The Unraveling

Introduction

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?

Reading

Midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:

I’m not screwing around. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.

Many scholars have proposed that the struggle at midlife is about the fear that comes with our first true glimpse of mortality. Again, wishful thinking. Midlife is not about the fear of death. Midlife is death. Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth.

Sometimes when the “tear the walls down and submit to death” thing overwhelms me, I find it easier to think about midlife as midlove. After two decades of research on shame, authenticity, and belonging, I’m convinced that loving ourselves is the most difficult and courageous thing we’ll ever do. Maybe we’ve been given a finite amount of time to find that self-love, and midlife is the halfway mark. It’s time to let go of the shame and embrace love.

From “The Midlife Unraveling” by Brene Brown

Sermon

“Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.”

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.

The Journey

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.

Foreshadowing

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):

“In my late thirties, my intuition had tried to warn me about the possibility of a midlife struggle. I experienced internal rumblings about the meaning and purpose of life. I was incredibly busy proving myself in all of my different roles (mother, professor, researcher, writer, friend, sister, daughter, wife), so much so that it was difficult for any emotion other than fear to grab my attention. However, I do remember flashes of wondering if I’d always be too afraid to let myself be truly seen and known.

But intuition is a heart thing, and until recently I had steamrolled over most of my heart’s caution signs with intellectualizing. In my head, I had always responded to the idea of “midlife angst” by scoffing and coming up with some politically and therapeutically correct way of saying that midlife whining is pathetic. The entire concept of the midlife crisis is bull. If you’re struggling at midlife it’s because you haven’t suffered or sacrificed enough. Quit pissing and moaning, work harder, and suck it up.

As it turns out, I was right about one thing – to call what happens at midlife a “crisis” is bull. A crisis is an intense, short-lived, acute, easily identifiable, and defining life event that can be controlled and managed.

Midlife is not a crisis. Midlife is an unraveling.”

from “The Midlife Unraveling” by Brene Brown

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.

Domino Effects

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:

“I don’t think midlife/midlove is on a schedule. I was forty-one when it hit, but I have friends and I’ve interviewed people who found themselves smack dab in the middle of the unraveling as early as their mid-thirties, and as late as their fifties. The only firm timing for midlife/midlove is that it ends only when we physically die. This is not something you can treat them dismiss. The search for self-love and acceptance is like most of the new ailments that hit at midlife – it’s a chronic condition. It may start in midlife, but we have to deal with it for the rest of our lives.

By definition, you can’t control or manage an unraveling. You can’t cure the midlife unraveling with control any more than the acquisitions, accomplishments, and alpha-parenting of our thirties cured our deep longing for permission to slow down and be imperfect.”

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.

“If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quite, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend everything is okay.

We go to work and unload the dishwasher and love our families and get our hair cut. Everything looks pretty normal on the outside. But on the inside we’re barely holding it together. We want to reach out, but judgement (the currency of the midlife realm) holds us back. It’s a terrible case of cognitive dissonance – the psychologically painful process of trying to hold two competing truths in a mid that was engineered to constantly reduce conflict and minimize dissension (e.g., I’m falling apart and need to slow down and ask for help. Only need, flaky, unstable people fall apart and ask for help).

from “The Midlife Unraveling” by Brene Brown

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.

"Remember this, my darling - remember this. What you achieve on earth is only a small part of the deal. If there's a secret I could whisper, and that you could keep, it would be that it's all inside you already. Every single thing you need. Earth is just a stopover. A kind of game. Make it a star game. If I could give you a gift, it would be to teach you how to stay free inside that game, to find the glory inside yourself, beyond the roles and the drama, so you can dance the dance of the game of life with a little more rhythm, a little more abandon, a little more shaking-those-hips." by Annie Kagan
"very soon you're going to watch things fall into place after watching them fall apart for so long."
"Start over my darling. Be brave enough to find the life you want and courageous enough to chase it. Then start over and love yourself the way you were always meant to. "by Madalyn Beck
"Breathe, darling. This is just a chapter. It's not your whole story." by S. C. Lourie
This one was actually my phone background for some time over the past year

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.

"One day you will tell your story of how you've overcome what you're going through now, and it will become part of someone else's survival guide."

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.

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