I always planned to write a blog post here about turning forty, especially after sharing a wonderful 80s vs 90s themed party last month with my decade sibling who bravely posted her own reflections on turning thirty for all to see.
I imagined that I would post something terribly wise about how I held this ‘big birthday’ thing lightly: Questioning the arbitrary cultural meaning given to decades whilst finding my own way to mark the passing of time.
Reflecting back on how difficult I’d found my thirtieth birthday, I knew that this one would be different. Look at how much I’ve learnt since then. I sensibly spread out the celebrations so that I wouldn’t feel the weight of expectations on one day. I met up with different people, and spent time alone, instead of putting pressure on one person to be responsible for making it perfect for me. I reminded myself that any specific age is pretty meaningless given the impossibility of knowing what percentage it is of the whole of your life.
If I knew one thing clearly at one o’clock in the morning, as I entered the second hour of a two hour crying jag that took me from my birthday into the first day of my forties proper, it was this: I couldn’t write that blog post.
So I wrote this one instead.
You can’t step outside of culture
The thing is that all the while that I was challenging those cultural rules about birthdays and decades and everything on the surface, another hidden part of me was buying into them all. For the past year a part of my mind has been scrutinising myself and my life, trying to determine whether I’ve done the things I should do with my thirties, and whether I am well placed to head into my forties. For all my questioning of checkpoint approaches to life, I secretly nurtured my own set of ideals through which to judge my success.
I had some idea that I could come up with the perfect rituals for life and have them all in place by my birthday. I wrote lists. The same old suspects: eating healthily, exercising more, meditating daily. Also writing more, seeing more friends, doing more activism. In fact so many things that it would be impossible to do them all without suddenly needing no sleep. There’s an idea: add ‘getting up earlier’ to the list. It felt like going backwards, suddenly caring about things like how I look and what my job title is, despite everything I know about how unimportant such things are.
Any time I felt depressed (which I tend to do for a few days every month or two) I’d become convinced that some more radical change must be needed and would flail around, turning the tremor into an earthquake.
Despite everything that I know about projects of ‘self-improvement’ fuelling, rather than alleviating, the self-criticism that plagues us, part of me convinced myself that that wasn’t really what I was doing. Because underneath it all was that seductive possibility: maybe this time I could really get there: to the point at which you are only the ‘good’ parts of yourself and none of the ‘bad’.
My friend Ros says something very wise: You can’t step outside of culture. And however much I want to exempt myself from this stuff I can’t. I’m in a culture that says that I should scrutinise and compare and evaluate myself and then work constantly to try to fix the lacks and flaws and imperfections. Resisting that is hard, probably impossible. It’s going to sneak back in.
What we can do
But perhaps what we can do when it sneaks back is to notice it. Just as we notice on birthdays that the more we attempt to engineer a perfect day the further it gets from perfection, so we can notice that the more we try to perfect ourselves the worse we tend to feel and the further away we drift from what we were aiming for in the first place.
Another thing we can do is to refuse to be yet another point of comparison against which others can evaluate themselves. That’s a big reason why I wanted to write this post rather than any number of others I could’ve written about my birthday, editing out the crying jag and the messiness and the desperation.
Like most people, I suspect, I learnt early on that (1) there were parts of me that really weren’t acceptable, and (2) the thing to do was to hide them from everybody. And, eventually, I became pretty good at presenting the face to the world that I thought people wanted to see, and withdrawing into myself whenever things got so tough that the unacceptable parts threatened to spill over.
But that strategy means that you constantly give yourself the message that the ‘bad’ bits really are bad (so bad that you need to hide them). And it means that other people assume that you don’t struggle and therefore feel worse about themselves. And it means that anyone you can’t hide from (the people you live with, for example, or the people who you land on when you eventually do crash) are put under a lot of pressure. They are the only people you’re letting in, so you desperately want them to help you whilst also resenting the fact that they’re seeing you this way. And probably they’re quite isolated too if they are aware that you don’t want anybody else to know that you get like this.
So what is the alternative? The alternative is to be open about this vulnerable, exposing, raw, painful stuff. Because that means that you give yourself the message that you have this stuff and that you are still okay. And it means that other people can see that you struggle too and it’s not just them. And it means that the weight of it all isn’t just on you, or the one person who you let in.
Instead of embarking on constant projects to eradicate the ‘bad’ stuff, you can put the same time and energy into accepting that it’s part of you and that’s okay. In fact opening up about this stuff means that you are more able to connect with other people than when you’re busy putting up the shutters, and pulling on the armour, and ensuring that you remain in a safe place where nobody will see you struggle.
When we withdraw and erect all these barriers we end up in more pain ourselves. We’re also more likely to hurt other people as we bump against them in all that armour, bruising them and encouraging them put up their own defences to avoid getting hurt.
The alternative is gradually softening instead of hardening: opening up instead of closing down.
And at the same time that I’ve been secretly engaged in this project of ‘maybe I can have it all fixed by the time I’m forty’, on another level I’ve been learning this stuff about opening up. When I’ve felt hurt I’ve been experimenting with responding differently. Instead of crumpling or lashing out, I’ve been trying to reflect (often for several days because it doesn’t come easy) and then to open up with people about where I’m at.
Sounds great in theory: utterly terrifying in practice. The old habits kick in all the time. For every time I manage to stay with the tough stuff and open up about it, there’s a hundred more where I take the old escape routes (withdrawing, blaming someone else, distracting myself). I’ve had forty years of practice at that.
So I won’t be writing a post in a decade’s time, or a decade after that, where I’ve reached some point of complete openness and self-acceptance (if indeed I’m fortunate enough to make it to those future birthdays). If I post honestly at those times then I suspect it will be about being just as messy and confused and struggling as I am now. Accepting that instead of trying to be something different by then is kindof the point.
Thank you for this. My 40th is coming in 3 years and I have a ‘plan’ of things that will be done by then (be qualified, have my phd amongst others), and reading this makes me more aware that I have been making those things bigger in my head recently. Part of me cannot believe that the next ‘big’ birthday is 40. What’s that about?
Being open is hard, but your words are wise and I can see that that is where I need to try and be, rather than any other option.
Food for thought. Thank you.
Such a fantastic post Meg. It’s so much more productive to counter all the “culture/society” pressure with something real like this, than feel like you have to gloss over it (which is easier) and pretend to be cool as a cucumber, therefore just adding to the myth! I’m sure it will be massively comforting to anyone who reads it. Sorry to hear about the big cry, but I hope it was cathartic and needed and hopefully was balanced with some amazing sparkly nice bday bits.
I love what you said at the end about not writing the perfect post every decade. That’s such a fantastic way to view your future.Very inspiring 🙂
Thanks wonderBee! Yes I think it was good to have moments of calm, and celebration, and loss/grief, and confusion, all mixed up in the same day – a real relief to say that’s okay instead of trying to just have some of those things and not others 🙂
Tania Hershman (@taniahershman)
Thank you for this, Meg, as often happens, you’ve articulated quite wonderfully what I am thinking about right now, today, this year. I’ve passed 40, but it’s an ongoing journey, right? Happy birthday!
Thank you for this post Meg. I thought about sending this response as a PM, but in the spirit of openness…
It’s a privilege to be getting to know you a bit as you happen to pass this so-called milestone (which is two years off for me). And, for what it’s worth, your words here and elsewhere inspire me to feel glad I too can be someone who questions rather than swallows the rules, even though living without-a-blueprint so feels incredibly scary and lonely sometimes.
Another thing that strikes me is how very efficiently you appear to combine earning a living with self-actualisation (one of my goals for my 40s!), friendship with activism (ditto), exercise with alone-time (check) and so on… The management consultant in me says bravo to such efficiency!
And finally I would guess that whilst exposing the raw stuff (especially if it’s all rather a muddle and hard even for an articulate person to articulate!) can be risky, if the people in your life are good (as I don’t doubt they are) you end up having some amazing relationship-deepening conversations into the bargain. Most people (not quite all) respond well to vulnerability and openness I’m learning, so you really do reap what you sow.
LOL (in the David Cameron sense), HD.
Thanks so much for this. I did want to include something about how people respond to vulnerability and openness, as well as consideration of how it relates to privilege (something not enough writing on this considers is how unsafe it can be to be vulnerable and open). But I think I’ll save those topics for whole blogs in their own right. It is a privilege (of a different kind!) getting to know you too, and your kind words about my project mean a great deal to me 🙂
Now, this is very timely. I will be 40 at the end of July and I am really feeling quite unhappy about the whole thing. I’ve never been worried about birthday milestones before, in fact, the the past my sister decided she was having a ‘Quater Life Crisis’ at 25 and I told her to stop being a silly cow. This feels different though. Mainly because there are more wrinkles involved…and its happening to me. I gave up alcohol completely 2 years ago which has made ‘dealing with shit’ essential and means I can’t just drink through it and sob. Shame innit.
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l fully understand everything you say Meg, and as I approach 60 in August I can see that my whole life has been one of fear and rejection and trying to prove myself. It it hard, but one must try to be true to oneself. Have a great 40th year and many more to come.