I thought things would be different at 40…

Many people have a vision for their life that includes certain goals and milestones to be achieved by certain ages. Perhaps you thought you’d own a car by 18, be married at 27, have kids in your early 30s or be in a senior role by your mid 40s.

So how do we cope and react when our plans and goals do not transpire?

Well sometimes, not very well. Some might call it a mid-life crisis, but that seems unkind. It can feel depressing and deflating. It can also lead to a sense of being trapped in a life you feel you didn’t create. It can feel as if life happened to you, rather than you directed your life.

So how do you move forward?

Let yourself grieve

For starters, let yourself notice and then grieve the clash between your dreams and your reality. Allow yourself to notice that things haven’t worked out how you hoped and label it as a loss. Grief is a valid reaction and needs some air time.

But once you’ve connected to the underlying sadness, use that awareness to look to the future differently.

Set values-guided goals

Moving forward, try to make decisions about work, life and relationships that align with what’s important to you. Think about your values – the principles that can act as a guiding light when you are lost. If we aim for outcomes that sit comfortably with our values we are more likely to achieve them, or at least hang in there on the journey when reaching them gets tough.
And make sure they are your goals, not just the goals you think you should have at this stage of life. If you don’t care for a house or want to be boss by the age of 45, then avoid the social pressure to set those expectations of yourself.

Set realistic expectations

You also need to set realistic expectations. When there is a mismatch between your expectations and your reality, you are more likely to suffer. An extreme example is the tone deaf boy who dreams of becoming a world famous opera soprano…

In an ideal world there would be success, good health and harmonious relationships for everyone – but we live in reality.

So, critically examine your life and be honest with yourself about what can actually be achieved.

Notice the limits of your control

When reflecting on how your life came to this point or making plans for the future, remember that you cannot control the actions of others. If your goals hinge on the actions of other people you will feel disappointment at some stage.

Similarly, life can and often does throw random events in our path. For the most part you cannot prevent car accidents, burglaries, natural disasters or cancer.
This doesn’t mean you must passively give in to life or make plans independently of the important people in your world. But you will have more tolerance for life’s curve balls if you acknowledge the limits of your control.

Shift your focus

Finally, shift your focus to the things that have worked out and the things that are good in your life.

When we focus on the problems and the areas of our life that haven’t met our hopes and dreams, we can quickly send our mood spiralling down. And we can get stuck there, trapped by disappointment.

Noticing the positive developments in our life, rather than the gaps, can help us live more contentedly in the life we have.

So, if you are 40 (or any age) and wondering how life turned out so differently to your plans, let yourself notice your sadness and then question whether your goals were fair and realistic. Then let yourself notice the things that have worked out and brought you happiness. Build on those to develop new goals that will sit more closely with your values, and then kindly let yourself accept the things over which you do not have control.

Good luck for the next 40 plus years!

Nicole Ferrar, Clinical Psychologist

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