How To Come Alive in Midlife

Autopilot is death. Choose where to invest your energy, and do so intentionally, because the clearest path to a robust life is purposeful engagement.

~ Barbara Bradley Hagerty in Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy, (DBT) created by Marsha Linehan, offers skills to build a life worth living.

Lately, I teach the skills to women who want to make the most of the midlife experience. This is the second in an eight part series in which I share my favorite DBT skills for midlife.

Midlife can pose challenges to our stability, certainty and identity. So many changes happen to our bodies, to our social lives, and in our work worlds. With all the change, we can become unsure of ourselves, and perhaps live our days with hesitancy and self-criticism, sometimes emptiness and boredom.

PARTCIPATE is the DBT skill that helps us move from rote, to alive.

Participate means to enter wholly into an activity, nonjudgmentally. When we use Participate, we completely immerse ourselves in the moment. It involves intentional and total engagement in whatever we are doing, be it dancing to Donna Summer music, cleaning out the garage, or sitting in a chair and breathing.

When we practice Participate we engage in an activity with full abandon, letting go of analysis and evaluation of what we are doing. We are acting intuitively and spontaneously, fully aware and one with our experience.

There are three compelling reasons to practice the skill Participate in midlife:

1. Participate allows us to be free of self-consciousness, comparisons and evaluation.

When we Participate, our attention merges with our sensory and energetic involvement in the moment. It is virtually impossible to evaluate or compare ourselves when we are fully focused and engaged. Evaluating and comparing require us to step outside of the moment and involve our minds in a separate cognitive exercise. Likewise, self-consciousness occurs when we are watching ourselves with an outside critical eye.

When we step out of participating to criticize ourselves, we inhibit our experience and obstruct intuitive creativity and discovery.

At 52, Tess was growing increasingly self-conscious and critical of herself. For one, she compared her face and body to younger women and was very unhappy. She started to avoid social events and became depressed about her future life. In our session she shared that she felt useless and uninvolved with her day-to-day life. “I just keep thinking about what is wrong with me.”

We decided to use the skill Participate. Tess chose two activities that she had previously enjoyed. She took a ski trip, and started volunteering with a not-for profit business venture. While skiing she consciously put her full focus on the feel of the cold air and the movement of her body as she navigated down the hill. While working on a grant for the business venture, she got completely involved in strategizing and crafting the proposal. In both cases, Tess felt fully engaged, time stood still and she noticed energy and excitement in her body. During both activities she was not thinking about what she looked like or how she wasn’t good enough. Tess’s mood began to improve. “I feel more free. I realize I am quite strong and capable. How could I have forgotten that?”

2. Participate helps us feel one with our experience and increases our sense of belonging.

When we Participate we become “one with the music.” We can also become one with our body, a tree, the laundry or our family and friends.

Gail felt lonely and unsettled in her apartment after her partner moved out. We had to find a way to help her tolerate being alone. We decided to use Participate. Every evening, for five minutes, Gail would sit in her favorite chair and fully engaged in the feeling of her body connecting to the chair. She focused her attention on the sensation of her body being supported by the chair. While breathing in and out, she imagined herself completely linked to the chair. She told herself that the chair was present and accepting of her. They belonged to each other. The following week she walked through the apartment, noticing the presence and acceptance of the floor beneath her feet. She told herself she was one with her home. In time, Gail started to feel more attached to her home. She started to relax and feel less anxious at home with herself. Wanting to be less isolated, she decided to invite a friend for dinner.

There is a subjectivity to belonging that is encountered through Participate. When we connect with a sense of oneness, we become more aware of the arbitrary walls we put up that obstruct us from connection with ourselves and others.

3. Participating gives us zest.

Even mundane and difficult tasks become doable (sometimes even pleasurable) when we participate in them fully. Most of the time we approach dreaded tasks with one foot out the door. We don’t want to do the task, so we bring very little of ourselves to it. The problem is, this makes the task even more intolerable. It is miserable to be in-between an experience, doing it but not really into it.

Participate helps to move us from the torture of resistance and ambivalence, to a full embrace of the task. In this way, even taxes, work-outs, errands and caretaking can become acts of engagement.

In a bold move, Jackie decided to host a dinner party with some of her high school girlfriends. But planning the event became complicated and she grew stressed and overwhelmed. Every time she thought about the party, she got a headache and felt fatigue. “That’s how it always is when I entertain, stressful. I never enjoy myself.”

During the party, Jackie decided to use the skill Participate. She mentally put her focus on her exchange with her girlfriends and physically gave her energy a heightened lift. She recommitted to this mental focus and physical involvement every time she felt the urge to fret or worry about the details. This redistribution of her attention increased her oomph. “I was having fun.” At one point she turned up some disco music and she and her friends spontaneously broke into a super charged dance-a-thon.

One of the things that takes a front seat in midlife is time. Whether we see life as almost over and too short, or relentlessly long and plodding, it’s the moments that count. Participating fully in as many moments as possible can be the antidote to the burden of time and aging. Participating gives us energy and makes us feel alive. Participate as a skill turns midlife into an experience that excites.

This series will continue with the next DBT skill for midlife coping: RADICAL ACCEPTANCE.

Podcast

Each week Dr. Cecilia Dintino and Psychotherapist Hannah Murray Starobin will speak with women who have twisted their plots and discovered that life after 50 can be filled with imagination, inspiration, laughter, and endless possibilities.

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