And so the skirmish began. There I was, heckling myself on the way to the bathroom at three a.m., groggy, feeling like I was on the front line without any weapons. It was two weeks before Christmas and I was headlong into the food and drink revelry. Chips and queso! Wine and cheese! French fries! Candies and desserts! I just kept saying yes to all the decadence. It was heavenly until I spontaneously touched my belly in the middle of the night and realized that I’d have to wear yoga pants until I shed enough layers to button my jeans again. In years past, that realization would’ve sent me on a bonafide hunger strike. Today, however, I simply thrash myself with contempt and disgust. In some twisted way, I consider that an improvement.
I suppose just being aware of the mental guerilla warfare is progress, because for most of my 52 years I’ve lived with intense self-censure. And it’s not just food-related. I can berate myself for being human—things like letting someone down, saying something stupid, or being imperfect in the slightest way. I’ve spent massive amounts of energy judging and censoring myself, and it’s finally dawning on me how incredibly poisonous that shit is.
A couple of weeks ago, I had an idea for a personal psychological experiment: “What if I gave up self-criticism and self-judgment for one week? What if I accepted myself unconditionally, regardless of my performance or appearance?”
I know, it sounds far-fetched. But I made a halfhearted commitment to try it. What would happen if I told myself that it was okay that I’m in a career transition again in my early fifties, that I’m not a failure because I haven’t had the steady, one-track 30-year career that others have had (and are getting ready to retire from)? What if I didn’t judge my workout at the gym as “lame” and instead told myself that I was pretty bitchin’ for even showing up? What if I let myself off the hook for the food I had to throw out of my refrigerator last week, or my failure to adequately communicate with a group of people I’m supposedly leading?
Though I’m only 31 months in to my fifties, I’m realizing that one of the biggest benefits of this decade is that I’m less inclined to take peoples’ crap and more likely to let the small stuff go. Great. Now I just need to learn how to quit taking my own crap. On any given day, at any given time, regardless of how I look on the outside, there’s a good chance I’m saying to myself, “Go to jail! Go directly to jail! Do not pass Go; do not collect $200.” I need to remember to stash some of those yellow “get out of jail free” cards next time I play Monopoly. That way I could walk to the mirror and hold one up when I’m hating on myself. (You think I’m kidding, don’t you?)
In my twenties and thirties I thought I had all the time in the world, and I was fixated on doing things “right.” In my forties I started accepting that I wasn’t going to live forever. And now that I’m in my fifties, I want to stretch out in my own skin more than ever, and embrace what I think I was put here to do. But one glance at the clock confirms that I’d better get busy. I’ve buried my grandmother, my mother, and my ex-husband. I’m getting membership offers from AARP. My oldest granddaughter just lost her first tooth. Clearly, I don’t have as much time as I thought I did.
It’s said that the forties are the old age of youth, and the fifties are the youth of old age. Being on the whippersnapper end of the senior spectrum means that most of us are still young and healthy enough to be solidly in the game.
And that, for me, is the $64k question: what does it mean to be in the game, and what am I waiting for? My circumstances are probably never going to be more ideal to do what’s in my heart to do.
So where to begin?
Somehow I think that my self-compassion experiment is a good first step. I can temporarily stop bullying myself, knowing that I can always go back to it if I decide that charity isn’t working for me.
So here’s to lightening our loads and flying higher while we still can. Here’s to discovering—as my yoga teacher would say—the balance between effort and ease, an equilibrium that empowers us to give up on the life we thought we were supposed to live, and zealously living the one that’s right in front of us.
Screw caution and fear. I’m ready to do this.