I’m living the last year of my 40s.

Yesterday I was in a reflective mood and I thought about all the big “ah ha’s” I’ve had in this past decade. These were huge, monumental insights and reframes that I wish I would have known in my teens, 20’s, and 30’s:

1. A marriage won’t improve by nagging.

It improves by focusing on your partner’s strengths, and by being vulnerable and not being afraid of emotional intimacy. John and I had some rough years; I would tell him all the things he didn’t do right (for instance he traveled 90% of the time). In my self-centeredness I couldn’t see that the way he showed his love to me and the kids was to work hard to provide us with food, cars, and a home. His devotion allowed me to be a stay at home mom.

When my kids were teenagers I went to grad school to study counseling psychology. That’s how I discovered all the ways I pushed John away. Even though I wanted emotional closeness, I discovered I was terrified of it (due to some boundary violations that happened when I was younger). All the years I accused John of not wanting emotional intimacy, it was really me! There was a time I tried so hard to connect with him, and couldn’t, that I feared our marriage would end. Now, we can’t get enough of each other. We are each other’s best friends; spending time together is what we both crave. So here’s an example of a real scenario; how it used to look and how it looks now:

Then: I noticed John spending a lot of time on his computer so I berated him, telling him that he never spent time with me. He felt he was letting me down, like he couldn’t make me happy, so he pulled away and towards an area where he felt competent: his work.

Now: “Hey John, I’m feeling disconnected, are we good?” He can easily move towards my vulnerability by coming close and spending time together. It’s not as easy as it sounds so a therapist skilled in Emotionally Focused Therapy may be the best investment you ever make!

2. My worth is not based on how attractive (or sexually appealing I am).

For whatever reasons, I thought my value was based on beauty, a sexy body, cute hair, tight jeans with attention grabbing decals on the back pockets, and perfect makeup. Even though I was married, I thought tight shirts, cut low, is how I was supposed to present myself to the world. It’s not that I would have been unfaithful to my husband, but I didn’t know I had any worth other than how physically desirable I could appear. Isn’t that crazy? I didn’t believe anyone, male or female, could like me based on who I was, inside. It took an amazing mentor to help me see, first, that this is how I viewed myself, and second, that people could be attracted to who I was as a human (with all my silliness, quirks, passions, interests, and love of other people).

Nowadays you’ll find me in conservative dress slacks, and buttoned up blouses. I’m not a prude, I just don’t think I need to draw attention to my physical appearance in order to get validation.

3. The way people treat you may be about them, not you.

I used to allow the behavior of others come to mean something about me. So if someone gave me a dirty look, I assumed I must be deficient in some way, instead of considering the possibility that the person might have indigestion. One time I shared something vulnerable with a friend. She just stared at me and I felt bad. “Oh, I shouldn’t have told her that, she must think I’m a freak.” Nowadays if that happened, I would think, “She’s apparently uncomfortable with vulnerability. I wonder why?”

In my book I share this story: “Back when I was selling scrapbook supplies from my home, I had an experience with giving too much credence to someone’s negative response to me. I had sold supplies to a customer, and invested in supporting her emotionally; I knew she was dying of cancer. I went out of my way to give her freebie album supplies that I knew she would appreciate. Many of my customers had also gotten to know her and care for her. When she died, I sent an e-mail asking my customers to keep her husband in their prayers. I had forgotten to remove her e-mail address from my group e-mail list, and her hurting husband received the e-mail and responded with intense anger. I was so devastated that day that I vowed never to send an e-mail again. I sent him a note of apology, but I continued to lambaste myself over it. I gave more credence to what someone said about me than what I knew to be true about myself.

Instead of lambasting myself, I should have considered whether I had done something wrong, considered all the good things I had done for my friend and her family and realized the words directed at me were sourced in her husband’s pain, and ultimately dismissed what he said about me. In situations such as these, one of the most helpful questions I’ve learned to ask, “What is this person telling you about himself or herself?”

4. When people stop pinging, stop ponging.

Dr. Phil says the quality of a relationship is a function of the extent to which it is built on a solid friendship and meets the needs of the two people involved. Let me give you four scenarios of relationships that didn’t endure:

1. There was a relative who wanted me and my family to come visit, so we made three or four trips several states away. Then one summer my son was going to be 80 miles from him. When I told the relative, he said, “Oh, tell him to swing by.” When I told him my son wouldn’t have access to a car, the relative said, “Oh darn. That won’t work out.” He made no effort to meet up with my son, or to visit us in Colorado, so eventually we stopped traveling to see him.

2. A friend sent me a full page letter describing how upset she was that I was trying to “squeeze her in.” It wasn’t that at all. She lived 45 minutes away, and since I was going to her side of the city, I asked if we could have lunch. After talking more, I learned she wanted much more of my time than I could give. She was single and I had a family. I could not deliver so much time and energy— it felt like she wanted all or nothing—so the friendship fizzled. I miss her.

3. I was in a friendship where I felt I went out of my way to love on this person. I shared her work, sent emails and gifts, and tried to attend to her pain, but every time we were together, hurtful zingers came my way. In the past I had tried to talk to her about it, but it made things worse. So that friendship ended too. I don’t miss the pain.

4. I had a satisfying friendship that had gotten closer over 20 years. I risked more and more, sharing from my heart, but when I tried to get more than surface deep about what was in the other person’s heart, she dusted over everything except the weather. I could tell when she was upset, sad, or scared but she never felt comfortable letting me in. I realized the depth of our friendship would always be unbalanced. We are still friends, just not close like I wish. 

Now, I pour my time and energy into the people who ping when I pong, ones where the sharing feels somewhat mutual, and where it doesn’t hurt so much.

5. Everyone doesn’t have to like me.

Why on earth I thought I had to be everyone’s favorite person is beyond me. I don’t like every movie, song, or TV show I encounter. I don’t like every home, car, piece of furniture, or piece of art. Why would I expect everyone to like me? That’s just silly. I like me and that’s what matters.

6. Boundaries are about self preservation, not about alienation.

Once I learned I didn’t have to make everyone like me, I gave myself perission to set boundaries. The big surprise is that when you learn to set boundaries, most people respect you. The ones who don’t are telling you something very important. In my 40s I learned I didn’t have to say yes to helping out at every school function and church activity. I could say no to running myself ragged, and yes to taking a little time out for me. Learning to say no gave me back time and energy to say yes to the pieces of life where my skills, strengths, and passions aligned. I love this idea Brene Brown uses to help herself set boundaries.

7. There were reasons behind the choices I made.

For many decades I didn’t like myself because of some bad decisions I’d made in the past. Even though my spiritual beliefs allowed me to accept God’s love and forgiveness, I couldn’t grant it to myself. I would sit in my bedroom, crying and journaling, never moving forward from my pain and shame. What I learned in my counseling program was that it would have been shocking if hadn’t picked those awful choices. I had so much pain related to losing my mother at an early age. Lots of chaos raged through our home, and no one was skilled at helping me process the emotion. I learned the choices I made were common coping techniques many people choose to numb their pain. A skilled counselor helped me unravel my story. In the unraveling lay the healing.

8. It takes time to discover your passions and strengths.

One of the phrases I tell my grown children is to push gently on a lot of doors. You can’t know what you’re good at or what you enjoy until you make attempts. Attempting takes courage because you’re going to fail sometimes, but it’s better than not attempting. The failures are just as important as the successes. Over the years I’ve learned I’m good at teaching and writing because I’m a storyteller who remembers lots of facts. I learned I have no affinity for guitar playing or singing. I learned I’m sensitive, encouraging, and I’m wired to enjoy beauty like in art and nature, and I learned I’m passionate about justice. This VIA Character Strengths assessment was helpful in learning my strengths and passions.

9. No one has it all together.

In my counseling program I worked in one of the wealthiest communities of our city. At a different site I worked with indigent folks. I was intimidated by both, but I finally learned they were all the same, just dressed differently. Everyone has been hurt, and everyone has quirks. Some people remain victims, while others get help. An no one heals alone. We get hurt in relationship and it requires safe relationships to get better.

10. Family and experiences were my best investment.

You typically don’t recognize it in your 30s because you’re still in the difficult part of childrearing. My husband and I didn’t anticipate that launching our children into the world for a few years, would bring them zinging back as friends (with the bonus of the people they marry). You find that what you remember are the camping weekends, road trips, blanket tents, football games, and movie nights. It sinks in how glad you are that you stayed married to their dad. Glad you didn’t buy a bigger house because that would have meant more time away. 

Right now we’re enjoying weddings, college graduations, and a family trip to Europe. Joy comes in our relationships and our experiences, not our stuff.

I can’t wait to see what the 50s bring!

What lessons did you learn in your 40s?