I was recently asked to speak at the Dublin M Word Event, headlined by Meg Mathews and full of incredible sponsors and speakers celebrating and supporting women at mid-age. This is an adaptation of my talk on why THIS is the time of our lives.
And no, that’s not just because I brought a bottle of Gin on to the stage. It was a prop. Honestly. It just seemed a shame to let it go to waste afterwards. Ahem. Anyway, here goes:
Middle age can either creep up on us, like when we suddenly realise RTE Gold is playing our favourite music, or it can arrive with a bang. My Mid-age wakeup call rang the doorbell and when I answered, a wrecking ball swung in and destroyed my life. My mum had suffered from a stroke a few years before, just three days after my third baby was born, and I spent that following year spoon feeding them both and changing their nappies. So I was already struggling with the sandwich years of caring for parents and three very small children. I was already at my limit when I discovered my husband was gay and I was left to single parent. Then my mum died. At 45 I lost my marriage, my mum and, when I realised I was also losing my elastic skin, I began to feel careless. However now four months shy of my 50th birthday, I’m going to share with you the three habits that not only allowed me to thrive rather than just survive, but also allow me to say that categorically this is the time of my life.
So Midlife. Wahoo! Who here just loves being called middle aged? Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news.
The bad news
So the bad news obviously, is that we are trying to age in an age of anti-ageing propaganda. That’s fairly difficult, even for women.
Mid-age is also a time of huge change – our bodies, our families, our libidos, our thermostats, our feelings, our hormones, our kids, our social status… all in a state of flux and it can feel really disorientating.
It’s also usually a time of extreme overwhelm as we juggle relationships, families, parents, jobs. We were told we could ‘have it all’, but it just feels a lot like we’re just doing it all.
It’s also an age when time seems to speed up. The years seem to be zipping past far faster than they used to. “Hang on, it’s Halloween? I literally just put the decorations away.”
So that’s the bad news, and all of those feelings are real and valid.
The good news
But here’s the good news. We have been given a gift that no other generation of women in history have been given. The first part of that gift is an extra 20 years of healthy life expectancy – not at the end of our lives, but at the middle.
The second part of that gift is that things have never been better for women. I’m by no means saying things are perfect and we’ve a long way to go for equality, but mid-aged women today are in a position no other generation of women before them were. Divorce is not a stigma. Not being married at all, or not having kids is a choice, not a crime. It’s still fucking hard, but we can choose to have families AND careers. Some men have discovered the washing machine.
We have unprecedented independence, opportunities and time that means we now get to redefine the stale stereotype of de-sexualised, de-valued, voiceless women who faded into the background to knit once their breeding years were over.
But – and it is a significant ‘does my butt look big in this?’ but …….many of us haven’t a clue what to do with this gift.
We’re a bit lost because we’ve followed the well-worn signposts that might have read some variation of ‘education, career, partner, kids, mortgage’ that were meant to guide us to Destination Happy and we’ve arrived only to discover that the room is too small, the aircon is stuck on uncomfortable cold, and the view is of the rubbish bins. And also the signposts have now stopped because no-one had this time and potential before that we now do. We look ahead at all this time when 40 and 50 and 60 and 70 have been completely rebooted and redefined, but we’re not quite sure how to proceed.
We’ve been so conditioned to be nurturers and givers and smile nicely that we often haven’t a clue how to access the permission slip that allows us to think about writing new signposts for ourselves.
Today I’m going to show you how to write that permission slip. There are three parts – the Gin, the Tonic and the Lemon.. and like a good G&T, they work best together.
Part 1 – The Gin.
[I then poured some gin into a glass. A visual prop, I promise!]
Gin is the meme at the end of the day we aspire to. “Ah, at Gin O’clock everything will be ok.”
If we just do X,Y and Z we’ll be prefect. But I’m going to tell you something.
We’ve been sold a myth. It’s the myth of IF ONLY.
A perfect life is not your goal.
I feel like I’m telling you Santa isn’t real, but he isn’t (we all know it’s Mrs Santa that actually makes Xmas happen). If we suck in, breathe out, lean in, reach out, have a brilliant career, nurture the homeliest family, be the perfect wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend and colleague we’ll be perfect.
If we just keep going and get that dress, or find that man, or work for that promotion, or inject that botox THEN we’ll be happy and THEN we can breathe out and relax. We’ve arrived – someone give me the welcome cocktail. Except we never arrive because Destination IF ONLY is a myth.
I call this The Curse of Perfectionism. The curse is that it’s the pressure to be perfect that makes our lives so challenging
Researchers actually call this The Triple Bind where women are now slowly strangled because of the expectations to be fabulous at all the traditionally female traits, while also breaking the glass ceiling and being brilliant at all the male traits (which is crushingly contradictory because we’re meant to be ballsy and bossy as well as kind and nurturing) and then to finally choke us to death, we have to do all of this while living up to the Instagrammed pressure of youth, sexiness and beauty.
If we perpetually hold up these ludicrous expectations we are ALWAYS living in a state of constant IF ONLY. If only I can sleep, loose weight, work harder, get fitter, eat less, smile more, talk less, meditate more, be less busy, be more busy my life will be perfect. Arrghghhhhhhhhh!
I was that woman. A fully colour-coded, card carrying Perfectionist. Within a year of turning 45 I had lost the family I had come from and the family I had created, but I didn’t pause for a second. The show must go on! So I struggled and juggled career, separation, single parenting, parent-care and it nearly killed me.
One of the most important things I ever did in my life was go into recovery – not for the gin, but for the crippling expectations that I put on myself. I declared myself a Recovering Perfectionist and suddenly all that energy I had spent trying to be someone else’s version of who I ‘should’ be, was free to be spent on who I actually am.
Perfectionism – the IF ONLY and WHEN I HAVE and WHEN I AM – keeps us chasing a distant Perfect, instead of appreciating what we have today. It’s always about ‘arriving’ in the future instead of living today.
By appreciating who and where we are today we live in CREDIT.
Living in the perfectionist myth of If Only is all about the lack.
Where do you think you’ll find the most contentment? Future Perfectionism isn’t the goal. Growth is. Gratitude is. It creates an entirely different reference point to your life. You stop being a failure at not being perfect, and start being successful at being you.
Part 2 – The Tonic
Women have been taught that putting everyone first is selfless, as if this is a positive thing. But let’s unpack those words. Selfless. Less of self. We’re lessening ourselves.
We’re giving from a place of lack not from credit.
I call this the Curse of Selfless care
When we put everyone else first we are like this lamp. Functional, decorative but ultimately, just a piece of furniture.
This is the tonic part [I poured in the tonic], and for, your life, it’s called self-care.
I’m not talking about a nice bubble bath at the end of the day.
I’m talking about proper investment in yourself, and I’m going to say something controversial but I’ve already busted Santa so I might as well drown the Tooth Fairy. This is your time to put yourself to the front of the pack.
We all know that the heart pumps blood round the body – but do you know where it pumps blood first? Itself. The heart pumps blood to the heart first so that it is strong enough to pump it round the body and to all the organs.
Often when I coach women this is a huge issue. So I ask them to monitor the yeses they give out in a day. How many of those yeses are a drain and how many give energy? This is not about being selfish (although I don’t think that’s a dirty word). It’s about understanding the values of your yeses – they may mean nothing to the other person / job but everything to you in terms of what they take from you.
Self-care is about taking the time to know your values, know and set your boundaries, know and use your strengths to give all the damn high-energy giving yeses you can, but to say no to the draining yeses.
It’s about knowing how you want to live your life today, not in a year, or in 5 years.
I recently had a wonderful client. She had come to me for four weekly one hour sessions. She came because she felt so overwhelmed and in a rut she couldn’t see out. We did some work unpacking her values and identifying her strengths and thinking about what signposts she would like to write for herself, and she was energised.
When it ended I told her to keep up the weekly one hourly investment in herself that she’d done for 4 weeks, but instead of with me, by herself. Not going for a run, or having a bath, but with her thoughts and her pen, focussing on what gives her energy, what drains her, what does she want, what small steps can she take, and what, when she looks back on her life she wanted to have focussed her energy on – thinking about the signposts she would like to guide her life in the next 20 years.
I could tell she was nervous about this thought. Nervous that she might take from someone else by taking an hour to sit with her thoughts and invest in herself, discovering her values, her passions and how she wants to live her life.
But why are they so important?
Because when you know your values, your strengths and your boundaries, you know what to say yes to.
Andrea Horan, founder of Tropical Topical said recently, “every time I’m asked to do something, I ask myself, will it fit in with the life I want to life today?
Self care is about giving yourself the permission to life the life you want today.
Here’s what happens when you say yes from a place of power and self-care.
You are no longer a part of the furniture. You are the fucking light. You can still give, and nurture and be loving but you do it from a place of energy, not drain. You shine.
So the tonic is self-care and self-knowledge – taking the time to think about yourself. What do you want, what signposts would you like to see on the path ahead.
Part 3 – The lemon
So now we add the flavour. [I added a lovely big slice of lemon]
Intention. This is how we start following the new signposts we have written for ourselves. But many of us are living on autopilot just ticking boxes and to do lists to get through each day. I’m going the whole hog and busting the Easter Bunny now. You think you’re in charge of your life? You’re not. A child is.
Your thoughts control your behaviour but if you’re on autopilot, your unconscious thoughts are in charge – guess who coded those thoughts in? Not you. Society, culture, parents, your childish interpretation of events. So when you’re on autopilot your child is flying the plane.
I call this the Curse of Autopilot
Intention is about coming off autopilot and flying your own plane. Many of us don’t know what the controls are for, but we can learn. That’s why the self-awareness, and self-care are so important. There may be turbulence, there may be fog, but when you are flying, you get to decide how to respond, rather than letting your unconscious self react. This is where you have to live with discomfort – something we have been conditioned not to do. We’re so scared to feel the feelings in case they overwhelm us. But here’s the thing. If we don’t acknowledge them, they do overwhelm us. They are in control. They come up as stress, anxiety, insomnia. This is how your unconscious flies when you live on autopilot.
With beliefs that don’t serve you.
With habits that don’t help you.
With thoughts that don’t support you.
I took off the face and welcomed in sadness, loneliness, fear, and guess what happened? Nothing. All my other emotions welcomed them in, and there they all are together, having a little feelings party. The thing to remember about thoughts and feelings is that they are always temporary.
You are the sky, and your feelings are the clouds – they come and go, but you are always the sky.
So, there you have it; the G&T for living a life you want to live today.
To overcome the curse of perfectionism, stop living in the lack of IF ONLY and live in the credit of now.
To overcome the curse of selfless care, invest in getting to know what makes you tick and practise self-care and knowledge.
To overcome the curse of autopilot, switch on your light and live each day with intention.
Whether you do this physically or just mentally, I want you to write a permission slip to yourself with your name on it, listing the ways in which you are grateful, how you will self-care and what intentions you want to live your life by, and then I want you to put it in your purse, or on your bedroom mirror, or on your fridge, or use it as a book mark.
Switch off autopilot, switch on your light, design your own signposts and most importantly sign your own permission slip to live a life FOR YOU today, because we are the generation of women who are redefining mid-age, and have a gift no women before us were given.
We just have to learn how to use it.
So I’m going to raise my glass to you and say fuck it to ageing gracefully…. here’s to ageing powerfully.