One benefit of entering your 50s (and believe me, I’m on the lookout for benefits) is that you not only know but have learned to accept who you are. With your strengths, your weaknesses, your shiny bits and your warts. In my case, this acceptance came late and as the result of a lot of self-examination – always the late-bloomer! Regardless of how hard-won, or how much forced growth was required, I can now say I know myself well.
When I was 19, this was far from the case. That New Year’s Eve, my beautiful three year friendship with a guy named Richard ended. We fought when he believed his girlfriend, who told him I had gone out of my way at his party to make her feel uncomfortable. I was insulted, incensed, hurt. And I was feeling too defensive to admit that maybe, while not 100% consciously, I may have had a slight motivation to make her feel a tiny bit the outsider. I ended the argument by saying, “If that’s the kind of person you think I am, then maybe we aren’t really friends.” I slammed the phone down. To my lasting regret, we never spoke again. Looking back, the fact that he called and wanted to discuss his concerns speaks volumes. As does the reality that I didn’t want to look critically at my own behavior and motivations.
Thankfully, these days, I am not so easily pushed off-center, nor do I feel the need to be particularly defensive. I know and apologize when I’ve behaved badly; I have little difficulty taking responsibility for my mistakes; I am willing to engage in reflection when someone offers criticism. Occasionally, though, someone fundamentally misconstrues who I am at my core, or accuses me of behaviors which are anathema to me. These experiences are rare, and invariably catch me by surprise, unsure how to respond.
When these interactions occur, they are almost always based more in perception than in concrete experience. Because concrete experience is only concrete in the abstract – it is always filtered through perception in order for humans to apply meaning. A simple sentence, such as “I like blue” can simply mean what it says. But when I say it to another person, they may hear it as “I like blue more than I like all other colors” or “I like blue, not green” or “Blue is the best.” It doesn’t occur to me to clarify, explain, or qualify the statement, “I like blue”, and so the hearer and I walk away from this exchange with completely different perceptions of what has been communicated. Much later we may have another exchange in which the hearer says, “You only like blue.” I am surprised, because I’ve never said such a thing, nor felt it. However, how do I correct a perception that has existed now since the original conversation? That has been reinforced in the other person’s thinking every time it has been remembered?
There is a lot to be learned by staving off defensiveness and trying to understand the experience or perception through which another person sees you and/or your choices. Most of the time, I truly try to do this – and most of the time insight into my own psyche is the result or reward of maintaining a nondefensive stance. Sometimes, though, it is important to stand up for yourself, to defend yourself. In these situations, how do I manage to be a self-advocate without also giving in to the temptation to go on the offense? When my ethics, values, commitments are questioned, how do I speak on my own behalf without crossing over into the territory of counter-attack?
This is where being in my 50s becomes an asset. I’m more comfortable sitting with the situation for a while before responding. Letting the “feedback” sink in first, especially if it is hurtful or potentially damaging to me. In my 50s I’ve learned that not everything leveled at me has merit, and this pause lets it sink in far enough to gauge whether merit exists or not. I’ve finally learned that not everyone launching stuff my direction has the best of intentions – and when this is the case, I don’t have to be touched by their criticisms or accusations in the tortuous, self-doubting manner I would have in my youth. This understanding is critical to engaging in the appropriate level of response. I don’t have to attack, I simply have to stand in the truth.
In my 50s I’ve also come to understand that I can’t control the outcome of these events. I can only control my response to them so that it is in alignment with my Self: my commitments, ethics, integrity, beliefs. Holding to my own center is such an important component of feeling empowered – especially if, despite my mature and reasoned response, I get smacked down by false attributions and/or the outcomes are crappy. As Dr. Wayne Dyer has famously said:
“How others treat you is their karma. How you react is yours.”
I opened this post with the observation that knowing myself well is a benefit of being in my 50s. I am going to hold fast to that idea – in part because, in my 50s, I finally believe that the person I am is worth knowing and standing up for. There will be no hanging up on people who challenge or criticize me, neither will there be laying down to be walked all over. Instead, knowing me, there will be more standing centered in my truth.