June 9

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Keys to Turning Midlife Change into Midlife Growth


“Growth is painful. Change is painful. But, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you do not belong.” – N. R. Narayana Murthy

The Chinese symbol for crisis is actually the combination of two symbols – danger and opportunity. If we focus on the danger or downside of change, we will never see the opportunity that’s available. Adapting to change is both a skill and an attitude. How we adapt to change now depends in part in how we observed our parents adapting to change and how we have adapted to life changes in the past.

The good news is that if it is a skill, it can be taught meaning that we can learn to adapt to change more effectively. Attitude is a mindset that is quite simply a decision that anyone can make. When we decide to make change a growth opportunity, we can acquire the skills needed to positively adapt. Simply put, we decide whether change happens “to” us viewing change as a problem or “for” us viewing change as an opportunity for growth.

I know in my own personal experience, I was diagnosed with cancer in my mid 50’s. While it was certainly a shocking experience, it turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened to me. It changed the course of my life in a very positive way. In fact, I doubt if I would be writing this blog if I hadn’t dealt with my health issue in a positive way. If I had focused only on the problem of having cancer, I never would have seen the opportunity to live a much healthier lifestyle. I also never would have spent the time reflecting and growing as a person to find my true purpose in teaching and serving others.

It is important to have realistic expectations for midlife change. Accepting and adapting to change is a process that takes time and effort. My personal growth from the changes I experienced, didn’t happen overnight, and I doubt yours will either. In fact, it is normal to feel resistance to change in the beginning. However, continually resisting change delays the inevitable and eventually brings negative consequences. We can end up hurting ourselves or those we love. So, let’s take a look at some positive ways to turn change into growth.

Fixed versus Growth Mindset

In her bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck describes the theory and research supporting the benefits of maintaining a growth mindset over a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is carrying the belief that things like intelligence, talent, and performance are fixed either by our internal or external limitations. Examples of internal limitations are such things as genetics, physical characteristics, or mental capacities. External limitations are those things that we believe the world or our circumstances will not allow. We may believe that others won’t allow us to change, progress or try new things because of our age, heritage, sex, or social position.

A fixed mindset is characterized by such phrases as, “I could never do that.” “People like me (age, heritage, race, sex, etc.) just don’t do that.” “My company would never allow that.” With very few exceptions, statements like this are almost always false limiting beliefs. In fact, throughout history, all progress began with a person who believed that things were not fixed but could change for the better. At a time when women weren’t allowed to vote, Susan B. Anthony believed that women were citizens and deserved to vote. When racial inequality was still present 100 years after the Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr. believed that there could be equality between the races. And before the U.S. had a viable space program, John F. Kennedy declared that the U.S. would put a man on the moon. It is with a growth mindset that positive change is brought about.

A growth mindset embraces the belief that our intelligence, our skills, our circumstances, and our performance are not fixed but can grow with time and effort. A fixed mindset views losses or setbacks as failures, but a growth mindset views losses or failures as opportunities for growth. In fact, Nelson Mandela’s quote epitomizes the growth mindset, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” Maintaining a growth mindset is essential not only when dealing with setbacks but also when managing change. However, having a growth mindset is not enough by itself to manage midlife change. We must also follow a process.

4 Ways to Turn Change into Growth

Here are four ways to turn midlife change into midlife growth:

  1. Change in Motivation – Personality and adult development studies show that a change in motivation is normal. During midlife transition, adults will generally gain more confidence in their inner resources and power to deal with change. Also, it will be natural for midlife adults to shift their interest and resources towards leaving a legacy for their family or others. Leveraging this natural change in motivation can make growth during midlife change come more easily.
  2. Personality traits – Studies show that during midlife change, traits that are related to our ability to do our job, fit in and getting along with others will change. Our agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability are expected to increase starting in young adulthood and continue with midlife change. Recognize that the growth in these personality traits is actually skills to help cope with change. [restrict]
  3. Cognitive capacities – Studies have shown that adults in their midlife, in comparison with younger and older adults, tend to perceive themselves and are perceived by others as having more status and responsibility, are able to use their intelligence more effectively, and integrate communication and learning skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening). Think about how your status and responsibilities have grown since you were a young adult. Then consider how you have developed greater ability to use your intelligence and communication skills successfully in a variety of situations.
  4. Strategies for well-being (emotion regulation) – There is a general expectation that adults in midlife are better at socializing, better mentors and have higher control of our impulses and emotions. Studies have confirmed that midlife adults are better able than young adults to maintain internal balance during stressful periods of time. Because midlife change can be stressful, use your increased coping skills and ability to regulate emotions as a tool to help you stay calm while working through changes.

Midlife change can certainly be challenging. The good news is that with age and experience, we have developed greater skills to problem solve and adapt. It is likely we weren’t even aware that we developed these skills they happened gradually over time. When we look deep inside and reflect back to our years as a young adult, it becomes more apparent how we have grown. Leveraging these skills to turn change into growth will make coping with midlife change easier and more fulfilling.

The Growth Process

Midlife change is a type of loss meaning that change signals that the ways of the past are gone and lost forever. Adjusting to loss of any kind requires a grieving process. In some cases, the loss is real as in the loss of a job, relationship, or even a loved one passing. However, other times, the loss is more of a change in perception about our selves or the world such as “I’m no longer young” or “This company isn’t the same anymore.” To effectively adjust to the loss that change brings, applying the grieving process can be helpful.

To fully accept the loss associated with midlife change, Psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes a process of five stages of grieving described as denial, anger, negotiation, depression, and acceptance. Denial occurs when we realize something is happening, but we attempt to ignore it denying reality. The anger stage occurs when we start blaming others for what is happening and vent our frustration on them. Negotiation occurs when we try to bargain with God or others to return things to the way they were. Depression occurs when our attempts to deny and negotiate have failed and we realize there is no escaping reality but still cannot find the way to transition. And finally, acceptance takes place as we start to lean in, accept the changes, and do the necessary inner work.

The importance of the stages of grief in midlife change is understanding that change is a process that involves our thoughts and emotions. While midlife change may not feel like a grieving process, it is a process that requires changing thoughts, emotions, and even our identity to some degree. The key to successful change lies in our ability to 1) be aware that change is occurring, and 2) make sure we don’t get stuck in any of the stages. Ignoring the change process is a sure way to make sure we get stuck. So, most importantly, acknowledge that midlife change requires a process and take time to nurture it.

Action Steps (15 minutes)

  1. Grab your journal, either paper or electronic, and clearly identify and articulate the change that is occurring in your life. If there are multiple changes occurring, make a list of all of them.
  2. Choose what feels like the most important area of change. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and deny, get angry, bargain, negotiate, cry, gripe, and complain as much as you want.
  3. When the timer goes off, write in your journal and say out loud, “Can’t change it!”
  4. Next, write and say, “I accept that _____________ (describe the change) is occurring. I will now focus my thoughts and efforts on finding opportunities to positively adapt and grow as a person!”
  5. Set another timer for 5 minutes. Jot down any ideas that come to mind for positive ways of dealing with the change.

Summary

Midlife change will happen multiple times in our life, and it is important to learn the skill of embracing change as a growth opportunity. Focusing on the danger in the crisis alone keeps us from seeing the opportunity for something better. Adapting positively to change is both an attitude and a skill. The attitude required to positively adapt to change is a growth mindset. The skills required for positive change are mature motivation, positive personality traits, skilled cognitive capacities, and stable emotion regulation. Change and growth require a process that is similar to grieving because change evokes a sense of loss whether the loss is real or perceived. Using the grieving process to adapt to the loss created by change can be helpful for processing emotions and arriving at acceptance. The sooner we arrive at acceptance, the sooner we can look for positive ways to turn change into growth.

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References

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

Kubler-Ross, E., Kessler, D. (2005). On Grief and Grieving. New York: Scribner.

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Bruce Fleck

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