Have you ever asked yourself, “I’m at a transition point in my life, where do I go from here?”

As a therapist, I have many clients who are at this point in my life. They are stuck about next steps.

Sheila has come to therapy to talk about her sadness. She sits across from me and appears forlorn. There is a pallor to her face, she is plain-looking, and her speech lacks inflection. In fact, there is sadness in her eyes. She looks like she needs someone to pluck her from her life and put her in a happy place.

 

She says she doesn’t know why she is unhappy. “I don’t know why I’m here; I just feel sad. There is an empty feeling inside of me.” She doesn’t elaborate.

I ask, “What made you come in now? What happened right before you decided to look for a therapist?”

She begins to tell me how great her life is: “I have three children, all launched into adulthood. They have partners, and I even have grandchildren whom I love so much. I just can’t get enough of them. I can’t see them too much. I’ll do anything for them. My husband has a lot of money, so I could do whatever I want. I just don’t know what I want to do, and I don’t know why I’m so sad.”

Sheila feels like she has a good life: good children, dutiful husband, the means whereby she doesn’t need to work, and she can travel as much as she likes. Sounds great but a very sad woman is still sitting across from me. As we unpack the flotsam and jetsam of her life, a new picture emerges. She has a husband who is needy—he only takes. He is awkward and focused on golf and the next golf trip. Sheila’s children have been raised, they have left the home; she is dissatisfied with her marriage and now she looks in the mirror and sees nothing: Who is she?

Sheila is talking about making the arrangements for her parents to go to Florida for a couple of weeks. “What happens if you don't arrange for your parents’ trip? What happens if they call a travel agent instead?”

“They will continue to call me until I actually do it. They don't believe in doing things themselves. They believe that I should take care of them. It's always been that way.”

I respond, “Your father is a lawyer, and your mother runs a household. I'm confused; it seems like they should have some basic abilities.”

She states in a matter-of-fact way, “Well, when we were children, we had to be in our rooms by 7:00 pm, all the way through the age of 16. My mother wanted no part of us. She didn't want to take care of us; she wanted her own life, and she didn't want us to interfere with her. If my sister cried, I was supposed to take care of her. My mother was not going to come to the room.”

I am shocked. “It sounds like a huge responsibility for a child, and it doesn't sound like you felt very taken care of. I guess that's where you started to learn how to nurture people other than yourself. You put yourself at the bottom of the list. So, you raised yourself and your sister, and then you married someone who wanted to be babied.”

She responded, “Wow, yes. He also expected me to go on trips with him, and it didn't make a difference to him that we had three kids, including one special needs child. I was supposed to drop everything and go with him golfing. Mind you, I hate golf!”

I wonder how she gets her needs met. “What would happen if you would say ‘No. I have other things to take care of. I need to take care of the kids, or just: I don't want to go.’?”

No response. A change of subject.

Sheila appears paralyzed without knowing how to break free. She doesn’t even know she is paralyzed. Women have been told to be givers, which can be quite beautiful. What is missing in that message is that women must give to themselves while they nurture others.

That’s why if they aren’t giving, they lose sense of who they are.

Sheila has parents who are dependent and demanding, and they have been that way her whole life. She has a mentally ill sister. Her parents abdicated the job of parenthood and gave that role to Sheila, and she filled that role with poise being the good daughter that she is. She made sure her sister was dressed appropriately, healthy food, and had friends. When her sister got older, she made sure that her sister was financially taken care of.

She’s surrounded by takers, so she has defined herself as a giver, and if we take that away, what is she?

Sheila has wrapped herself up into everyone else but herself.

She never nurtured herself before the kids left home. She doesn’t have a career she loves, and her marriage is not supportive.

She’s missing something, and she doesn’t know how to get that thing she doesn’t have a name for. She doesn’t even know what she’s looking for.

She knows she is unhappy, and she doesn’t know who she is.

Here’s how I helped Sheila find her next act.

4 Beginning Steps to Finding Your Next Act

  1. Account for how much time you spend on others, and how much time you spend on yourself. What can you let go of? Maybe making dinner five nights a week? Think of things you’re currently volunteering to do.
  2. Chip away at extraneous, time-consuming, mindless activities you don’t enjoy.  For example, asking your parent, child, or spouse to take an Uber to wherever they want to go rather than allow yourself to become their chauffeur.
  3. Find joy in the everyday. Did you enjoy your coffee in the morning? Is the sun shining? Did you love talking to your friend? Being mindful will help you focus on what you already love while you’re discovering your next act.
  4. Make a list of activities or work you’ve loved in the past. Think about times when you were in the “zone,” when you lost a sense of time and space. Those are clues to what your next act will be.

Get to know yourself in a mindful way. It’s a journey. These are all beginning steps.

Sheila and I started chipping away at the neediness of others. She slowly negotiated boundaries with her sibling. She told her sister that they would speak on the phone on Mondays and Wednesdays at 7:00 pm, and they would have a special day together one Sunday a month. She painstakingly created boundaries for herself with her parents. She said to them point blank she was not responsible for her sister and they were.

As Sheila only checked up on her sister twice a week and spent meaningful time with her without the heaviness of the day-to-day strain, she began to remember what she loved a long time ago. She loved ceramics. She loved solitude. She loved getting together with friends. She loved walking in the park.

She tried not to marry her happiness to the mood of her husband. If he was unhappy, she didn’t need to be. She could go about her day and find her own happiness. She tried to negotiate what she wanted to do with him and what she really didn’t like—such as golf!

Sheila began to emerge and realize she had the ability to create her own life. The same way she shrank herself to help others by following the belief that what she wanted didn’t count, she could detour and eke out a new path.

I came across an allegory by the philosopher that describes this process beautifully.

A fly flies into a bottle, perhaps thinking it will find a morsel to eat. Upon finding the futility at the bottom of the bottle, he flings his body against the sides of the bottle over and over in order to be free until, in utter exhaustion, he falls to the bottom of the bottle in complete despair. What did the fly forget? To look up!

How often do we forget to look up? We become mired in the roles we play, and we feel stuck, so stuck we can’t see the way out. We simply don’t look up.

We fly around and bang against the walls of the jar, because we feel that what we want comes last or is unimportant. And so, we never feel that things can change. We can’t imagine change. It’s so simple: we need to look up, we need to see the possible. We forget to imagine that our lives can grow, and we are not stuck like the fly. There is an opening in the jar, waiting for us. Are you ready to fly?

Photo by Marc Herve on Unsplash