“[E]mbrace your many passions. Follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes. Explore your intersections. Embracing our inner wiring leads to a happier, more authentic life.” ~ Emilie Wapnick
A Facebook reader messaged me recently about interests and personal growth: “I had many different interests and talents in my childhood so that was always a challenge to choose one among others. What solution do you suggest?”
If you are someone who—rather than searching to find a passion—is struggling to choose one interest or passion of many to pursue, know that you are not alone. You may be what Barbara Sher calls a scanner: someone who naturally has many interests and thrives when following many of them rather specializing narrowly.
When multipotentialites become interested in something, we go hard. We observe everything we can get our hands on. We’re also used to being beginners, because we’ve been beginners so many times in the past, and this means that we’re less afraid of trying new things and stepping out of our comfort zones. What’s more, many skills are transferable across disciplines, and we bring everything we’ve learned to every new area we pursue, so we’re rarely starting from scratch. ~ Emilie Wapnick
But how does one choose which interests or passions to pursue, especially as we get older and have less time ahead of us than in our rearview mirror? It’s easy to suffer from what psychologist Barry Schwartz terms the paradox of choice: we think that having more choices would make us happier, but it can instead lead to paralysis as we focus on missed opportunities of whatever we do not choose. The result is that we choose nothing.
The point is that the engagement and process are what aid our personal growth and satisfaction, not levels of achievement or outward measures of success or tangible products.
In other words, what is important is to choose something to start, and to remind ourselves that not being an expert or narrowly focused is normal for us. Learn more by watching Emilie Wapnick’s TEDx talk, below (the Facebook reader I’d mentioned wrote recently that “this video and the community of multipods is changing my life!”) and check out her website for multipotentialites, Puttylike.
There’s not a lot of joy in this election. keke many other Americans, I sometimes wish I could sleep ala Rip Van Winkle through the next twenty-four days (I’ve already voted, so I could actually sleep for twenty-five days).
However, while watching Michelle Obama’s New Hampshire speech yesterday (video at the end of this post), I was reminded that this election season has changed me—is changing me more each day—and for the better. For the first time in my fifty-two years (the same age as our First Lady), I am realizing just how much I have allowed my own voice and emotions to be hushed.
How is this election season changing me?
Silence no longer feels like an option.
I am expressing my views more readily, regardless of whether those around me will understand or be offended or take me seriously or even listen.
I am examining more carefully what it is inside my mind and heart that holds me back and makes me feel powerless and less than, knowing I have the agency to change.
I am reminding myself that I can be compassionate and giving and supportive while at the same time attending to my own needs and desires and voice, that self-compassion and self-care are not selfish.
I yearn to follow Michelle Obama’s example in learning to honor my own emotions, in refusing to internalize the belief that just because they are a woman’s emotions, they are trivial.
“Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet” ~ Michelle Obama
As I am fortunate enough to be able to speak—and to write—I now more than ever feel obligated to do so.
she stopped talking as an anorexic stops eating, slowly at first forgoing the extra word, skipping the unnecessary reply in favor of the nod or smile, a simple experiment, really, a goal to improve oneself, until she got the taste for it no one noticed as she purged the superfluous, sent phone calls to voice mail, rationed herself to one hundred spoken words per day by hoarding sentences in a notebook and bingeing on thoughts, saving precious syllables for public use, bringing them out only when necessary speaking less and less until she was finally engorged and silent
The above poem was one I scribbled years ago and recently pulled from a pile of drafts to share with my writing roundtable. Only now am I beginning to understand the depth and breadth of lives and experiences that make up the collective “she.” My understanding will no doubt continue to deepen, and I will continue to grow.
All because of a presidential campaign.
“We simply cannot let that happen. We cannot allow ourselves to be so disgusted that we just shut off the TV and walk away. And we can’t just sit around wringing our hands. Now, we need to recover from our shock and depression and do what women have always done in this country. We need you to roll up your sleeves. We need to get to work.” ~ Michelle Obama (read full transcript)
Post update: Michelle Obama transcript quotations added October 15, 2016.
“I keep returning to the central question facing over-50 women as we move into our Second Adulthood. What are our goals for this stage in our lives? There really are no more ‘shoulds.'” ~ Gail Sheehy
In the cozy house of my childhood, my bedroom was only a short hallway’s distance from the living room, and, after bedtime, my brother and I sometimes crept to where we could stealthily watch whatever prime time television shows our parents thought inappropriate for us.
On January 8, 1972, the sitcom All in the Family aired an episode titled “Edith’s Problem” (the episode would win an Emmy for the scriptwriter). I was seven years old. My brother was five.
The next morning, I asked my mother what “menopause” meant. When she told me I didn’t need to know, I looked it up in the dictionary. For reasons I do not fully understand, this moment—asking my mother, opening the dictionary, reading the entry—remains as clear in my memory as if it happened yesterday.
I’m sure I didn’t fully understand the definition. My own mother was not yet thirty and far from menopause at the time. In my seven-year-old mind, the women I knew were either young women (my mother and her friends) or old women (my grandmothers and other children’s grandmothers). What happened in the interim remained a mystery to me for many years.
It is a mystery no longer. At age fifty-one, I have a new vocabulary word (and one my spell check program does not recognize): perimenopause, the years leading up to menopause (technically, menopause doesn’t occur until a woman has not menstruated for a full year). Every woman’s experience of perimenopause is different and can include everything from hot flashes to increased migraines and even sleep disorders.
But this post is not just about the years of perimenopause. It’s about what comes afterward, what Gail Sheehy calls Second Adulthood.
Second Adulthood: More Than Happiness
In her book The Silent Passage, Sheehy describes the life transformation of Second Adulthood that she found in her research, a transformation that goes beyond relief of the physical aspects of perimenopause:
“[A] mobilization usually begins shortly after menopause, and a profound change in self-concept begins to register with rising exhilaration for many women as they move into their fifties. They often break the seal on repressed angers. They overcome the habits of trying to be perfect and of needing to make everyone love them…. Many women, during the decade of the Mid-Forties to the Mid-Fifties, find the sustained courage to extricate themselves from lives of desperate repetition.
This sense of well-being is more than happiness, the latter generally conveying relief from pent-up frustration or deprivation. Well-being registers deep in our unconscious, as a sustained background tone of equanimity—a calm, composed sense of all-rightness—that remains behind the more intense contrasts of daily events, including periods of unhappiness. On the life cycle graphs plotted from results of my 60,000 questionnaires, that sense of well-being gradually rises for women through the mid-fifties, reaching a high point around fifty-seven, when it takes off and soars. The issue of trying too hard to please is, for most, surmounted. Women begin at last to value themselves. [emphases added; Gail Sheehy, The Silent Passage, Pocket Books, 1973, pp. 121-22]
I’m reminded of a lunchtime conversation with a friend a few years ago. In her sixties, she talked of a physical energy she now has that she had never had as a young woman. As she spoke, her eyes sparkled, and she sat with the confidence of someone entirely at home in her own skin.
I’m also reminded of my mother, who once told me that life for her didn’t really take off until she was in her forties. My mother died at age fifty-six of multiple myeloma, so her final years were tinged with the fatigue and worry and pain of cancer and chemotherapy. However, in the post-menopausal years leading up to her diagnosis she thrived as she started a quilting business, got up early to piece together just the right combinations of color blocks, published a newsletter, spoke at conferences, and became the woman she was always meant to be in her brief Second Adulthood.
Men, Women, and Change
Do men and women experience this life transition differently? Men do go through a similar “male menopause” as their hormones adjust to the aging process, but Sheehy writes that while many men view their latter years as a time to slow down, many women are just beginning to gear up.
When I posted the quotation at the top of this post on my Facebook page, the lone male response (from someone I have affection and respect for) was “The saddest thing in your career is the 50th birthday of a young person with potential.” With the caveat that growing older is of course affected by health and socioeconomics and other circumstances, I see middle-aged unfulfilled potential as more exciting than sad. Sure, it is far too late for me to be a mathematician or concert pianist or prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. However, perhaps because of my mother’s example, I have always thought of womanhood as a life of expanding rather than diminishing possibilities.
Do people change in fundamental ways as adults? Can they? While I know men who would answer an unequivocal “yes” to that question, women grow up knowing that, at least physically, we will and do change in profound ways all the time. Perhaps that better prepares us to enter a Second Adulthood—regardless of whether we worked outside the home, married, divorced, or have children—with an eye toward engaging our potential in new ways. This is our new challenge, our new purpose, one that is as individual as our thumbprint.
Consider Joy Navan, who, after earning a PhD. in her fifties is, in her retirement as a full professor, getting a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. She writes of potential on her blog, ongiftedelders:
When is enough, enough? To continue growing, learning, and achieving is part of the nature of giftedness for many adults and elders. The intellectual imperative we might call it, or the impetus to self-actualize oneself – to fulfill the blueprint of potentiality with which we were born.
Engaging our potential does not always involve accomplishments visible to the outside world. Christi Craig, a friend and fellow Wisconsin writer, leads a writing group at a retirement home/assisted living facility. Her students are in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. When I recently attended a reading they gave, what struck me most was how present they all were. No one was checking cell phones or waiting impatiently to do something else. Their writing was sharp and witty, lyrical and thoughtful, polished and poignant. They worked on their pieces, revising, stretching themselves, taking creative risks. It was clear that the product of their work went well beyond the page. More and more, I find myself looking ahead to these models of inspiration rather than back to who I was in my twenties.
Learning To Value Ourselves: Ready for the Next
In the Downton Abbey episode “Open House” (S6 E6), Cora and Robert discuss her being offered presidency of the local hospital. “I’ve had one career already, bringing up my daughters,” Cora explains to her husband. “They don’t need me now, so I’m ready for the next.”
Robert’s response is, “The girls still need you. But anyway, isn’t it time for a rest?” Note that “the girls” are in their thirties.
Being a fifty-something woman can sometimes feel like the epitome of uncool. We are not yet old enough to be a wise elder. We can remain young at heart and childlike, yes, but—let’s face it—we are no longer in our youth. Our bodies change as dramatically as they did when we were adolescents, and, like teenagers, we are not quite used to this new skin, hair, and shape. We can feel embarrassed to talk about what is happening to us, even more twenty years after The Silent Passage was first published (see, for example, “The Workplace Wellness Issue No One Is Talking About,” as well as the revised and updated edition of The Silent Passage).
Sheehy explains how we can unwittingly adopt a cultural bias as our own, a “fear and envy of the physical, mental, sexual, and spiritual energies of fully evolved women—women who are beyond being objects defined by the male gaze and now fully conscious keepers of their own bodies.” (1973 Pocket Books edition, p. 152)
We have choices of how to think of this time of our lives. Learning to be a fully conscious keeper of ourselves is perhaps the greatest gift of aging.
The unpredictable years of perimenopause get us ready for the next ____ (you fill in the blank).
There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet ~ T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Last year I wrote a bit about the difference between nice and kind. It’s a topic that hits home with a lot of women (and men), especially those of a “certain age” who are trying to (re)discover themselves.
If you feel that you are at times too nice, too much in control of yourself, and too empathetic, be sure to read this post (from the blog An Upturned Soul) on how these otherwise positive traits can a problem when it comes to friendships and other relationships:
Niceness. A willingness to compliment others and a reticence to criticise. A tendency to promote the positive traits of others and to overlook anything which might be negative. A desire to put the pleasure of others before your own. You make the needs of others your priority over your own needs. To please. To do what others want to do. A need to be liked and a horror of being disliked… Read more
Be yourself. All of yourself, the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the positive and the negative. Embrace it all into one. Only you know who that is and how to be you. That’s your gift. That is what makes life worth living. And don’t forget you’re a human being… mistakes are a part of that, make them, learn from them, regret them, and be kind to yourself, even when you’re not.
Let’s not fool ourselves. Being and embracing “all of ourselves”—especially after a lifetime of being only part of ourselves—can be not only difficult but downright terrifying. This photo of an adult female Phidippus mystaceus jumping spider is much closer to what I feel like at my core than to the smiling profile photos that I—that we all—present to the world. Isn’t she beautiful?
This is the fourth in a series of Sunday posts about Kazimierz Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration, using as a starting point his 1967 book, Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration. You can purchase the book as part of a larger collection of Dabrowski’s works at Bill Tillier’s website PositiveDisintegration.com.
“The process of personality building, therefore, is characterized by a wandering ‘upward,’ toward an ideal…” ~ Kazimierz Dabrowski
Chapter two of Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration introduces the concepts of developmental instinct, primary integration, and disintegration, all of which are important to understand in the overall process of “wandering upward” toward a personality ideal. This is also the chapter in which we learn about the role of excessive excitability (over excitability), which will be next week’s topic.
Below are just a few main points and terms from the beginning of the chapter.
As animals, we are all ruled to a certain extent by instincts and biological drives, such as an instinct for self-preservation (life) or a sexual drive. Biological drives keep us alive and ensure the propagation of our species. The “self-preservation, possessive, fighting,” and similar instincts are centered on ourselves, while “‘companion-seeking’ instinct, sexual drive, maternal or paternal instinct, herd, cognitive, and religious instincts” involve our environment (p. 47). These two different sets of instincts can come into conflict, which is one source of disintegration (see below).
In Dabrowski’s theory, the developmental instinct (or an instinct toward personal development) is what helps us to overcome and transform these more basic drives to serve a larger, more chosen purpose [emphases added]:
“The self-preservation instinct begins to transform and exceed its proper tendencies, attaching ever more importance to preservation of a man as a spiritual being, and to moral action, even to the detriment of man’s physical side. The sexual drive is sublimated into lasting, exclusive, ‘non-species-oriented’ as it were, emotional bonds. The fighting instinct shifts to the area of conflicts in the world of moral values, transforming and sublimating the conflicts into an attitude of fighting for a good cause and into an attitude of sacrifice and love.” (pp. 43-44)
Without the developmental instinct, we would be at the mercy of the first factor (biological forces) and the second factor (social and other environmental forces).
Dabrowski believed that most people live in a state of primary integration in which personal interests are narrow, and drives and instincts unilateral (without much hierarchy). In primary integration, we are ” incapable of internal conflicts, but often enter into conflicts with the environment” (p. 51).
“[Those at the level of primary integration] are not able to assume an attitude regarding time from a distance, nor are they able to make themselves mentally independent of it. They are constrained by the present moment, by the reality of flowing experiences, by their own type, and by influences of the environment.” (p. 52)
We begin in a state of primary integration. Our basic instincts rule, and we live in the moment without self-reflection, “generally unaware” of a continuation of present and past selves or the idea of a future self.
Self-Awareness: Too Little and Too Much
The movement from integration to disintegration “is usually accompanied by a greater or smaller participation of self-awareness” (p. 55). At one end of the spectrum, a very low level of self-awareness keeps us from observing our own behaviors and understanding our own contradictions. We “commit acts which contradict each other” but are “unaware of their divergence,” so we do not feel remorse or the desire to change.
There is such a thing, however, as being too self-aware:
“At the other extreme we have cases of excessive self-awareness. Such individuals deliberate at every step made. This ‘psychic operating’ on oneself may help development, but sometimes may become an unfruitful habit, a mania, an aim in itself, which deepens the process of disintegration in an abnormal way. Of course, the fact that one is aware of his own internal disintegration does not by itself result in the tendency to remove it.” (p. 55)
Disintegration: Unilevel and Multilevel
We tend to think that adapting to one’s environment is a good thing (and, often, it is), but an important aspect of Dabrowski’s theory is that failure to adapt is a prerequisite for growth. Life’s bumps and roadblocks, whether minor or traumatic, offer the potential for maladaptation and disintegration, conflict, discord, a “loosening” of our previous integration so that we can choose how to integrate at a higher level.
In other words, we have to fall apart in order to put ourselves back together.
All disintegration, however, is not equal. Unilevel disintegration is not hierarchical. It is often relatively fleeting (and when it is not, the result can be mental instability or even suicide). Conflict and feelings of inferiority and shame tend to be directed toward the external environment (other people, circumstances, the world in general). We do not participate actively in the disintegrative process. Often, the resolution is to slip back into comfortable primary integration, but one can also progress to multilevel disintegration.
Multilevel disintegration, on the other hand, is hierarchical and involves a set of higher and lower aims. It can last for a long time. Conflict and feelings of inferiority and guilt are directed toward oneself (we feel inferior to our own standards). We are active participants in the process, choosing to be self-aware [emphases added].
“The process of evaluating one’s own internal environment is essential for multilevel disintegration. The feeling of the separateness of one’s own self increases and this is so not only in contradistinction to the external environment, but also, even primarily, in relation to one’s own inner environment, which is evaluated, is made into a hierarchy, and becomes a subject of more precise cognition and appraising thought. A ‘subject-object’ process takes place in one’s own self. One’s internal milieu is divided into higher and lower, into better and worse, and into desirable and undesirable. There appears here the feeling of ‘lower value’ and the feeling of guilt when one ‘falls down’ to a lower level, knowing that he actually has the capacity to raise himself up. He knows this as his memory tells him of the pleasant moments of past achievements.” (pp. 63-64)
Questions for Discussion
While disintegration can happen throughout the lifespan, Dabrowski refers often to the periods of adolescence and midlife in his examples. What is your experience with or thoughts about disintegration during these two passages of life?
Do you have experience with self-awareness becoming “an unfruitful habit, a mania, an aim in itself”? How does one scale back self-awareness so as to participate more productively in positive disintegration?