Source: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash
When we reach our forties and fisties, many women go through a powerful and profound change process. By this point in life, a lot of us have succeeded in creating a good life. We’re living comfortably, making a substantial income, and thriving in our careers. We’ve launched our children; they’re in college or finishing high school. Our relationship is solid, or we’re okay without one. We’ve done everything we were supposed to do, and gotten everything we were taught to want. But deep down, we’re just getting started.
For many women, it’s at this stage, when we’ve succeeded in all the traditional ways, that we become aware of something in us that hasn’t gotten to fully live yet. We have everything we need on the surface, and everything we were taught to want, but for many women, a yearning arises for something more real—something that feels true to who we really are. We want to know ourselves in a new way, as more than just who we are in relation to other people, through other people’s perceptions, and within all our roles.
As women, we’re conditioned to focus on other people’s needs. From the time we’re very young, we’re rewarded and valued for being kind and selfless. This can offer deep rewards. In general, thinking of others is found to be a psychologically healthy, rewarding, and meaningful orientation. Compared to the selfish, people who think of others are also generally happier, according to researchers.
But for many women, this focus on others is something put on them from the outside, an expectation of sorts. We learn that belonging, acceptance, and our emotional safety rely on one asset more than any other—likability. And so, that’s what we set out to be—likable—at all costs, which can include the cost of our own authenticity and vitality.
Simultaneously, we are driven by shoulds—what we should do to make other people happy, should be to make ourselves likable. Women are the world’s caretakers and this extends far beyond what we do for a living. It is a profound and precious quality women bring to this world. But by the time we reach our forties and fifties, midlife, we enter a new stage. We hunger for more than just the rewards of making other people happy. We want to like—and know—ourselves, and enjoy the privilege of our own undivided attention. We get interested in our own wants and needs, beyond the need to help others.
In our own unique way, we feel the question and calling that Mary Oliver captured so beautifully in her poem, The Summer Day. She wrote “What will you do with your one wild and precious life.”
But it’s at this stage, with these fresh embers burning inside us, that we often get distracted and waylaid by the shiny and seductive $11 billion industry we call “self-care.” As the yearning to take ownership of our life starts calling—and we feel the need to come home to ourselves and be the authority in our own life after a lifetime of focusing our attention outward—we often go searching in the wrong direction. We are encouraged to seek more pampering: herbal wraps, cashmere throws, and lavender-infused sound baths. While there’s nothing wrong with any of these things and they’re all welcome additions to our life, self-care in the way we’re sold is just short-term symptom relief and not what we really need or long for at this point in our journey. Self-care, as we know it, is a temporary and superficial fix for what is a profound and legitimate craving.
Self-care that promotes the good life and encourages pleasurable experiences for our emotional and spiritual longing, not only doesn’t meet our deeper needs but more importantly keeps us in the loop of seeking fulfillment from external sources. It keeps us seeking outside ourselves— experiences, experts, and products, something we can add to our life, to create our own well-being. The unending search for the right form of self-care promotes the underlying belief that, as we are, we are lacking—missing what we need to be well. Conditioned to look away from ourselves, we discount the fact that we are who holds the key to our own vitality.
Furthermore, with its umpteen experts and gurus, the self-care industry creates a system in which someone else knows what we need—better than we do. We are not the authority in our own life, not our own source of wisdom, which is exactly the issue we feel called to heal in our later midlife. Simultaneously, our self-care system makes taking care of ourselves yet another should, another item on our to-do list. It’s our responsibility to practice self-care; to be good we need to be good to ourselves. But this attitude ends up creating another way for us to belong, further separating us from what we genuinely want, and what we’re actually craving—to get off the treadmill of always being good, as our modern culture has defined as good.
There comes a point in our life, as women, when we feel the calling for a deeper experience of ourselves. We long to be at the receiving end of our own attention and our own caretaking. So too, we feel the drive to know our own truth and discover our own wisdom. Too often, for too many women, this wisdom has been silenced and buried under our drive to be likable.
It’s at this time that we’re ready to stop making choices based on who we appear to be, from the outside, and start living by who we really are—on the inside. We’re now ready to speak and live authentically, to tell the truth, to ourselves and others. And furthermore, to be honest about what we really want and need.
We’ve established enough confidence to be willing to take the risk—to our acceptance and belonging—that comes with letting ourselves be who we are, with shifting our intention from being likable to being real. We’re able to define ourselves by our own experiences, rather than by other people’s perceptions of us. Often by the time we reach our forties or fifths, having taken good care of everyone else for decades, we’re ready to make the profound pivot to taking care of ourselves. But taking care of ourselves for real, beyond the lavender loofah scrubs, and beyond our ability to be pleasing.
Pay attention to these midlife longings; don’t dismiss them because they feel selfish, inconvenient, threatening, or indulgent. Pay attention to that part of you that hungers for a deeper experience of life—to discover who you are beyond the roles you play and your ability to be likable. Whenever and however this wanting appears in you, take it to heart; it matters. You matter. These longings are your authentic self, yearning for an opportunity to live. They are you calling you home to yourself. What could be more important than this?