Empty Nest Syndrome

Last week I put my son, Marcus on a plane to Greece to start his freshman year at Northeastern. My feelings were intense and mixed – thrilled that both of us are on amazing, new trajectories; sad that an entire chapter of my life is over.

How did it go by so fast? It felt like he was in diapers days ago.

Memories are strange things. Made from millions of millisecond-long sensory impressions that your brain collects and connects, they’re the basis of your life. Recalled in the now they’re constantly reshaping and remaking your brain to help you move into the future.

After helping Marcus check his suitcase and get boarding passes, I snapped a picture and gave him a final hug. I wanted to hold on forever, but it was time to let go. Tears flowed obscuring my last vision of my son. He disappeared into the TSA line along with a half a dozen classmate compatriots wearing matching, white Northeastern T-shirts leaving me alone at Logan.

Blanketed by sadness, I took the Silver line from Logan to Boston’s South Station. The bus drove through a surreal maze of wet, grey tunnels accentuating my grief. To soothe myself, I placed a hand over my heart and practiced Reiki and Mindful Self-compassion. “This is a moment of suffering,” I silently repeated to my self. “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be at peace and ease.”

The driver announced, last stop, and I exited into the sunlight. Swimming against a sea of Monday afternoon commuters rushing home, I walked down Summer Street towards Downtown Crossing praying for something, anything to cheer me up. And then between Planet Fitness and Starbucks it appeared: Flying Tiger Copenhagen.

I’ve collected tigers for my entire life and have over 300 of them. For me seeing a tiger is a sign from the Universe that I’m on the right path and everything is going to be all right.

Energy shifting from sadness to excitement, I snapped a picture of the store and texted my mutually tiger obsessed Beau: This is a thing! I entered and encountered shelves filled with tiger calendars, mugs and pencil cases, puzzles, socks and notebooks. Feeling like a 6-year-old in a penny candy store, I filled my basket with tiger paraphernalia my sorrows partially healed by a little retail therapy.

After the wretchedness of my divorce and finality of empty nest (My two birdies are now adults and have no intention of flying home.) there’s still more grieving to do. At the same time my tiger nature is calling me to adapt to this new jungle, reboot and start afresh.

Sadness and regret can shut you down.

Rebooting at midlife isn’t easy. Change is painful and frightening, and you disparately want to hold on to what once was. Sadness, regret and disappointment grip you closing down your heart, and instead of moving on you may choose to wallow in self-pity focusing on what went wrong and how you failed.

However, if you want to make your next chapter your best chapter you have to get over it. Sure feel the pain, but give yourself a time limit for the pity-party then pull yourself together. Then follow the advice of Brené Brown, “Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be an embrace who you are.”

Authenticity isn’t easy. Figuring out who you are entails the inner work of loving and listening to yourself and going all in with self-acceptance. Embracing means accepting all of you – the good, bad and ugly. The outer work entails stepping outside your comfort zone so you can have novel experiences and create new memories and a new you.

In over a decade as a transformational life coach, I’ve realized that what keeps most women stuck and unable to move forward is FEAR!  Ironically fear is trying to protect you, but it actually is harming you. Fear keeps you small and prevents you from moving forward in your life to a place where you can find meaning and purpose.

Lizard brain

Blame your ancient reptilian brain telling you to freeze, run or hide. Hardwired to keep you safe, not happy, the lizard is easily triggered by uncertainty, struggle and change. The problem is that it tells you to listen to your fear rather than your heart. This causes you to shut down and stay stuck. Instead of being courageous which literally means following a path with heart (coeur is French for heart), you listen to the lizard driven voices in your head, which are False Evidence Appearing Real. In fact, studies show that 85 percent of our worries never happen.

In addition, every time the primitive part of your brain, called the amygdala, fires it sets off a cascade of actions pumping out stress hormones, raising blood pressure and shunting blood away form organs and towards the limbs. This erodes health and wellbeing and keeps you in sympathetic, fight-or-flight mode. In a concept known as negative plasticity, this response gets hardwired into your brain so that it takes less and less to trigger a stress response. As a result you feel exhausted and don’t have the ability to listen to your heart and the inner resourcefulness and courage to change your life.

What’s powerful is that you always have a choice: Stay sad and stuck in fight-or-flight or wallowing or be wise and rise. (FEAR also stands for Face Everything And Rise.) It’s up to you.

As neuroscientist and meditation expert Dr. Joe Dispenza explains, “If you want to change your life you have to break the habit of being yourself by reprograming your mind so you can heal and create a new reality.” This entails changing habitual thoughts, behaviors and actions and allowing new emotional experiences to create new neural pathways and a new life path.

If you’re feeling stuck and don’t know where to start that’s okay. It’s hard to break free from the familiar even if the known sucks. I know. I stayed in a failed marriage that was making me miserable for years because it felt safe. You have everything you need to unleash the power within and reboot your life. 

Challenging as change is, it beats stagnation and the depression and anxiety that accompany feeling stuck. As a transformational coach who’s helped hundreds of women change their lives by facing their fears and practicing self-love and self-compassion, I’ve come to see that if you want a joyful, vibrant life like a shark you have to constantly move forward or you die.

Here are some steps to help you get unstuck and move forward.

1. Stop the insanity

As Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” So set an intention to stop repeating the past and start creating something new. Write your intention down on a sticky note and place it on your bathroom mirror. Don’t worry if you don’t know what the new looks like yet. The rest of the alignment will come when you say yes to what makes sense as each step unfolds. Simply stating your desire to change will get your brain looking for and working on solutions.

2. Grieve

Before you can say yes to what’s next honor grief. Find ways to heal all those tender places so you can move forward. It takes time, but shoving your sorrow under a rock won’t heal anything or chase the sadness away. The heaviness may lead to stress and depression or a midlife crisis. So face your difficult emotions. If you’re not sure how to do it get help to move through the sadness. Talk to a trusted friend or therapist or join a supportive group that can help you work through women’s midlife issues.

3. Exam your thoughts

Notice when fear show up and instead of jumping into lizard mode tap into your frontal cortex – the big, powerful mammalian part of your brain. Call the fear out by noticing it and saying: This is fear. It’s just a thought. Remind yourself you’re safe, and replace the fear thought with a more powerful thought such as, “I have what it takes to move forward” or “I love myself too much to stay stuck in fear.”

4. Get balanced

Relax with a cup of tea

If you’ve been stuck in fear mode for a while, practice self-care to rest and recharge. Take a retreat day. Clean up your diet and get some exercise. (As a body transformation coach and nutrition coach, I’ve seen women make huge shifts on many levels just by eating right.) Get adequate sleep and rest. Have a cup of tea. Pause every hour and take a few deep breaths. This will fire up your parasympathetic – rest and digest – nervous system and help heal the fight-or-flight cortisol shit storm you’ve been weathering for years.

While you take some down time re examine your life. Get a fresh perspective and tap into your inner wisdom. Ask your self what’s working and what’s not and make the necessary changes to align with what helps you thrive rather than survive.

5. Shake up your routine

Travel at Midlife!

Experiment. Do something, anything new. Take a different route to work or sign up for that comedy improve class you’ve always wanted to take. Hate your job of career? Start looking for a new one. Cook a dish you’ve never made before. Get away for the weekend. Book an amazing trip! When was the last time you saw a movie, play or concert? Can’t remember? Buy tickets.

6. Embrace your shadow

As you start to change, old parts of you will rise up and protest. Rather than kicking them to the curb or allow them to continue to control your life embrace your shadow. Explore how these parts of yourself are trying to help you and then see if you can give them a new role.

7. Practice self-compassion

Change is tough. You need all the help you can get. You are your most powerful resource, so treat yourself like a good friend. Ask yourself: “What do I need right now?” and just do it. Let the self-critic go, after all she makes you miserable and is one of the major barriers to self-compassion. To cultivate self-compassion: Be kind and accepting rather than judgmental, notice when you are stressed and realize that everyone suffers.

8. Baby steps

Once you’re recharged make a list of all the things you could do to make your dreams a reality. Then pick one or two baby steps that you can take now to move closer to the new vision of yourself.

Not sure what to do next? Let ideas sit for a few days and explore them later. Even if you can’t see more than a step or two ahead trust that you are on the right path. Remember, even as you go through changes and reassess who you want to be you remain authentically yourself. Be the heroine of your own story and keep the faith. The universe is always working with and for you.

Need help transforming fear into confidence so you can get unstuck and make your next chapter your best chapter? Click HERE to apply for a clarity call.

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