How to Build a Midlife Worth Living

The beauty of DBT skills is that when they are practiced, they open doors towards a deeper wiser experience of life.Source: Shutterstock

For years I have been teaching and coaching clients to use certain skills during painful times. Lately I’ve been teaching the skills to middle-aged women.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy—DBT—is a solution-focused, active treatment with the overarching goal to build a life worth living. Instead of just talking, you teach skills and ask the clients to practice them outside the session room. The skills, created by Dr. Marsha Linehan, are research-tested tools for managing thoughts, emotions and behaviors during trying times.

And middle age can be a trying time.

In 2016 the CDC published findings stating that the suicide rate for women between the ages of 45-64 increased by 63 percent between 1999 and 2014. Likewise, there is a significant increase in women over 50 visiting ERs with opiate and alcohol-related overdoses. And the number of women over 50 diagnosed with eating disorders has caught up to that of adolescent girls, necessitating an increase in residential treatment facilities to house the older women sufferers.

The middle-aged women in my practice are dealing with a myriad of challenging issues. They struggle with physical illness, divorce, difficult children, grief, regret, career shifts, financial issues, menopausal symptoms and body concerns. They experience mood shifts, intense anxiety, depressed feelings, irritability and hopeless thinking.

Regardless of what women experience, midlife is a time of challenge and transformation. We could all use extra guidance and new coping skills to help us through uncertainty and change. The beauty of the DBT skills is that when they are practiced, they open doors towards a deeper wiser experience of life.

There are many skills, but I have eight favorites for middle age woes.

The first one that I will discuss is OBSERVE.

We can practice Observe in the following ways.

  1. Noticing what you are experiencing through the five senses. Practice seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling daily.
  2. Observing the world inside of you by noticing thoughts, bodily sensations and emotions within yourself.
  3. Attending to people and events surrounding you. Act as if you have a camera attached to your body. Notice, without pushing away, all that is presented to you.
  4. Observing only what is, without judgment. Judgment requires a thought process that pulls you out of the present action of pure observation.

While it may sound simple and easy, the practice of Observe can be quite challenging.

The truth is, after years of living, we often function on autopilot. To a major extent, autopilot is necessary. We can’t approach every day and every experience as if it were the first time. Imagine getting in the car every morning and having to re-learn how to put the key in the ignition. The problem occurs when we let our observing muscles atrophy.

There are three main reasons to practice Observe at midlife.

Observing makes us less reactive

The very act of observing helps us step back and be less reactive. Observing creates space to respond in ways that nourish, instead of depleting or harming us.

Lonnie was having daily fights with her teenage daughter, who would leave her clothing around the house. Everyday, Lonnie would yell at her daughter and immediately experience a headache. She would feel angry and frustrated and go straight to the refrigerator and shove food into her mouth. Lonnie was miserable, gaining weight and losing work due to the headaches.

Starting with the skill Observe, Lonnie practiced noticing her daughters clothing on the floor. Taking time to observe the clothing, she would then describe to herself what she saw: red pants, pink blouse, blue socks. Next, Lonnie would observe her own reactions. She began to notice that her jaw was tightening and her fists would clench. Later Lonnie noticed that when she screamed at her daughter she would feel tension in her temples. She then noticed her thoughts. Her thinking told her that her life was intolerable and unfair.

The observed experiences gave her space to consider other options for responding. Instead of yelling and clenching, Lonnie began taking care of herself when she observed her daughter’s clothing on the floor. She would immediately take some soothing breaths and perhaps make a cup of tea. Eventually, because she was calmer, she started leaving humorous post-it notes for her daughter about the clothing. Her daughter, freed from having to defend against the attacks by her mother, picked up the clothing and started leaving loving post-it notes to her mother suggesting she have a nice day.

The change in this interpersonal dynamic began with the skill Observe. Taking time to reconsider our automatic reactions to our experiences gives us the chance to redesign who we want to be and how we want to show up in our lives.

Observing helps us learn new things

Our brains are capable of something called neurogenesis. We can create new neurons and keep increasing our brain’s capacity, but we can only do this by giving ourselves new experiences that fire new neurons. All learning starts with observing.

Psychologist Ellen Langer states it simply: “What we have learned to look for in a situation determines mostly what we see.”

By learning new things we can see things differently. Sometimes in midlife life we refuse to see things differently. When change is forced upon us we freeze up. We get stuck because we try to adapt to change without noticing the change. Instead, we cling, hold on or willfully wait for our status quo to return.

Beth couldn’t deal with the change that befell her life. Her parents passed on and she couldn’t accept it. Practicing Observe, she started noticing her flower garden each morning. In time, she witnessed the cycle of birth and rebirth in her flowers. This sparked her interest and she began to do research about plant life. She planted more and more flowers. As her flower garden grew, so too did her capacity to accept life and death. Beth then started volunteering at a hospice center teaching and helping others grasp the mysteries of mortality with grace and beauty.

Observing in midlife reignites the pleasure of being

Finding new meaning, gaining joy from this life, and re-discovering who you may be all starts with observation. Building a sense of curiosity and wonder may be the most vital skill for growth and well-being in midlife.

But because we are so harried and stressed, many of us stop noticing the little treasures of living.

In 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post did an experiment to illustrate how much we miss in our daily lives. In the experiment, he had an average looking man in a baseball cap and t-shirt set up to play violin next to a trashcan in Washington DC subway station during the morning rush hour. This man opened his violin case, took out the instrument and left his open case on the ground for passersby to drop in coins or dollar bills. More than a thousand people passed by as he performed six classical pieces over the course of forty minutes. The catch was that this man wasn’t just any street performer. He was the famous musician Joshua Bell and he was playing Bach’s Chaconne—the most difficult violin piece—on a $3.5 million Stradivarius. A hidden camera recording revealed that over the course of that rush hour performance in the subway station, only seven people stopped to watch his performance for at least a minute. However, the tape also revealed that every time a child walked past Bell, they tried to stop and watch but were rushed along by their parents. Ironically, days before this experiment in the subway, concert-goers had paid up to a hundred dollars for a ticket to see Bell play the same instrument at a sold-out show.

How much more of life will we experience if we are truly present to it?

In sum, observing our lives in the moment can make midlife less overwhelming and more pleasurable. We always have a choice, not of what happens to us, but what we observe about it, and how we respond.

Next week I will talk about the next DBT skill for midlife woes, PARTICIPATE.

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