Reinventing Yourself at Midlife: Look Before You Leap Using the Three R’s

The three R's for reinventing yourself at midlife.

Posted Jun 30, 2010

When Al and Tipper Gore announced their separation after forty years of marriage, the blogosphere was flooded with emotions, ranging from alarm ("This was the last marriage we thought was in trouble") to nonchalance ("So what else is new?"). Most discussions led to a similar conclusion; even good marital unions are hard to sustain for a lifetime as our lives extend well into our 80s and 90s. For the Gores, and other couples in their sixties, four decades together clearly seemed like a good amount of time for love, marriage, career building and child rearing. Perhaps they didn't want to waste another moment trying to repair or revitalize. Perhaps it was time to move on. Hey, at midlife we are not over the hill. In fact, we are told, we are just beginning to look somewhere over the rainbow.

So as the shock waves receded, the discussion broadened to focus on the new opportunities that separation at sixty offered. A relationship expert on CBS' morning show encouraged newly divorced women to think of "sixty as the new twenty." She suggested they go on Facebook, tap into the girls they once were, and reinvent themselves. Another online site compared Tipper Gore's future to Elizabeth Gilbert's soul-searching journey in her novel, "Eat, Pray, Love." Like the character Julia Roberts plays in the upcoming film version, one blogger wrote how midlife women have the potential to "find" themselves again. And who knows, traveling for a year with lots of marinara and meditation may even lead to a best selling novel!

Hopeful and proactive advice, to say the least, but as a psychologist who has worked with many women wading through the troubled waters of their middle years, I find that this phase of life is for many—well, complicated. Some women see fifty and beyond as a time to enjoy greater freedom from responsibility and for increased opportunity for pleasure and leisure. But many others feel anxious and depressed as they anticipate major changes at this time in their lives. Some fear they are not ready to make big moves that will challenge them emotionally and financially. They second-guess themselves—why now, what next—wondering if their need for something new is more about boredom than anything else. Instead of adventure, they worry that once they take the leap, they will have deep regrets.

Below are three key emotional components that will help you determine if you are psychologically prepared to take advantage of making major life changes at this time. I call them The Three Rs for Reinventing Yourself.

  1. Resilience: Reinventing yourself requires the ability to rebound from the challenges you face. It is important to assess how resilient and resourceful you feel before inviting major changes in your life that go beyond those that naturally come your way. Whether it be making a change to your career, leaving your husband or taking on something new and different, women who have internal resources are better equipped to rise to the challenge of change. Out with the old and in with the new takes energy and effort. Those who move forward feeling enthusiastic about their future find resilience very important. Those who feel scared and depressed feel empty. The ability to be resilient is key in finding new ways to cope with, and even enjoy, new beginnings. 
  2. Reliance: Women tell me that making major changes at midlife can leave them feeling very alone, at least for a period of time. Looking forward may be a positive move, but it almost always requires leaving behind what is familiar and comforting. This may be a partner, the apartment, home or city you have lived in for many years. The ability to rely on others and ask for help is important while a transition is made to new dependable sources of comfort. If you don't have the ability to rely on family and friends, reinventing yourself can be difficult and excruciatingly lonely. Assess realistically who you have around you that you can trust to be supportive and evaluate your ability to rely on them. Taking the risk to reinvent yourself requires a combination of independence and dependence, finding a balance between self reliance and the ability to rely others.  
  3. Renewal: To successfully reinvent yourself, it is important to be flexible, to be able to renew and refresh how you view yourself in your life. Remember, old roles that you may want to leave behind—as wife, mate, mother, daughter—have been part of your identity for years. Some women get stuck, afraid to let these old roles go. They may want to leave them, but don't feel the flexibility in their self-definition. For example, when a woman sees herself as successful only if she is working, it is difficult to leave her job. Women who have spent years in a bad marriage, but are afraid to be alone, can't see themselves as single. Women who get stuck on feeling attractive only when they appear youthful are unable to age gracefully. These women may want to reinvent themselves, but get stuck. Women who have flexibility can revitalize their lives as they age, looking forward to an ongoing renewal of who they are and who they will become.

So, before you jump at the chance to reinvent yourself—to travel the world, enter a new career, leave your long-term mate or seek another—you may want to consider whether you are psychologically ready to take advantage of the new opportunities that present themselves. Look before you leap and prepare yourself with the 3 Rs.

© 2010 Vivian Diller Ph.D., author of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change

Author Bio
Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. Dr. Diller was a professional dancer before she became a professional model, represented by Wilhelmina, appearing in Glamour, Seventeen, national print ads, and TV commercials. After completing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, she went on to do postdoctoral training in psychoanalysis at NYU. She has written articles on beauty, aging, eating disorders, models, and dancers, and served as a consultant to a major cosmetic company interested in promoting age-related beauty products. Her book,FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, Ph.D. and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. "Today" co-host Hoda Kotb called it "a smart book for smart women."

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