During our 50s and beyond, a number of things can converge to create a time of real transition and change. These changes might feel difficult, but if we support ourselves well through them, they can lend way to a really rich and positive period in our lives. Plus, embracing the changes we’re experiencing can give us huge freedom.
Important life transitions can include career changes, or our role within our family changing as our children grow up and our parents become older. We might find that we’ve reached a point in our career where we think ‘Is this it now?’, and decide we want more. We might be going through menopause – and some of us will have experienced bereavements and losses as well. Sometimes, a cumulation of a few things at once can mean that we may ‘lose our mojo’ for a while, and not understand why.
Below, we’ll explore how preconceived ideas of what our 50s and 60s ‘should’ look like can affect our present reality, and how we can challenge our inner critic to thrive through change.
The importance of breaking stereotypes around what our 50s and 60s ‘should’ look like
Without even realising it, we often hold an idea in our heads of what our 50s should look like, how we ‘should’ behave, or what we ‘should’ have achieved by this stage in life. These ideas tend to form when we are young and looking around us to see what adulthood looks like. They can affect our sense of what is possible now – some serve us as we approach this current stage of our lives and any related changes, and some limit us.
For example, if we saw our parents or others thriving, learning, and growing into retirement and beyond, it’s easier for us to picture that for ourselves. These days, 50 is relatively young in terms of our overall lifespan, but if we hold a model of the norm from previous generations, our heads may tell us what is and isn’t possible. It’s almost like a worldview that we hold or a belief system that we butt up against when we come to this stage ourselves. I have worked with a lot of people who say ‘I’m too old to do X’.
There are two parts involved in unravelling this thought. First, ‘is it possible in general?’ This is why having role models and peers from Rest Less can be so inspiring, as it can help to remind us that X (whatever it is), is indeed possible beyond the point at which we believed it to be.
The second part often involves asking yourself: ‘Can I do it?’ This is much more personal and relates to the self-limiting beliefs that we have often held about ourselves generally in life. We might say, ‘I know she/he has done X, but it is different for them. I am not clever/organised/able/resilient (whatever our own version of that is) enough’, or ‘I’m too stupid/disorganised/emotional etc’.
This is just a normal human response to change, and to coming out of our comfort zones as we nudge up against the limiting beliefs we have so far held – often without realising. In coaching, we recognise this as our ‘inner critic’ (or saboteur, gremlin, whichever name feels right for you) just trying to keep us safe and maintain the status quo.
How do our inner critics hold us back, and how can we challenge them?
Everyone has inner critics, and they can be triggered by most new things; from learning a new skill to getting a new job. Reaching a significant birthday can also bring us up against a limiting belief system about that age, and it can get in the way of us adapting, changing, and doing what we would really like to do – especially if we don’t recognise and challenge it.
It isn’t easy to do this on our own because our inner critics are triggered so automatically that we don’t even notice them. This is why finding someone we trust to explore them with can be really helpful.
The good news is that our inner critics – by trying to avoid what we fear – can actually help us to discover what is most important to us, so that we can find a positive and constructive way through change that works for us.
For example, if I say to myself ‘I can’t do that because I am not clever enough. I’m worried people will realise I’m stupid if I try and fail’, this tells me that it’s important for me to feel capable and be respected – and also, that my relationships with other people matter to me. This gives me an insight into my values, priorities, and needs.
Knowing that we care about doing a good job is much more constructive than just telling ourselves we aren’t clever enough to do something. It can also be helpful to replace the critical voice with a growth mindset alternative when facing a challenge. For example, instead of ‘I can’t do that’, you could say, ‘I can’t do that yet, but I’m learning.’
What if we don’t think of ourselves as resilient?
Sometimes we talk about resilience as a fixed thing that we either have or we don’t have. Actually, from researching resilience and how we can thrive during change, I realised that sustainable resilience comes when we are able to acknowledge our feelings/emotions and trust our needs, rather than ‘pushing through’, or expecting ourselves to respond the way we or other people think we should do.
Sometimes something that wouldn’t upset one person has a really big impact upon another person, and vice versa. It isn’t that one of them is resilient and the other isn’t, but that the thing in question holds particular meaning and significance for that person, which is important. Something that wouldn’t affect us at one point in our lives has a big impact at another time because the meaning is different for us, because it coincides with other events, or because there has been a cumulative effect.
However, comparing ourselves to others – something that’s really natural to do – actually undermines our resilience, drains our ‘tank’, and reduces our energy levels. Listening to ourselves and being kind to ourselves (which we’re often good at doing for other people, but not for ourselves), increases our resilience rather than depleting it.
Often, a part of coaching is learning to listen to ourselves kindly and work with ourselves rather than against ourselves. Our inner worlds (our emotions, needs, energy levels, etc) can sometimes feel like they get in the way of us being resilient and coping, but actually, when we learn to work with them and trust them, they usually hold the key to us thriving through change.
Often, we think of resilience as ‘performance’ or doing at all costs, and treat our wellbeing and emotional health as separate to our ‘performance’ or what we do. Actually, real resilience is when our wellbeing underpins our performance, and really listening to ourselves can help us to come through change well.
I think this quote sums it up quite well:
When a change is particularly upsetting or frightening, how can we see beyond the current ‘black hole’?
Our emotions are signals about what matters to us. If they feel overwhelming or too much, it means that whatever has happened is really important to us, and it’s important to acknowledge that with compassion for ourselves. We may need some support, and often, we’ll need time.
The trouble is, if something very difficult has happened, listening to ourselves can feel hard, because we may not want to feel our emotions. So, it’s important to take it slowly and find the right support.
Pushing away difficult feelings also takes a lot of energy, and the more we try not to feel them, the longer they remain with us. We cannot push away our emotions selectively, so if we don’t allow ourselves to feel our ‘difficult’ emotions, we aren’t able to fully feel the ones we tend to think of as positive either.
If you’ve recently lost your job, how do you stop this from destroying your confidence?
It can feel so hard when this happens. I would encourage people to really tap into who they are and what they stand for – rather than trying to match what other people are doing – and to think about their natural talents, passions, motivation, values, experience, and perspectives, because they are really valuable.
There is a Japanese concept called ‘ikigai’ which, loosely translated means, ‘living a fulfilling, purposeful life’, and it guides us to think about four main areas:
What you love to do. What are the things you used to do as a child? What are the things you can lose yourself in? This is a really good way of understanding what we find intrinsically motivating that we have more energy for. Often, these are the things we’re good at too.
What you are good at. What are the things that you are naturally good at? What do you find easy that others may struggle with? This can be quite difficult to see for ourselves because we often notice what we can’t do, that others do well, and don’t realise what we do easily is actually a ‘thing’. It can be very helpful to ask friends, family, and colleagues what they value in us, what they turn to us for, even though it is often an uncomfortable thing to do.
The need in the world that you are drawn to meet. What were you doing in the past when you had an impact upon someone’s life? What do you care about? What is the legacy you would like to leave in the world? Again, this gives us insight into what we care about, what is intrinsically motivating for us, and what we have energy for.
What you can be paid for. This is often the one we focus on more than the others, and our inner critics can tell us we don’t bring anything of much value. One of the things I love about my job is working with someone in the first three areas and seeing how they begin to see the value of what they bring to the world and gain confidence.
I have worked with people who have really lost their confidence in a new role and are trying to do things the way that the younger people in the team do things. They’re only seeing what other people do and what they don’t do and are effectively hiding their unique experience, perspectives, and style, so they can match the rest of the team. In nature, a diverse group or system is a healthy one, and a homogenous group is an unhealthy group whose survival is at risk.
It is the same with teams of people. We really need those diverse ways of seeing things and thinking about things to thrive as a team. It isn’t that one perspective is right and another is wrong, but that the variety of all of the perspectives raises the overall IQ of a group.
It’s so wonderful seeing people’s confidence increase as they begin to recognise what they bring to the table and begin to value it. What might have been a difficult transition becomes a beautiful new period in a person’s life. To misquote wildly, ‘if we aim to be someone we’re not, we will always fail’.
Sarah Flynn is a Psychologist, ICF accredited coach (PCC) and trained Organisation, Relationship and Systems coach (CRR Global). She specialises in supporting people to thrive through times of transition and change.
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