A striking quote by Kierkegaard echoes the loss of identity I felt at the brink of midlife:
The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.S∅REN KIERKEGAARD
A Lost Identity
I was a child of the 70s, raised in a small displaced community set in South Africa’s complex socio-political climate. My family along with thousands of other marginalised families of colour were entrenched in oppressive structures and racial labels that left me without a clear sense of who I truly was or where I fit. I moved through half of my life with the overarching belief that I wasn’t good enough.
Without the tools to unravel and reframe my earlier influences, my younger self formed beliefs that in my humanity I wasn’t good enough, capable, or intelligent enough to stand alongside others with unconditional worth. Instead of pursuing my heart’s callings they became hidden secrets preserved on the pages of dusty journals.
Every choice I made was to keep me safe from failure, fear of shame, rejection, and ridicule. I looked outside myself for validation and approval by adopting ways of being that seemed acceptable to others but feeling that I was overlooking something that I couldn’t quite identify.
As I stood at the edge of midlife, anxiously peering into the future, feeling fundamentally lost in my roles and purpose as a woman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, the words of Parker Palmer vibrated through the protective mask I had wrapped around me for four decades.
The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me. In those moments I sometimes catch a glimpse of my true life, a life hidden like the river beneath the ice. And in the spirit of the poet, I wonder: What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?PARKER J. PALMER
Rumbling with Our Stories
Brené Brown writes that we need to rumble with the distorted stories that keep us stuck and prevent us from living wholeheartedly and realising our full potential.
You either walk into your story and own your truth, or you live outside of your story, hustling for your worthiness. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.
BRENÉ BROWN (RISING STRONG)
I had been spinning through life on autopilot for so long, trying to outrun and outperform the subconscious self-limiting belief that I wasn’t good or capable enough that I never stopped to pause and re-evaluate the labels and broken identity I’d adopted. It never occurred to me to rumble with or challenge where those distorted beliefs originated. Once I understood what I needed to fight against and what I had to fight for, the rumble was on!
I needed to rumble with several stories that impacted my ability to live wholeheartedly. This included a rumble with my redemption story, what maturity looks like, asking for help, and restoring my lost identity.
Redeemed but Not Restored
My spiritual journey reads like a patchwork of religious and spiritual traditions that unfolded across different life stages. By midlife, I was decades into my Christian faith, redeemed in Christ and my salvation was secured from an eternal perspective. Although I’d long moved on from childhood I was still responding to life from an old broken identity and faulty storylines. I was redeemed but not yet restored.
Christians Don’t Float On Clouds
Between the present and the comforting promises of eternal life (Revelation 21:4-5), we’re still part of a world where heartbreak, trauma, grief, disappointments and loss are an everyday part of life.
Christians don’t float on clouds above the harsh realities of the here and now. Trials are a promised part of the Christian life.
Our trials and challenges serve a very specific purpose. Working and growing through our battles is where we develop strong character and perseverance. It also matures and equips us to fulfil our God-given purpose − to shine God’s light in the darkness that surrounds us. We do so in the unique ways we were inherently shaped to serve the world by developing and using our natural talents and abilities, passions and interests.
The Salvation Workout
Wholehearted living, or fullness of life (John 10:10), is not a beautiful promise waiting to happen someday. I can have an abundant life right now, in the midlife season. Christ did His part to redeem our souls and now we need to do our part – to work out our salvation with His mercy and grace that are new to us every morning.
Part of working out my salvation was to shed the broken self-concept formed earlier in life and consciously grow into my redeemed identity in Christ.
Maturity is Not the Same as Ageing
I believe maturing happens when we intentionally seek understanding and insight from our experiences, good and bad. Scripture encourages us to examine ourselves to test our faith (2 Corinthians13: 5). With this in mind, I needed to examine my values, beliefs and behaviours as well as my choices to ensure they aligned with my redeemed identity.
In rumbling with my identity story, I needed to dislodge and shed the wounded identity shaped by my environment and social backdrop when I was too young to understand or refute its harmful impact. I had to extract it like a gardener would pull up a choking weed because it was holding me back from living a life of fullness and wholeness. 2 Corinthians 10:5 describes it as ‘demolishing arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God and taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ‘.
Scripture urges us to not be conformed to this world with its superficial values and customs. Instead, to be transformed and progressively changed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2), and getting to know God’s will and purposes for us.
Once I shed my warped self-image, I had to replace it, ‘seed by seed’, with the original blueprint God mapped out for me before I ever took my first breath (Psalm 139). I needed to get to know myself through the eyes of my Creator.
The Apple of His Eye
God knows every hair on your head and every thought and word you’ll say before you utter a sound. He calls you the apple of His eye (Zechariah 2:8). His thoughts towards you and me outnumber the grains of sand. He gave us spiritual gifts and abilities (1 Cor. 12), a distinct personality, passions, and interests to live an abundant life (John 10:10). He is with us wherever we go (Matt 28:20) so we’re never alone. He is in the midst of the trials we face, guiding and leading us, protecting and caring for us (Ps 23:3). He offers us unexplainable peace that doesn’t seem to make sense in the chaos of our circumstances (Phil 4:6). With a beautiful identity like that, why would you hold on to a broken sense of self?
Whose Voice Will You Believe?
The world with all its trending and evolving beliefs doesn’t make it easy to hold on to our redeemed selves. My sombre social context taught me that deeper self-awareness is an essential part of personal, and spiritual growth. It will help us identify and filter the external voices constantly grappling to impose identities on us that don’t align with our God-given nature.
In a YouVersion devotional, There is More in You, T.D. Jakes states that when God speaks from within, you have to filter because there are other voices speaking also. The voices of your past, your history, your religious tradition, your own opinion and ideology. These voices come from our families, dominant cultures, educators, politics, religious leaders, and our peers. It’s easy to confuse God’s voice with so many others scrambling for your attention.
In midlife, I’m no longer a child blindly trusting and internalising the influences of others. I have the power to choose which voices to trust and determine who is able to unconditionally support my well-being and growth towards becoming everything God intended for me.
Your Inner Circle
The people you allow into your inner circle and the voices who influence your life need to be able to hold space for you to become your truest and highest self. They are the ones who help you up when you stumble or fall. They cheer you on while you pursue your goals. They support and encourage you whenever you need them. They celebrate with you when things go well and have your back when times are tough. They respect your boundaries and accept your Yeses and Nos gracefully. Your inner circle needs careful screening to ensure they can offer you unconditional love and support.
We’re Part of a Bigger Story
Our growth and development impact more than just you or me. We’re part of a bigger story – God’s story. In John 15:5 Jesus compares himself to a tree and we as its branches. Also, one body with many parts (1 Cor. 20), each with distinct spiritual gifts and abilities.
While our strengths and God-given gifts may look different from one another, together we make up the body of Christ to serve each other and bring hope and light to the darkness in the world. To fully step into all we’re meant to be and do in this world, we need to uncover and develop our innate gifts.
Because of my distorted self-concept and insecurities, I wasn’t developing my full potential. I was hiding out and playing safe, afraid to try new things for fear of failing, ridicule and shame. It’s only when we’re willing to brave the unknown and step outside our comfort zone that we can expand and uncover what we’re capable of doing and being. This is where I was stuck and needed help because my wellbeing wasn’t the only one at stake.
Midlife: A Season of Reckoning
My Regrets: how many years I bruised people with my fragmented, anxious presence. How many moments of connection I missed – too busy, too tired, too frantic and strung out on the drug of efficiency.SHAUNA NIEQUIST
My broken identity wasn’t only affecting me. It impacted the people who trusted me to love, nurture, and support them. They quietly waited for me to stop spinning in anxiety to untangle myself from the tentacles of a distorted identity so we could experience the freedom we all needed to become our truest selves.
I was caught in a loop to prove my worth and capabilities as a ‘woman of colour’ in a socio-political context that deemed me unworthy or less than others. I seldom turned to others for support because admitting weaknesses made me vulnerable and I’d risk being ‘truly seen’.
If I allowed others to see the real, imperfect me who made mistakes and didn’t always know the answers or how to figure things out on my own, I believed it would prove that I was less capable than others and then the disparaging labels of low worth and competency imposed on me were true.
It felt safer to keep my fears and insecurities, and really, my entire self hidden from others rather than be vulnerable and seem incompetent. Isn’t it incredible the distorted stories we tell ourselves to self-protect but ironically result in hurting ourselves and those we love most?
Adults Need a Village Too
My journey through midlife and overcoming these obstacles is one I didn’t, and couldn’t undertake alone.
A popular African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. The truth is, adults need a village too. We don’t need to fear seeking support as long as it’s in the right places and from the right people.
In midlife, the futility of these types of defences became clearer. I slowly shifted towards embracing vulnerability and becoming okay with give-and-take. I was more open to receiving support from a few trusted people who offer me unconditional positive regard. They helped me rumble through some of my stories where I couldn’t get a breakthrough on my own. Conversations with my support circle helped me uncover the stubborn weeds in my stories that kept me stuck.
Failing With Grace
My prayers are bolder now as I stopped playing safe and hiding out, no longer afraid to take risks. I allow myself to dream bigger now because I’m okay with failing because I can fail with grace. That grace resides in Christ who offers me a soft, safe place to fall, cry, heal and then get back up and try again. Twila Paris says it well in the song ‘The Warrior Is A Child‘.
Failure is a normal part of growth and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s where we uncover our strengths and passions that can move us closer to wholehearted, purposeful living.
Sheltered in the Shadow of His Wings
Psalm 91 beautifully describes how God shelters us in the shadow of His wings when we’re facing battles. Therefore, we don’t need to hide behind obscure defences – masks of competency and self-sufficiency, fear of failure, or shame. Failing is a normal part of growing and learning.
Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, The Man in the Arena became a mantra or refrain I return to again and again to encourage me in my efforts to step outside my comfort zone into unknown territory where failing goes hand in hand with success.
No experience is futile if you look deeper and search for meaning in your trials, successes, relationships, career choices, and life setbacks. There’s always something to learn from our experiences.
What Makes Us Tick
For the longest time, I was curious to better understand what makes us tick. Because what happens below the surface − our beliefs, values, and views that are formed early in life drive our thoughts and behaviours. As we grow and evolve, these are elements that shift and change the more we get to know ourselves and the world. Because of these shifts, it’s essential in adulthood that we pause and re-evaluate our influences to make sure they truly serve our wellbeing and who we’re still becoming.
Life is Like A Jigsaw Puzzle
Several years ago when the first signs of the empty nest beckoned, I welcomed the opportunity to realise a dusty old dream to pursue studies in psychology. I opted for a degree in Applied Social Science and relished every moment spent on that learning journey. It further helped me explore and untangle all the ways I had shifted out of alignment with my truest self.
After years of trying to figure out where and how I fit in this world, the disjointed, undeveloped pieces of my life started coming together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Thriving on Purpose in Midlife
Today, as I juggle the roles listed earlier, I regularly rumble with my stories to make sure I stay self-aware about the influences that surround me and how I impact my loved ones. I practice deliberate self-care to refresh my body, mind, and soul because doing so enables me to give my best to others. I honour my introverted personality strengths and limitations and I maintain clear personal boundaries that guard my inner peace and help me cultivate and enjoy healthier relationships.
PARKER J. PALMER
We have places of fear inside us, but we have other places as well. Places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.
My season of becoming is ongoing because growth is a lifelong journey. In this midlife season, I continue to be stretched and challenged to gently push my edges to expand and step more fully into becoming everything I believe I was shaped to be. I do so from a place of restored wholeness and renewed belief in my unconditional human worth.
It’s a season of ongoing restoration for me and my loved ones whose lives are so closely intertwined and impacted by mine all these earlier years and therefore, their individual stories need untangling too. I am immensely grateful for this season and the opportunity to help restore what they’ve missed out on in my broken years. I now show up with accountability, unveiled honesty, a calmer presence, and unconditional love and consistent support.
I respond to life and my dearest relationships now with deeper inner peace, and faith that regardless of what lies ahead, I have things like self-compassion, grace, faith and hope to guide me gently through this season and the seasons that await, trusting that life holds mysteries and unexpected possibilities for us all that’s still unfolding.