June 30

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6 Skills for Navigating Midlife Change (Part 1)


Life happens. It throws us changeups and curveballs. Or perhaps life isn’t happening the way we want it to. It feels like we are stuck in the same old rut doing the same things over and over. We want more but don’t know how to create the positive changes we want. So, how do we adapt to make the most of the situation? Just like the skier navigating his way down the slope, navigating life’s changes requires skills.

When we consider the idea of navigation, it implies two things. First there is a desired destination. Second, there is a direction that leads to that destination. If you have not read the article yet entitled Thriving at Midlife is Journey and a Destination, you can read it here. When the skier goes down the hill, he doesn’t take a direct path. He cuts a path going side to side going over and around the various curves, bumps, and obstacles along the way.

When the skier stands at the top of the hill, he surveys the mountain as much as possible to get a general lay of the land. However, he doesn’t know everything he will face during his journey. He has a destination and direction in mind and knows that he must start sooner rather than later. Waiting doesn’t change the hill. The only way to successfully navigate down the hill is to know in general where he wants to go and get started. He must use his skiing skills to look for things to avoid and things to use to his advantage.

Is the steep slope a danger zone or a way to pick up speed? Is the mogul a bump he must absorb or bank for his next turn? There’s a fork in the trail ahead. Does he take the black diamond path to the right or the blue square path to the left? As in life, many paths lead to the same destination. However, each skier must choose their own path based on their individual skills and desires.

In navigating life change, we need many skills. None of us knows all the skills we will need. However, there are some core skills that will help us manage any life change. This two-part article covers six important skills for navigating life change. They are critical self-reflection, hopefulness, self-empowerment, growth mindset, self-initiative, and perseverance.

1. Critical Self-Reflection – Assessing beliefs with honesty and without judgment

Educator and psychologist, Jack Mezirow developed a theory of transformative learning that describes the use critical self-reflection as a powerful tool for change. Everyone holds beliefs that are not optimal otherwise we would all lead perfect lives. Some of our beliefs are dysfunctional or maladaptive in that they don’t serve us well. They cause us to make poor decisions, hurt other people, or at minimum keep getting the most out of situations. In any given situation or life area, if we aren’t getting the best possible outcomes, then our thoughts, feelings, and actions are not serving us optimally. Critical reflection helps us evaluate where and how we can make positive changes.

Mezirow observed that most transformative changes occurred after what he called a disorienting dilemma. A disorienting dilemma is an event or situation that didn’t go well and we don’t understand why. The event is disorienting because it doesn’t fit our current view of the world. It challenges our beliefs about how and why things happen. It challenges our self-concept and how we interact with the world.

Disorienting dilemmas can be small disturbances such as being chewed out by our boss, an argument with our spouse, or an injury. Alternatively, disorienting dilemmas could be a life altering event that challenges our deepest beliefs shaking us to the core. This could be a divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, or a major health issue. These events trigger the process of critical reflection.

Critical Self-reflection vs Self-criticism

Critical self-reflection is not self-criticism. Critical self-reflection is the process of critically examining the usefulness and accuracy of our beliefs in an honest manner without judgment. We are used to hearing our inner self-talk that says, “you should have done that instead” or “you shouldn’t have said that” usually followed by something unflattering like “dummy” or “idiot.” Negative self-talk is reactive self-criticism. Self-reflection, on the other hand, is a careful and thoughtful look inside at what we believe and how we are interacting with the world. When we reassess the way we perceive, interpret, believe, feel and act, we can have a compelling learning experience that transforms our lives.

Disorienting dilemmas occur naturally and frequently in midlife. Our beliefs are primarily formed during developmental years through modeling or assuming the beliefs of our parents and those closest to us. However, many of those beliefs are not true, not useful, or at the least self-limiting. As we enter midlife, we are less influenced by the beliefs of others, and various life events occur that cause us to question our own beliefs. Reflecting back upon the beliefs of our parents and those people who influenced us most can be helpful in assessing where our beliefs came from.

Here’s a story that illustrates the point. When preparing the ham for Christmas dinner, the daughter asks her mother, “Mom, why do you cut off the ends to the ham before cooking it?” The mom replies, “because that’s the way my mom did it!” When grandma arrives, the little girl asks, “Grandma, why do you cut off the ends of the ham before cooking it?” Grandma replies, “because that’s the way my mom did it!” When the great-grandmother arrives, the little girl asks, “Great Grandma, why do you cut off the ends of the ham before cooking it?” The great-grandmother chuckles and says, “Well honey, it’s because I didn’t have a big enough pan!” The question we need to ask ourselves is in what areas of life are we cutting off the ends of the ham.

Application Tip:

To develop the skill of critical self-reflection, you must schedule quiet time without distractions to think about what’s working and not working in your life. If a situation or an area of your life is bothering you or not working as well as you would like to, then spend some 10 – 15 minutes quietly thinking about it. Write down any thoughts or feelings that immediately come to mind. If you feel uneasy sensations in any part of your body, note that as well. (Feelings, especially unpleasant ones, are stored in the body.)

Now, examine the situation and your thoughts and feelings from a 3rd party perspective like you were watching a movie with yourself in the starring role. Pretend you are the wise narrator of the story who can write a happy ending. As the narrator, you can see everything honestly and without judgment. Your only goal is to help the main character find a happy ending to the story. What would you tell yourself? Would you yell, criticize or belittle them or would you offer gentle words of advice? This is how critical self-reflection works.

2. Hopefulness – Belief that positive change can occur

Martin Seligman was the first one to conduct experiments that formed the basis of the learned helplessness theory. According to this theory, learned helplessness is a condition observed in both humans and animals that occurs when they have been conditioned to expect pain and suffering, without a way to escape it. The experiments have shown that when enough conditioning has taken place, the animal will eventually stop trying to avoid the pain at all – although the opportunity to escape it exists. Based on this theory, when we, or animals for that matter, start to actually believe that we have no control over to what happens to us, we begin to feel, think and act as if we are helpless. Which correlates with depression as well. The reason why Seligman called it a learned helplessness is because it’s not an innate trait we are born with. We are not born believing that we cannot control what happens to us or that we have no influence over the outcome of our situation. This is rather a learned behavior, conditioned through our life experiences in which we actually did not had any control over or we perceived it as such and felt like no one or nothing can alleviate our pain or discomfort.

[restrict]Psychologists believe that we can change learned helplessness behavior by changing the way we look at the causes of events in our life. This is known as something called attribution or explanatory style. Our explanatory style can be categorized in three ways: internal vs external (personal) – this is where we see ourselves as being the cause of an event happening; stable vs temporary (permanent) – the explanation of the lifespan of an event and whether the experience of the event will have permanent effects or not in our lives; global vs specific (pervasive) – how we explain the context of an event; whether the situation is consistent across all environments or specific to one environment.

On one end of the scale, there is a pessimistic explanatory style, which sees negative events as permanent (“it will never succeed”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I fail on any level, all of the time”); on the other end we find an optimistic explanatory style, which views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent.

If we want to unlearn the learned helplessness we need to adopt a more optimistic explanatory style. In the optimistic explanatory style, we manage to avoid falling into the learned helplessness patterns by seeing personal situations as externally related, temporary (“this is probably a onetime occurrence..”) and situation-specific (“my weakness is in this area, not all..”)

Application Tip:

We can only create positive change in our lives when we believe that positive change is possible. Just as hopelessness is a learned behavior, so is hopefulness. When we believe there is no hope for change, our mind stops looking for solutions. When we have hope, our mind starts looking for opportunities for change. It doesn’t mean that change will occur immediately. It just means that by believing that positive change can occur, our mind begins to look for possibilities.

3. Self-Empowerment – Belief that we have the power (sense of agency) to make positive changes

Having a feeling of agency according to Bram Langmans means being in control of our own destiny and being able to produce some desired effect or outcome by undertaking particular individual action(s). And as Martin Seligman through the Learned helplessness theory showed us, it is somehow expected that if we feel like we aren’t in control of our destiny, we will be more inclined to just give up and accept whatever situation we are in. According to Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory, each and any one of us has the power and potential to produce some desired effect or outcome by undertaking particular individual action(s).

Albert Bandura defines self-efficacy as “the belief in one’s ability to influence events that effect one’s life and control over the way these events are experienced. “According to Bandura, self-efficacy is not a trait that some of us have and others do not. Instead, it is the willingness to exercise and strengthen our self-efficacy, regardless of our past or current environment.  We can also say that those of us with high self-efficacy have an internal locus of control. The locus of control is about where we belief the power to change our life events resides: within us (internal locus of control) or outside of us (external locus of control). When we have a high sense of self-efficacy we will feel more prone to decide upon future goals and take action towards their completion.

The social cognitive theory argues that effective learning happens when we are in a social context and are able to engage in both dynamic and reciprocal interactions between us – the environment and the behavior. According to Bandura, there are four main sources of self-efficacy beliefs: mastery experience (the experiences we gain when we succeed in a new challenge); vicarious experiences (having a role model to observe and emulate – can be parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles); verbal persuasions (the positive impact that our words can have on someone’s self-efficacy) and emotional and physiological states (the importance of context and overall health and well-being in the development and maintenance of self-efficacy.)

If we desire to enhance our self- efficacy we can start by focusing on ensuring we have a enough opportunities in order to learn and master difficult skills and complete challenging tasks, find positive role models, pay attention to the encouraging and motivating people in our lives and take care of our mental health.

Application Tip:

When we begin to understand ourselves and what we want and can see the possibilities of positive change, it creates a stirring in our heart. However, this stirring doesn’t turn in to action until we believe we have the power to act. Helplessness, like hopelessness, is a learned behavior. If you are feeling helpless, then it is because you have learned to think you are helpless. However, none of us are truly helpless. Empowerment begins with small steps. In developing the belief that we can take action and create the intentions we desire, we feel both empowered and inspired.

When we were being raised as children, we learned to ask for permission before doing something. Asking permission becomes a habit that keeps us from taking action as an adult. Yet, as an adult, we don’t need to ask permission. It may be good to share our intentions with others, but we don’t require permission. Are you waiting on someone else to give you permission to make changes in your life?

Action Steps (15 minutes)

  1. Recall an example of when you faced a significant change in your life. How did you demonstrate the navigation skills for change?
    1. Self-awareness
    2. Hopefulness
    3. Self-empowerment
    4. Growth mindset
    5. Self-initiative
    6. Perseverance
  2. Consider an example of life change that you are currently facing or could face in the near future. How can you more effectively use the navigation skills for positive change?
    1. Self-awareness
    2. Hopefulness
    3. Self-empowerment
    4. Growth mindset
    5. Self-initiative
    6. Perseverance
  3. What is the one skill of the six that would be most beneficial to improve?
  4. List three things you could do to improve that skill, and take action on one of them:
    1. ______________________________________________________
    2. ______________________________________________________
    3. ______________________________________________________

Summary

To quote Henry Ford “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right ” , I would summarize by saying that although there are a lot of things and circumstances that we cannot control in our lives, we do have control over choosing our perception towards them and our actions moving forward. Studies have confirmed that helplessness, although real,  is merely a taught behavior that can be unlearned by nurturing a more optimistic explanatory way of seeing the circumstances of our lives.

There is no doubt that midlife comes with its share of difficult and painful moments. Inner desire to alienate pain and look for relief and comfort may as well be one of the most important motors that keep us looking for a positive resolution. And truth be told, we may not be all the time aware of how to best cope with the difficult situations or move towards the directions that re-establishes our inner peace and comfort. But through the conscious development of a growth mindset and a strong grit, we can conclude that we have now armed ourselves with the tools and awareness for pushing forward into a healthier and more integrated way of living and being.

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References

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 21-41. doi:10.1111/1467-839x.00024

Cury, F., Elliot, A. J., Da Fonseca, D., & Moller, A. C. (2006). The social-cognitive model of achievement motivation and the 2 × 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(4), 666-679. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.90.4.666

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..

Mezirow, J. (1990). How Critical Reflection Triggers Transformative Learning. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood (pp. 1-20). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. doi:10.1097/00001416-199101000-00027

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14. Retrieved from http://www.bdp-gus.de/gus/Positive-Psychologie-Aufruf-2000.pdf

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Bruce Fleck

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