Living a life driven by obligation often means the individual gets lost in priority. How does a life of “shoulds” become a life of intention? In the words of Brene Brown, the unraveling is “a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are.” So what happens next?
Those words of Brene Brown’s we heard in the reading are simplistically beautiful. But nothing about morphing from what you were into what you are to be is simple. Shedding the tough skin of armor, carefully built over the years to survive is needed to thrive.
For those of you not familiar, Brene Brown is an acclaimed researcher and author on courage, shame, vulnerability, and empathy, and an overall bringer of awesomeness in my opinion. I will be referencing excerpts of Brown’s complete article, “The Midlife Unraveling,” throughout this service; it’s just that good (again, my opinion). If you’re interested, I encourage you to read it in its entirety.
I grew up not wanting to disappoint people. For whatever reason, it drove almost all of my actions. I tried not to get into trouble, tried to follow the rules, you know basically tried to be what I thought people wanted me to be.
Secretly though, I envied those troublemakers. I wanted to be just like them! They seemed so free, and appeared to be having so much more fun than I was. So I befriended them from a safe distance and went about my cautious, safe way of life, careful not to get caught up in any of their shenanigans.
I studied, generally got good grades, didn’t party (well, until college, but that’s another story). I took care of people. I often didn’t think about what I wanted if it meant someone else couldn’t get what they wanted. I continued evolving myself under a blanket of shoulds.
I married fairly young by today’s standards. I was 23 when I said “I do,” even though looking back I really had no idea who I was at the time. I had hardly been exposed to anything in the world outside of my small little corner. I had no idea what it meant to commit to someone for a lifetime, because I hadn’t even figured out how to commit to myself.
I remember when I was in my mid-to-late 30s, sitting across a lunch table from a friend about 30 years my senior, and listening to the story of her personal transformation in her 40s. How she uprooted her life and focused on herself – her wants, her needs, and her desires. I was in awe. And I felt a gnawing feeling in my gut. A tugging in every fiber of my body. I knew something was coming. I felt like I was living in a moment of foreshadowing.
I wanted this change to happen, but I was terrified to do the work; terrified of what I would lose. I wanted the sense of peace and self-love my friend had achieved, but I didn’t want to deal with the consequences. I didn’t want to lose anything I had so carefully built and preserved. I wanted to be blissfully happy and content with myself, but I didn’t want to change in order to earn my prize. I wasn’t happy with where I was in life, but I was doing everything I was “supposed” to be doing, so wasn’t that what mattered most? (Note the air quotes in “supposed.”)
Brene Brown unveils her own journey leading up to her unraveling in a way so close to my heart that I could not have written it better myself. Aside from the references to her profession, it’s like we’re the same person in this passage (edited slightly to make it PG):
Arrival of Change
I continued feeling like pending change was dangling in front of me for years. It wasn’t until I underwent a significant life change – a divorce – that I couldn’t ignore the gnawing anymore. Change had arrived. The gnawing had morphed into a scream punching my repeatedly in the face. I was not who I was designed to be. I was not living my true self. I was not serving my place in the universe as I was meant to serve.
Going through the painful grief associated with a divorce not only freed me to discover myself, it flat out required it. I could not be the same person as a single parent as I was a married mother. I could not be the same person as a single, middle-aged woman as I was a married woman. Because, the fact of the matter is, in the rules I built for myself throughout my life, getting divorced wasn’t an option. Ending a relationship where you say it’s forever didn’t fit my image of a good girl doing what she was supposed to.
But the moment I realized divorce was the right option for my family meant I had to reconfigure what was right in my rulebook. How I defined my barometer of right had to change. Because I knew to my core it was the right choice, for me, for my kids, for my ex, and for us as a family. Rectifying that ending a marriage was what I should do with my previous expectations of marriage was jarring to my soul. In a really good way.
Changing one rule caused a domino effect in my life. It forced me to look at all of my rules, examine all the armor I had built over the years and evaluate my shoulds. My shoulds moved away from what I thought was right to what I knew was right – and knowing came from a combination of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual places. I went from using external, often fictitious yardsticks to internal gauges of what was right for me as an individual, as a parent, and as a human living interconnectedly in this world.
I know enough now to know there is so much more that I don’t know. The world is evolving. Life circumstances are constantly changing. I know this evolution of mine is here to stay; I’ve only just begun.. My midlife/midlove is now and will forever be a process. I am a multi-dimensional human who has a right to change when change calls.
According to Brown, the unraveling can happen at any time. But when the call to let go of shame and fear hits, it’s time to embrace love. She writes:
Asking for Help
Doing the work is hard, no doubt; I can attest to that. Letting go of fear and shame is icky and messy and super uncomfortable. And what makes it harder is once you start, you can’t stop. You may pause so you don’t randomly cry while picking out produce at the grocery store or some other socially questionable situation, but once you’re on the ride there is no getting off. At least not for me. And that meant I needed support. From others. And to learn how to ask for help. That is not second nature for me.
So one of the first things I had to learn throughout this process was how to ask for help. Something inside me said I couldn’t do this alone, and I didn’t deserve to do this alone. Learning to ask for help was one of the first gifts I gave myself during my unraveling. I’m still not a pro, but thankfully I have surrounded myself with amazing human beings who will call me out – either gently or blatantly – when I try to do something too big alone.
Nuggets of wisdom
In the digital world we live in, one of the most consistent streams of encouragement I received from my wonderful humans was in the form of quick messages, reminders, check-ins, and often times these came in the form of memes. I’d like to share a few of these digital encouragements from loved ones that reminded me that I was worth unraveling for. The quick, immediate, and easily referenceable words brought me repeated comfort and affirmation to continue on.
I’m still not great at being vulnerable, but I’m aware of it and that’s progress to me. I still have armor that I use to possibly more than I would like to admit. And I don’t want to lose it completely – surviving in the world requires some shielding from time to time. But I’m evolving. And it’s losing a lot of the ickiness so I consider that a win. I’m becoming more comfortable with myself all the time. I take pauses to understand what I want, what I’m learning, what I’m modeling for my kids.
I’d like to close with one more of those memes – one that kept me going when I wasn’t sure I was worth the work. I’ve learned that helping others is part of my essence. And sometimes remembering that is just the push I need.
All of us here this morning have survived our worst days. And we’re all evolving because we did. May we continue to do so with an open heart, an open mind, and redefining our shoulds.
May it be so, blessed be, and amen.