midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “happiness”

Man in the Mirror: ‘Compare In, Not Out’

In the substance abuse therapy group I co-led as an intern, the group leader would tell members to “compare in, not out” when he detected a member analyzing whose addiction was worse than another’s, assessing who among members engaged in more risky or reckless behaviors or seeking salacious details about others’ misfortunes and misadventures.

The leader’s message to the addicts was as clear as the typical pre-school teacher’s emphasizing individual responsibility and self-control to easily distracted and influenced children focused on others: “Worry about yourself.”

It’s a simple message, but one that takes discipline and introspection to implement, whether for the purpose of changing addictive behaviors or many other goals or pursuits in life in which the temptation is to compare ourselves to the status, abilities, fortune and accomplishments of others. The era of social media has compounded the phenomenon of “comparing out” through the instantaneous access we have into the windows of others’ lives – their new jobs, kids’ achievements, lively social gatherings, adventurous vacations and other things of which to be envious.

We would be more satisfied with our lives if we would “compare in, not out.” To me, “comparing in” means evaluating myself according to my assessment of my own Man in Mirror 2potential, my ability to strive for and attain goals I believe are worth pursuing, being happy with what I have at any given time rather than desiring what I don’t, and living life in a way that makes me feel positive about my actions, conduct and treatment of others, even though it will be far from perfect.

Still, living life without “comparing out” is a challenge for me, as I imagine it is for nearly everyone who hasn’t mastered some form of meditation or inner peace.

Right now, I am struggling against “comparing out” as I begin my second summer as a seasonal tennis instructor at a large beach resort tennis club, a “gig economy” interlude as I make a career transition to counseling.

Among the instructors, several of whom are year-round employees, it is apparent that I am ranked lower in the pecking order, understandably and justifiably as a seasonal staff member, similar to last summer. I know what I have to do to be successful is to conduct each clinic and private lesson to the best of my ability, stay upbeat and high-energy, engage clients in a friendly, interested and courteous manner, and work cooperatively with the staff as part of a team. But I still find it hard to resist comparing the assignments and the number of on-court teaching hours I get – which determines income — to others. Such “comparing out,” and the ruminations it causes, only makes me feel worse; on the other hand, “comparing in” when I give my all for a lesson or clinic, or assist a fellow instructor when needed, makes me feel positive.

My career transition from public relations to counseling is another area where I have to fight the lure of “comparing out” and instead “compare in,” basing my assessment on what I deem is fulfilling and achieves a sense of purpose. Though there is potential for income growth with the establishment of an independent counseling practice in the future, my first job in the profession likely will pay about half of what I was making in the public relations position I left. Eyeing the reality of my pending job search, it is challenging to avoid “comparing out” to other professionals in my age group who may be at the height of their earning potential and aren’t worried about scraping by. That’s when it’s important to “compare in” and realize I chose this path for a reason and I am fully responsible for my decision and the outcome.

“Comparing in” is difficult because it puts the onus squarely on us for our own successes and failures, our current condition in life, our decisions and behaviors, and, perhaps most importantly, the way we feel about ourselves and our own satisfaction and happiness. When we compare ourselves only to our own standards, goals, morals, ethics and beliefs, we strip away self-delusions and rationalizations and are forced to see only the “Man in the Mirror,” our only true compass.

Midlife Men and Divorce: Risky Business

For the capstone class – the 22nd! – of my 5 ½-year master’s degree program in clinical mental health counseling, I had to choose a narrow “clinical population” for a research project. Somewhat shamelessly, self-servingly and unimaginatively, I essentially chose myself: a midlife man who has experienced divorce.

The findings were not pretty for the divorced midlife’s male’s future, though I acknowledge I intentionally selected research that highlighted why this population would be candidates for mental health treatment.DivorceHeartPhoto

Research has come to varying and sometimes contrasting conclusions on divorce and midlife men (roughly age 35 to 60), and mitigating factors are difficult to account for. However, numerous studies have shown that midlife men who have experienced marital breakdown have had greater propensity to become depressed, anxious or develop other psychiatric disorders; abuse alcohol or drugs; suffer from higher rates of illness, earlier death and suicide; harbor anger; live with loneliness and social phobia; qualify for work disability; and experience lower levels of physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and happiness and self-esteem.

And the majority of time, men aren’t the ones pulling the trigger on divorce, which studies show is one of the most psychologically distressing events in life. Research indicates that wives frustrated by an inability to improve their troubled marriages may be more likely to end them, with one study concluding that husbands initiate only a quarter to a third of marital separations.

These are research-based outcomes of divorce that pose challenges for the midlife man:

  • Recently divorced men were more likely than other groups to receive psychiatric treatment and be prescribed medication for mental health disorders. One study concluded that major depression was nine times higher among men who had been separated or divorced compared to stably married and single men.
  • Remarriage in midlife brings with it a whole new set of complications and negotiations that cause stress, indicating that marriage alone does not prevent mental and physical problems. One study found that remarriage was associated with an increased risk of depression compared with men who remained divorced.
  • Men often rely on their wives for their social lives and support for their health and emotional well-being, as women generally have stronger social support networks. Without their marriage, men can become prone to social isolation and loneliness.
  • A common dynamic of divorce is “non-acceptance” of marital dissolution. The ongoing feelings of attachment are associated with depression. The reality for some divorced fathers is continuing angry disagreements with and hostility toward their former wife a decade or more after breakup.
  • Once divorced, men’s physical health can decline, as wives often assume a role for monitoring and influencing their partner’s health behaviors.
  • While women experiencing divorce were at higher risk for mood and anxiety disorders, men were at higher risk for new substance abuse disorders. One study indicated that divorced 46-year-old men comprised a disproportionately higher share of binge and heavy drinkers compared to other groups of the same age.
  • The mortality risk for inconsistently married men (those who had divorced and remarried) was more than 40 percent greater than for consistently married men, and men who were currently separated or divorced had a mortality risk 2.5 times greater than consistently married men.
  • Men who had been divorced had a higher prevalence of work disability many years after the initial divorce.

As for me, I was the prototype of the midlife divorced male: separated at 42 and divorced at 45 in an action initiated by my ex-wife, with two pre-adolescent kids. I also have remarried, and while my wife Amy has been a wonderful social and emotional support, as the research indicated about wives, the second union has inevitably come with some stress due to new family dynamics and inter-relationships, financial complications and psychological adjustments.

I have avoided many of the pitfalls of the midlife divorced male, such as substance abuse or physical health decline, but did not escape divorce unscathed. When first threatened with divorce and teetering on the brink, I suffered from depression that affected my appetite, sleep, energy level and concentration. I struggled with non-acceptance when the reality of pending divorce flooded me like an unstoppable tidal wave. I lost a big chunk of my social connections and outlets. Worst of all, it was hard not to feel like a failure at something so important, and as a letdown to my kids.

Researchers have come to different conclusions over whether such a thing as a “midlife crisis” really exists, or whether it is a pop culture phenomenon, especially for men. But there’s no doubt that midlife is the time men walk through the landmines of marital upheaval, and when they are most prone to its potentially harmful and long-lasting mental health effects.

 

Is the Grass Greener?

I typically believe the grass is greener on the other side, just over the next hill. It may be self-delusional or wishful thinking, but it’s my nature, however torturous it can be, to believe there’s something better.

Such thinking can be the curse of people who are never satisfied with life and what they grassfield_greenerhave, always seeking, never arriving. Or it can be the motivation that leads to risk-taking, improvement and growth.

I have been seeking greener grass in my career through a marathon five-year journey, and now that I’m on the brink of making a transition from public relations to mental health counseling after what will be 22 graduate courses and two years of internships — and one collapsed full-time job along with its reliable income under all that weight — I am pretty confident that the fescue indeed will be brighter.

I also have been thinking that as I launch my new career in 2017 – which will include, ideally and ultimately, my own independent practice – that a new geographic location may offer greener pastures than the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis where I have been stationed for 28 years, business-, lifestyle-, scenery- and culture-wise.

My thinking is that the time to make a geographic change would coincide with my career transition, or at least relatively early in my new career, before becoming established in one place.

I also will be 54, far into midlife, by the time I graduate the counseling program. If I go somewhere else, I want to be young enough to become engaged in the fabric of the new community occupationally, socially, civically, recreationally and other ways, not just to live out retirement (which I don’t know if I will ever want to reach anyway).

I have already had people advise me against moving, telling me essentially that the grass is not greener, that the desire for something fresh and new is merely a cover for a compulsion to escape.

The idea of moving is complicated by several factors, primarily family concerns. Some factors I believe are manageable: I don’t have a big fear of change; the move wouldn’t necessarily be irreversible if it didn’t work out; I believe I could make new friends and keep old ones with some effort; I am confident I can earn a living and be successful starting a business, though research is needed.

But family, that is the hardest one to gauge. I’m a new empty-nester. Both of my kids are attending Maryland colleges. My daughter will graduate the same weekend I will in 2017. She may go to France to teach English; she may follow her boyfriend to an engineering job in Texas or beyond; or she may stay in Maryland. My son will have at least two years left. My extended family is small and scattered.

My wife’s family and her roots are in Maryland. She doesn’t want to leave. I understand. Many would argue that factor alone should kibosh the whole idea. And perhaps it will. Or perhaps there could be room for compromise and negotiation as events unfold and more is discovered.

There’s no doubt that the belief that the grass could be greener can complicate life and cause angst. But it’s also a belief that gives those prone to seeking an excitement about the unknown, about a new experience, about what could be around that next corner, over that next hill. Will it be emerald green, or drought-baked brown?

The Rewarding Work of Helping People Change Their Lives

Until you work in a mental health setting, you never realize the prevalence of depression, anxiety, mood and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, trauma, substance abuse, paranoia, anger issues, family dysfunction and other mental health problems in our society.

In the midst of a career transition from public relations to counseling, I just completed the first year of my internship at an outpatient mental health clinic that served Medicaid recipients for my counseling degree program. I counseled people with all those issues. All took medications as part of their treatment. Therapy was the other half of their recovery and managing their symptoms.

Gaining better awareness of ourselves and understanding our current behaviors and how the past may have affected them can be a lifelong and complex process. At the risk of oversimplification, recovery and a more healthy and satisfying life for people suffering from mental health issues (excluding those without severe mental illness or psychosis) comes down to several key factors:

  • Desire and readiness to change

  • Commitment to take actions

  • Ability to implement new ideas or behaviors

  • Willingness to accept reality

  • Fortitude to replace negative or destructive thoughts with more positive ones

I found clients were able to change their thinking and behaviors, and as a result, their feelings and emotions, to varying degrees and on different timetables. One client reported she had consciously changed a negative pattern of thinking to a more positive one within a few weeks, and as a result had significantly reduced stress and anxiety and slept better. Her entire presentation changed from forlorn and dragging to bright and eager. That told me clients had the ability to make rapid and meaningful changes. When you observe someone change like that, it’s a beautiful thing.

Others struggled with the same issues of anxiety, anger or dependency for months with small improvements and back slides. They had walls that were harder to penetrate, built over lifetimes of learned behaviors, ingrained messages and adaptations to survive circumstances.

Overall, the internship provided a fascinating window into the human experience and human behavior through my adult and child clients and their families. It was a privilege to get to know them, and difficult to tell them I had to leave when my internship ended.

The internship also taught me how little I know about mental health disorders and strategies to help people who suffer from them. There’s so much to learn about the science and art of mental health and therapy. And about how to be comfortable just being with people, showing authentic caring, developing a connection and earning their trust. But I’m learning, and excited about expanding my knowledge, getting better at being helpful and more courageous about challenging people to dive deeper below the surface to confront the roots of their problems. All signs indicate it will be a rewarding new career. I’m glad I took that gamble.

Friends

It takes a conscious effort to maintain friends. It’s not something I’m necessarily good at, and always something I say I want to do better. It’s one of those New Year’s Resolution kind of things.

You have to care for relationships, like watering a garden – friends as well as family members and intimate partners – or else they shrivel up and die, or at least lose all the energy that makes them worthwhile to maintain.

That’s why in recent years I have made occasional pilgrimages from Maryland to NewNYTrip_SneeAndBuddies York, from where I just returned for a weekend visit with old friends. Beforehand, I often go through the tired litany of reasons in my head debating whether I should make the trip: Am I too busy to spend the time? Do I want to spend the money on a train? Do I want to spend five hours traveling each way on a cheaper but cramped bus? What if we hit New Jersey or New York traffic? What a nightmare!

And then, I always decide to go. And I’m always glad I did.

Last weekend, I met my roommate from college in Manhattan for lunch and a walk to his office, re-acquainting and catching up on his family and professional life. Then I spent the rest of the weekend with my roommate from my post-college sportswriter job in Florida, bumming around the city and the suburbs, scoring some free biscotti from a student he teaches whose family owns a Greenwich Village Italian restaurant. On Sunday, we convened with another old Florida journalist roommate for another trip into the city.

It was great to see three old friends and reconnect. Spending time and surrounding ourselves with good friends, people you can confide in and care about and who support you, is one of the keys to happiness, especially as we get older and maniacal career pursuit may no longer carry the same value or satisfaction.

I’m pledging to keep in better touch with and visit friends – local and distant — more often to keep the relationships alive and healthy. The only stumbling block is excuses that don’t hold water, but I’m sure all of us make them and believe in them. It’s an easy goal to say; taking action, as in most things in life, is the challenge.

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