How the simple act of acceptance saved me from my midlife crisis

Mar 18, 2016 at 7:00 p.m. ET
Image: Anton Glaeser

I am a fighter, energetic, a survivor on a number of fronts. I often have a clear idea of what I want and how things should be done, and I am strong in pursuing my convictions. That sounds quite good, actually — like an achiever’s recipe, right? I thought so, too, until midlife came to my rescue. Yes, it took me that long.

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We all have our individual paths and timing to understanding the truths of life. Doers are strong-willed and usually hard nuts to crack, but in case you haven’t learned your lesson by then, believe me, midlife provides a pretty good opportunity.

Midlife has been a real challenge marathon for me, and mostly it boils down to the inescapable confrontation with the fleeting nature of life. There is no escape as transience looks at me every time I meet myself in the mirror.

One day I stood in my younger son’s bedroom after he had just left for university. The empty nest is a tough one to swallow — gone, full stop. It really felt like something was dying within me. I called my mom, crying my eyes out. She has always had words of wisdom and consolation but not that day. “What? He is at university already? Oh, I thought he was still in middle school! Gosh, time is flying.”

Can it get any worse? I felt like I just lost my mother as well. With the confident doer in me crumbling, I had no more comfort zone to retreat to. I felt terribly lost, scared and, finally, broken open.

This was a turning point. My perspective started to shift in view of my diminishing power, while my horizon widened in an unexpected way. More and more, I found myself reacting differently to familiar situations.

It all started with a misunderstanding. A good friend upset me with an insensitive remark. In my usual taking-charge way, I approached him courageously, sharing my hurt and disappointment. I'd always hated fight and disconnection and would bend over backward to find a basis for new understanding, convinced it was the right thing to do — not anymore

Right in the middle of yet another attempt to clear the air between us, I suddenly stopped. A new kind of need had surfaced, deeper than the wish to feel connected. It was my need for inner freedom.

How to get there?

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It didn’t take long before I could see the one path I’ve never even considered as a solution so far: acceptance. The mere sound of the word had a soothing effect on my contracted solar plexus.

Acceptance: It is what it is — and it’s not what it’s not. It’s OK. The definition emerged within me like a ray of light.

As I sat with it for a while, it felt like rocks were lifted off my shoulders — the rock of feeling responsible for other people’s happiness and the rock of feeling dependent on their approval. It’s simply not true.

The gift of acceptance urges us to establish some healthy boundaries around conflicts, people and, most important, our own ambitions. If acceptance is not on our options menu, we are prone to exploiting ourselves and others, perfect preconditions for burnout and depression.

Acceptance is the direct path to peace. It doesn’t excuse wrong, but it humbly embraces personal limitations. Acceptance creates the space and calm for which doers don’t naturally have the patience. It’s an opposed energy requiring more receptive qualities and trust, something typically lacking in survivor mentalities.

I still fight my old demons at times, when they try to pull me into a futile battle that is not mine to fight. I usually find my way out by remembering I am not responsible for other people’s behavior. I choose to have faith in the face of all the worst-case scenarios the doer within me habitually creates. It gets easier with time, as I experience more and more situations where my well-meaning active involvement may even have prevented the perfect solution from emerging.

By consciously inviting acceptance into my life, I give myself permission not to act but to observe more often, aiming to do this with love and compassion. Of course, I am happy to help when needed and able, but I remain committed to accepting my own limitations and those of others.

Life feels so much healthier this way. Being free to embrace and communicate my boundaries is incredibly empowering. I have never felt this sense of gratitude, especially when reaping the benefits of my chosen nonaction.

Sometimes I catch myself regretting it took me so long to understand, but when these should-haves and what-ifs start flooding me, I now remember: 

Breathe in, “It is what it is,” and breathe out, “It’s not what it’s not.“

Then I smile, knowing that it’s OK.

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