Self-Care at Midlife

My life changed on my 50th birthday. That morning, I went down to the basement, got on the elliptical machine to watch a movie on TV, and at the first commercial break realized I had no idea what the story was about. The whirring of the pedals had lulled me into an anxious reverie and suddenly thoughts of mortality filled my head. Fifty years old. Midlife. Halfway mark. More years behind me than ahead of me. I’d heard the clichés before but they always belonged to others — parents, aunts and uncles, elder friends. Now they belonged to me.  

Rather than avoiding the subject, something I normally would have done, I made a decision to dive into the dark waters of death and contemplate my own. I shut the TV off and started thinking: What will life be like when I’m in my 80’s or 90’s — if I live that long? Will I enjoy good health or spend my days slumped over in a chair in the hallway of some depressing nursing home, waiting to go? Who will handle my things when I die — my journals or the cards and letters I’ve stashed away in the old cedar trunk in the garage? Will I outlive my husband Michael, my family members, or friends? How old will I be when I finally leave the planet?

I thought about what I’d regret not doing before I die, and a few answers immediately came to mind:

  • Live peacefully in my body
  • Make beauty and nature more of a priority in my everyday life
  • Be less defended and more open to others
  • Surrender my self-consciousness and be even bolder with my choices

These regrets may not be typical bucket list items but they reflect what’s always been deeply important to me — the inner adventure. I’m passionate about self-development and doing the things that help me grow as a person, the things that make me more self-aware and that contribute to the evolution of my soul.  

As I thought about it, I had to admit that as frightening as it was to think about my expiration date, it was strangely comforting as well. Death isn’t wishy-washy. It doesn’t fool around. When we’re done, we’re done (with this life, anyway) and I wanted to make damn sure I was doing what I really wanted to do while I was still here. I was tired of hearing myself say: I’m looking forward to (fill-in-the-blank), and then feeling a bittersweet sadness rise in my chest. I needed to stop looking forward and start asking: What am I doing now that has me waiting for something else? And why am I doing it?

New Stage Of Life, New Priorities  

We spend the first two decades of our life growing up and learning to be functional, contributing adults. Then we spend the next few decades working and striving to succeed, fueled by ambition and making money. This second stage is glorified in our culture.

But the third stage, midlife, is real and important, and it requires a new kind of self-care. The autumn of life is a time to reflect, to reevaluate our choices, and to make new decisions about how we’ll live our lives going forward. In this stage, we’re invited to bravely face the reality that our existence here is limited so we feel inspired to make the best of what’s left.

In the years since, I’ve consciously grown in the directions I found myself yearning for on my birthday. I’m learning to live peacefully in my body by taking good care of it. Inspired not only by reaching midlife, but by the death of my father, I’ve made a deeper commitment to my health. Watching him go in and out of hospitals treated by well intentioned, yet overburdened caregivers, made me vow to do whatever I could to stay out of that system.

Facing mortality has given me the courage to say no with a lot less fanfare so I can say yes to my emotional and physical health. Aches and pains are an invitation to value regular stretching and yoga. The desire to feel energetic and strong has inspired a new interest in cooking and weight lifting. And the days of hour-long workouts on the treadmill have been replaced with salsa dancing, long walks in nature, and fun varieties of short-term, high intensity training.

I knew I was on track when, one day, I caught myself scheduling an important work meeting around my gym appointments. I suddenly realized that I’d finally arrived at a place I’d been trying to get to for years. I’d always said that my health was a priority, but my calendar never seemed to match. Now it did.  

Turn Down The Noise

When a Nor’easter knocked out power in our small town, I was reminded of another vital act of self-care later in life — regular technology breaks. On the first night after the storm, my husband Michael and I stood in the middle of our driveway staring up at the sky. The air was cold, but not distractingly so, and the wind had settled down to a soft, easy breeze. There was very little ambient light and the inky black sky above us seemed overcrowded with stars. 

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many,” Michael said aloud as we stood gazing at the celestial show. “I guess that’s one of the benefits of losing power.”

Over the next two and a half days without electricity, I discovered more blessings. With meetings canceled and the inability to do much around the house, I was left with the pleasure of space and silence. We went to bed early and woke feeling rested and energized. Without easy access to email, social media, and the news, I felt more relaxed and less pressured to get things done. Instead, I sat quietly in my office and watched the snow falling over our backyard. I finished reading a good book. And I enjoyed the magical quality that candlelight brings to a room instead of the intrusive blue glare of electronic screens.

The good old days — that’s what it felt like — back when life was simpler and we had more time to putter, to go outside and play in nature, and the space to think and daydream and wonder without so many distractions and interruptions. We may have lost electricity, but we gained a different source of power.

For so many of us, life is always turned on — hustle, bustle, noise, commitments, responsibilities, people, to-dos, etc. But real life is what’s happening behind the scenes, beyond the ego and the busy mind. Midlife is an invitation to turn your life off, so you can learn to appreciate the joy that comes from silence and simplicity.

Open Up!

As I’ve aged, I’ve also learned the value of softening my defensive edges and relying on my intuition to lead me to new people and experiences. One afternoon while working in my office, I received an email from a board member at our local cat shelter. Gail was checking to see if my husband Michael and I would sponsor a fundraising event. After reading her message, I made a note to have my assistant call her, but later that day, something told me to do it myself.  

As part of midlife planning, Michael and I had been discussing new ways to give back in our community and I’d been thinking about the cat shelter a lot. Within minutes of calling Gail, I felt like I was talking with a kindred spirit, a woman with a wealth of knowledge about how to translate a passion for animals into good work in the world. After more than an hour on the phone sharing our adoption stories, the pain of losing a pet, and our love of wildlife and nature, I hung up feeling grateful.

For years, I tended to keep to myself and could be somewhat reticent about getting involved in community affairs. And honestly, I’d also cultivated a certain level of cynicism — a tendency to second-guess motives. But the call with Gail helped me see that my cynicism was just a way to keep myself planted in safe and familiar territory. By doing so, I was robbing myself of what I want most at this stage in life — a feeling of aliveness, a deeper connection with like-minded people, and the chance to work in creative collaboration with those who make a difference.

The soul is here to experience life, not defend against it. You may have been rejected. Or failed at something. Or cultivated your own level of cynicism about people. Don’t let your defensiveness make you so overly cautious that it prevents you from experiencing the pleasure of new directions. Remember this: Life is full of wonderful surprises when you open your heart and mind, and trust your gut.

Be Bold

In my mid fifties, I joined a Crossfit gym, made a decision to publish an intimate journal instead of a self-help book, and cut my speaking schedule by 75%. These were big, bold moves that challenged my self-consciousness and tendency to play it safe. They required a whole lot of courage, but these choices paid off. Crossfit has given me a strong body and a new community of friends. Publishing a journal satisfied the artist in me who wanted to craft something more poetic than practical. And the decrease in my speaking schedule has not only given me quality time at home, it’s allowed me to host retreats that are more intimate, experiential, and in-depth — and therefore more personally rewarding.

Bold choices can create big results when it comes to improving the quality of our lives at midlife, but don’t rule out small changes as well. One of the boldest moves I’ve made in my fifties is to make it a priority to do things that make me feel good every day. I’ve created daily habits that not only allow me to care for myself, they make it easier to care for others out of love rather than guilt and obligation.

Some of my simple daily habits include stretching in the morning and setting an intention for the day; drinking half my weight in water (in ounces); moving my body in fun ways; going to bed close to the same time every night; and leaving my phone out of the bedroom. I also look for one thing in nature that astonishes me, I refuse to rush, and I search for ways to relax my standards by letting good enough be good enough.  

Daily habits are like having an insurance policy that protects your most important assets — your emotional, physical and spiritual health. They keep you centered, resentment-free, and feeling good about yourself.  

The days of making a career out of completing my to-do list are over. To-do lists never end. Life does. Chances are you’ve paid your dues by midlife, too. Now it’s time to focus on what you really want.

Cheryl Richardson is a NYT bestselling author of many books, including her most recent Waking Up In Winter: In Search of What Really Matters at Midlife. Cheryl hosts an active online community of living a life that honors the soul at Join Cheryl’s “Self-Care By the Sea” retreat in beautiful York, ME April 12-14, 2019!