What's Your Reason For Being -- Now, At Midlife?

Recently I spoke with a young friend about "FOMO," the "fear of missing out". Many people of her generation -- she's just turned 29 -- experience it: The sense of missing something important or "better" by virtue of a choice you've made, a text message you've missed. Or simply feeling overwhelmed by the options ahead -- careers, relationships -- and which might prove "right" or "wrong" down the road. However, it struck me that members of the "Post-50" generation have our own version of FOMO. But it comes with a twist, and that highlights the importance to create a reason for being during midlife... and the years beyond.

To explain, in young adulthood, life lies ahead. You're facing forward into the unknowns to come. For midlifers, FOMO has two sides. One is knowing what you've missed out on, looking back at your life choices and events you navigated through: The relationships you didn't pursue, the educational or career paths you didn't follow. But there's another side of FOMO: Anxiety about what you're truly living for, now and into the limited number of years you have left. Looking back and looking forward converge into a need to know what your core reason for being is, today, when there are far more yesterdays than tomorrows in your life.

Whatever was your "reason" for being up to now won't work so well during midlife. That's because of two new challenges. Your karma is one: Old, unaddressed or ignored emotional issues and actions that have negatively impacted your life take a greater toll if you haven't unraveled and resolved them, nor dealt with their consequences.

The other challenge is to live in sync with impermanence and constant change. Learning to flow with it in your personal life and in the world that swirls around and encompasses you in its constant flux, where there's no center that "holds."

Passing years feel like months, and months, like days. You can try just loping along, hoping you can hold on to life as it's been. (Or worse, you can just settle into becoming "old," and wait for the "comfort" of death.) But clinging to what is ever-changing is a ticket to stagnation. It won't help you resolve old emotional issues or rectify their consequences. Nor will it enable you to live positively with the impermanence and change you experience more acutely, every day.

Weaken Your Personal Demons
Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." But if you come to terms with it, you can learn to interrupt and shift its otherwise inevitable course in your life. Unresolved emotional issues that shaped your personality and life path tend to come back to hit you upside the head at midlife. Then, old defenses like denial or rationalization begin to crumble with increased age. You may have kept yourself unconscious of the truth, but it keeps rising up, demanding attention. It's your karma.

For example, traumas or negative parenting - indifference, humiliation, neglect, rejection, abuse -- take their toll over time. So does the impact of your parents' own unresolved issues upon you. Perhaps a depressed, narcissistic mother who instills in her children a belief that they must protect her, distorting the children's capacity for healthy adult connection. Or an emotionally closed father who never speaks to his children. Their subsequent adult lives contain unfulfilled needs for love and support that poison their own relationships. Here, good psychotherapy to help you uncover and heal from your own issues -- one's you've absorbed or created for yourself -- is essential. Wishful thinking or inspirational messages won't do it.

Embrace Life's Flow
Baby boomers entered young adulthood during the 60s and 70s, an era of considerable social change and upheaval. But now we're living in a world of hyper-everything -- interconnection, rapidly changing technology and general unpredictability. All that can make you feel like the slow person in the race. Everyone around you is younger and seems clued in to what's going on. Because your experience of change and impermanence is heightened at midlife, you have a good opportunity for clarifying your reason for being.

All life, all things, are impermanent, in constant movement from one form to another. With midlife's perspective, you can see that daily life feeds an illusion that we are happiest and best served by clinging to what we think we "need" for fulfillment. But everything in existence constantly changes and evolves from one form into another -- your mind/body/spirit, the people in your life, your physical surroundings. Embracing impermanence is an ally for handling the anxiety of change. It enables you to experience the positive side of the continuous unknown in life, but in which you also play an active, conscious part to shape and evolve.

Reframe The Meaning Of Your Life Obstacles
That, in turn, helps you see a point to the blockages, frustrations and "failures" you've experienced. All of your difficult, negative experiences -- in your relationships, in your parenting, in the educational or career paths you followed, the values and beliefs you developed -- all contain a message about some theme or life issue you've needed to face, learn from and grow beyond. Try identifying what that is by looking at your "obstacles" from the perspective of the universe; from the "outside," looking in. What do you see that you continue to have an opportunity to grow through or learn?

Grow Your Personality
Most people know there are "parts" of themselves -- personality traits, creative or imaginative capacities, sensitivities -- that have remained stifled or dormant. As you identify them, envision nurturing your dormant qualities so they can bloom, expand, and become visible in your personality and life. Family experiences and social conditioning into your beliefs and values have created a limited, constrained definition of who you are. That's become a now self-imposed view of yourself. But you contain the ability to activate otherwise dormant personal capacities and qualities. This will develop greater consciousness about your reason for being.

"Forget" Who You Think You Are
Your consciousness can grow and evolve if you want it to. Research in neuroplasticity shows you're able to "rewire" your brain through conscious effort, which strengthens desired attitudes and behavior. Meditative practice helps you unlock your inner life, embrace impermanence and allow more of your true self to emerge and flower.

Meditation also helps you see yourself in the context of the much larger panorama of life, as though looking through the eyes of the universe. You're not a prisoner of the social conditioning that's defined and shaped the values and choices you've acquired. Try to "forget yourself" -- your old, socially conditioned self. It tends to be highly focused on self-interest, possessing and holding on to that which is ephemeral.

Clarifying your reason for being at midlife often coincides with discovering new paths you want to take. A good example, described by Marc Freedman, founder of Encore.org, an organization promoting "second acts," refers to the observation that some are "turning to careers in which meaning and purpose are front and center." And that "... thoughts about one's mortality begin to surface, along with some tough questions: Have I lived my life well? Have I made a difference?"

Looking back and looking ahead in the above ways -- healing the past, embracing continuous change and growing your latent capacities -- will likely lead you to become more accepting of who you are, more transparent in your relationships and more in sync with a meaningful purpose. You'll think more about the life "footprint" you're creating and becoming a "good ancestor" to those following you. And less about FOMO!

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.