-time, self-supporting therapist “eventually”. In doing so, I also confronted the fact that, having now achieved my dreams (dreams I didn’t even know I really had a decade ago), I was suddenly facing a gap where the driving ambition of my life has firmly resided for the last decade. It was like popping the hood on my shiny new(ish) car and finding the entire engine block had disappeared overnight. Lemme tell you, when one is talking about the subject of “the dreams that drive us”, it’s actually a terrifying thing to recognize you’ve hit the achievement milestone and the rest of your future ahead lies under a thick and obscure fog that spells out, “So now what??”

Something I was reading recently really drove home the power these Dreams can have on us. David Wexler (2004), quoting earlier research from Levinson (1978), writes,

Levinson’s research (1978) identifies a crucial aspect of […] adult development called the Dream. If you […] have lived through young adulthood with a vision of how your life should be, then you have been guided by the Dream. This stage of adult life is dominated by a push toward productivity.

This sense of purpose, while very challenging and often difficult to fulfill, is very organizing. You are guided by clear goals and themes. The obstacles are tangible, the achievements (for the most part) measurable.

The increasing awareness of your ticking clock at midlife, however, often causes the values that governed this Dream stage to lose their hold over the order of things. Two types of disorientation and disillusionment can occur.

[…] The first type of crisis strikes when you wake up one day and realize that the Dream is not going to happen. You face the often sobering realization that what you see is what you get. […] You may fear that there is nothing to look forward to except for a slow deterioration and narrowed possibilities.

[…]The second type of crisis affects you if you have achieved your dream–but suddenly find it meaningless. It does not fulfill you: “So what? Now I am successful. I don’t feel any happier.” (pgs. 76-77)

My own recent epiphany was closer to the second option than the first, not so much because the achievement had lost meaning (don’t get me wrong, I love the work that I do, and expect to keep finding the meaning in it until I’m too old to keep doing the work) as because I am definitely at that “So what now?” stage. I also came face to face with recognizing that achieving Dreams of this magnitude are also a profound privilege; not everyone gets to reach these kinds of pinnacle in spite of all their efforts, and there are a lot of bitter and disappointed people in the world who judge themselves harshly for that perception of failure. Admittedly, I often look at my choice to toss my IT career out the window in favour of grad school and a slow career change path as the start of my actual mid-life crisis. I had hit the wall in a hard way in my job of the time, and realized it was never going to go anywhere, and that even changing jobs and companies was simply going to be a case of “same shit, different basket”… and I was done with that basket (or so I thought, but that’s another story entirely). So I *get* both sides of the “ticking clock” that Wexler describes above.

These kinds of discussions are starting to come up in my client work more directly now, or maybe this is just the attunement I spoke of earlier. Sometimes it’s a client (or a client’s spouse) talking about a midlife affair; often it’s a midlife recognition of dissatisfaction and a sense of stagnation. Often it’s a question that preoccupies people to the point of distress: “I did everything my family/culture/society at large expected of me as an adult, what am I not happy? Why do I feel so restless??” The restlessness becomes a kind of emotional agitation much of the time, manifesting as depression as the disillusionment takes hold, or sometimes coming out as a kind of generalized anger at the world (or partners/families) as a sense of failure or profound disappointment turns outward rather than reflectively inward.

Sometimes we can achieve a Dream as a plateau and find there are a whole raft of new Dreams that we can now set from there; and sometimes we hit the plateau and it’s all we can do to lie there gasping for breath before we can even roll over and notice there’s more to see from here. Sometimes we hit a plateau and see nothing but fog. And sometimes those plateaus never happen. The paths forward all seem to involve the same piece of work: reorientation, and (if necessary) redefinition. Wexler refers to the need to “regain vitality” (pg. 77) as a critical response to this state of Dream recognition (fulfilled or unfulfilled), and the need most people will have to both look inward at the initial signs of distress, and making smart choices about what we do in response to identifying a state of even mild distress. Midlife affairs are a common response to seeking revitalization, for example, but often involve a lack of awareness about the internal distress, and certainly point to making choices that might be incongruent with previously-stated personal values. This is a great example of learning to differentiate between the feelings we have, and the actions we CHOOSE to engage in reaction or response to them.

I don’t yet know what the path off my own current plateau looks like, so I empathize completely with my fellow human beings stuck in the same place. Right now I’m still lying on the rocks trying to catch my breath. I’m aware there’s a vista to appreciate now that I’m here, but I’m also aware I can’t stay here forever; I’ve never been much of one for choosing stagnation. I just need some time to figure out next steps so that I can make smart choices, and as I figure that process, I’m trusting that it will help clarify how to have similar conversations with people around me on their own plateaus.

Emotional Intelligence, self-perception

With any new job comes new learning curves, new responsibilities, new personalities, new deadlines. Many people, when taking on new roles that push the boundaries of what they think they know about their own abilities, often have an anxious time settling in and while some people can face the challenges with a fearless, Can-Do attitude, many more of us get wrapped up in varying degrees of performance anxiety, and fear that those who hired us are going to discover we’re not as good as our resumes make us look, that we’re clearly imposters who don’t know what we’re doing, and that we’ll prove ourselves to be flawed and incompetent.

If you think therapists never fall prey to this kind of anxiety, let me tell you:

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha… no.

We all have good days and bad days, but the early days of anything involving a learning curve are tough. Trying to prepare and manage our integration into new environments, new teams, new expectations can lead us into doubting the speed with which we learn (speed that is compromised by stress and fatigue, two factors that also tend to tag along on new job situations), and our ability to translate that learning into demonstrable performance. I faced this same fear many times during hiring/onboarding cycles in high-tech, both as a permanent hire and for years as a contractor; now as a therapist I sometimes face this several times a day whenever I sit down with new clients on intake.

In the new group practice at Bliss Counselling, I’m bring some particular niche-lifestyle savviness to the fold, which on one hand is great for both the community I represent and for the increased resources we’ll develop within the clinical team. On the other hand, however, I’m being tagged internally as a “specialist” or “expert”, and nothing will send Imposter Syndrome singing top-volume arias in one’s head like being tagged an “expert” in something and being asked to speak somewhat knowledgeably about that topic. Another colleague of mine and I are preparing to do a talk to the soon-to-be graduates of the therapy program from whence we ourselves came; a nice little bit of “giving back to the community” that spawned us, to provide some street-level business perspective that the program itself does not. And I’m finding that, too, is sending my internal Chorus Of Demons into overdrive, questioning what I think I know and challenging my belief that I have any right at all to claim to speak knowledgeably on these topics.

I’m sure many of you know EXACTLY how this feels. We know what we know… right up to the point where we have been asked to share what we know with others. At that point, blending quietly into a small, innocuous clump of dust bunnies seems HIGHLY preferable to sharing information like an informed and knowledgeable resource. We get flushed out by our own insecurities, and while I sometimes amuse myself by debating openly with my internal hecklers, for some this becomes an outright debilitating problem.

When I recently commented to friends that I had been tagged to provide some “expert” information on my community support and was unquietly losing my sh*t over the request, one friend offered the sagest suggestion I have ever heard, after also pointing out to me that I was losing my sh*t over nothing more than talking about something I’ve been part of for thirty years. She said to me, “If you’re not the expert in the room, imagine someone who is; doesn’t have to be a real person you know, but imagine you’re sitting next to a Real Live Expert on this subject. Watch the Expert. What do you imagine The Expert might say, or what they might do. Then *you* do that thing.”

It’s kind of a “fake it till you make it approach”, but when I thought about that idea, I felt myself calm down. There’s still a little bit of Imposter Syndrome lurking around the edges of “pretending to be something I don’t comfortably believe myself to be”, and “what if they find out I’m only *pretending* to be The Expert?”, but at the end of the day, I remind myself (sometimes more persistently than I should admit professionally) that this is all *STILL ME*. *I* did this thing, and The Expert in the room, both the externalized imaginings and the internalized delivery system, are all me. It seems like a lot of cognitive work to go through, but it’s the same work I do with clients to offer externalized perspectives on skills as well as fears. Sometimes we can’t see what’s inside ourselves, but if we can imagine setting it next to ourselves, outside ourselves where we CAN see it, sometimes we gain a better grasp of how it works, how it influences and moves us, and how we can interact with it differently.

These “externalizing conversations” and projections often allow us to move beyond thought distortions tied to a belief in some kind of innate flaw—”I’m a failure”, “I don’t know anything”, “I’m an impostor”—and into a different way of interacting with the anxieties: “I don’t know how much I know about this topic, but here’s what I can tell you about what I do know, and I know how to connect with resources that know what I don’t”… which is exactly what An Expert would do, too!

Article links, Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

Still tackling the backlog clearance; there may be a long slog of what we used to call “link sausage” posts that are less about original content on my part and more about sharing interesting or thought-provoking (or maybe even useful) resources for people interested in noodling about on their own psychological or emotional development.

Things I often tackle with clients trying to observe and manage or change their own behavioural patterns, include looking at how we resort to short-term hits of happiness (“hedonic pleasures”, but I’ll get more into hedonia in a later post) in lieu of — sometimes to the complete disadvantage of — longer term, bigger-picture desires or goals. When this becomes a self-destructive pattern, as with addictions and pursuit of addictive highs in any form, narcotic, alcoholic, process-oriented, then we have to dig deeper into figuring out the underlying triggers to those cycles. People are so adept at masking their own unhappinesses, however, that this becomes a significant body of the work that some people are facing when trying to make improvements in themselves and their lives.

Two links that help shed a little light on these patterns, the first from AMerican Scholar:

Certainly, our march from one level of gratification to the next has imposed huge costs—most recently in a credit binge that nearly sank the global economy. But the issue here isn’t only one of overindulgence or a wayward consumer culture. Even as the economy slowly recovers, many people still feel out of balance and unsteady. It’s as if the quest for constant, seamless self-expression has become so deeply embedded that, according to social scientists like Robert Putnam, it is undermining the essential structures of everyday life. In everything from relationships to politics to business, the emerging norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in thoughtful, civic, social ways. We struggle to make lasting commitments. We’re uncomfortable with people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our confidence in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.

The second article, from Forbes, looks at how people become detached in their own lives, in ways that leave long- and short-term emotional voids that we all move instinctively to fill… but when moving unconsciously, we get trapped in short-term fills rather than long-term solutions (the other articles linked by the author at the top of this one are also definitely worth the read):

In this series of articles, I’ve covered hallmarks of highly respected achievers, ten reasons why we fail, and reasons why some of us love what we do. Now I’m going to veer a bit existential and examine eight reasons why so many of us feel lost in our lives, with a few suggestions peppered in along the way to help get our oars back into the water.