Article by Jackie Beere
As a child I was extrovert, gregarious, naughty and alternative but was also strangely introspective. I did and said crazy, loud things, then spent hours regretting them. You might think that once we get to our 50’s and have settled down (maybe), there would be less to mentally beat ourselves up about. Shouldn’t we, as the wrinkles lengthen and our kids leave home, be able to feel more philosophical now about mistakes and bounce back from them more quickly?
Hitting the half century is a time for reflection on what has been and what we might still achieve. Do you feel that time is passing by too quickly to achieve any new goals? You’d be wrong! The secrets are not to have fixed views about who you are and what you can and can’t do; to keep learning and to continually challenge yourself to do things outside your comfort zone. We need to keep learning new skills and knowledge, find new ways to do things, explore ideas, invent solutions and rise to challenges on our own or alongside others.
You will make mistakes doing this. Good! You can practice getting over them. My hopeless vegetable patch, embarrassing panto singing performances and tough years as a Headteacher gave me plenty of opportunities for that. The more risks you take and mistakes you make, the more you learn to forgive yourself for not being perfect.
Don’t see mistakes as failures
Praise and success can be addictive and we love to get things right. This makes us reluctant to take potentially life-enhancing risks in case we get it wrong. Mistakes shouldn’t be seen as a sign that we are ‘failures’ but as opportunities to learn so that we come back better next time. We need to learn to stand back from our initial negative thoughts, think on purpose and turn mistakes into positive experiences. Our internal voice creates meaning from our experiences and sets up how we feel when things goes wrong. It could say condemningly and condescendingly ‘Typical. You’ve boobed again. The story of your life’. Or, in a considered, genial tone, ‘Hmm that went wrong but I know what to do next time – a great learning experience!’. Thinking on purpose means deliberately changing the content and tone of our thinking so that you see every mistake as a learning experience.
Watch very young children. They are endlessly curious, fearless and live in the moment. They don’t have hang-ups about making mistakes and looking foolish. They haven’t learnt yet to fear the judgment of others. You were once like that. Connect with your inner baby and keep growing your learning power. See it as a lifelong project. The evidence shows that if you keep learning new things at any age it helps ward off dementia and grows those new neural pathways.
Recognise your inner voice
It’s hard work at first to manage your thinking. Start by recognising your inner voice. Challenge it when it condemns you and then reframe the response. Mentally reframing experiences is crucial to our emotional wellbeing as we get older. When we struggle with a new skill we can feel stupid. Instead reframe that thought and think about growing new and fragile neural pathways.
Even those who achieve great success in work, who earn prizes or have glittering careers can suffer from ‘Imposter syndrome’. I’ve met many extremely talented men and women who inspire others but who have a niggling belief they are nothing but a fraud. Somehow, no matter how clever they are or how hard they have worked, they feel like an imposter, that they don’t deserve it, it’s all been a big mistake, that they may lose everything at any moment. This is why, for some of us, climbing the ladder of success is so much more satisfying than actually sitting on the top rung. Many people are sitting there waiting for someone to poke them in the back and say ‘What on earth are you doing here?’
Kick the habit of negative thinking
We are all exquisitely sensitive to the judgment of others and to negative feedback. Criticism can feed doubts about our self-efficacy. These linger in our unconscious, put limits on what we are willing to do, shrinking our comfort zones and our confidence. We need to reframe criticism and see it as a learning opportunity.
Kicking the habits of negative thinking and self-blame can be challenging after 50 because they might have become ingrained by then and have been used as our excuse for resisting change. For some, it becomes a protective behaviour to think ‘Well, I got it wrong again. It just shows I shouldn’t even try.’ If you don’t challenge this, your life won’t change. You won’t grow more confident, happier and carefree in your later years.
Written by Jackie Beere, author of GROW: Change your mindset, change your life a practical guide to thinking on purpose
Published 31 August 2106 (Crown House Publishing), priced £9.99.