Are you just now at midlife achieving what you always felt you were capable of? Have you found that your success now is something others have a difficult time relating to? If so then this short article may help you reframe success in a different light.
Notions of success
In most Western societies success is seen in terms of money and prestige. The personal component is inexorably linked to these two factors, but is devoid of any other deep meaning or significance. That is not to say that people do not wish to experience fulfilling careers tied to their intrinsic needs. Rather the financial demands of modern society with its endless stream of bills to be paid is nearly inescapable leading people to place an equal or greater value on the economic bottom line.
For highly sensitive people (HSPs) the need for deep meaning, autonomy, and egalitarian values is stronger due to the more elaborate processing of all experience in the brain. For HSPs superficial work and people may be extremely boring, frustrating, even intolerable. Sound a bit harsh? HSPs are powerful, talented, creative individuals with much to contribute in the right circumstances. HSPs typically are also high in developmental potential, which Dabrowski described in his Theory of Positive Disintegration as essential to the development of personality. For HSPs with high developmental potential – due to their possession of emotional, intellectual, and imaginational overexcitabiltiies – the need to develop and grow will many times overshadow economic concerns in career.
For many HSPs the proverbial mid-life crisis others experience where existential concerns of life and death begin to hit them as they approach middle age happens at a much earlier point. Superficial lifestyles are generally not for HSPs. We typically seek to live and work in ways that feel authentic to our internalized value systems. HSPs are less interested in the conformist mentality where social expectations guide and direct behavior and more interested in pursuing a personally authentic and meaningful path. Highly sensitive people may be found in every profession and line of work, but the best work is that which has an alignment between the intrinsic psychological needs of the individual and the work itself.
Certainly we all start out our working lives in less than glamorous positions. Mine began with an enlistment in the US Army at the age of 17 in a combat arms military occupational specialty (mos). Seem out of character for an HSP? You would be sorely mistaken to believe that all HSPs fit one mold, especially male HSPs. HSPs go through as many permutations as any person seeking the right career, if not more. Along the way we may take side roads and paths that seem appealing at the time. Such was the case for my choice of the military, which I ultimately did not make into a career.
What of the HSP who fails to find the right niche in life? This is actually more common than one might think. HSPs do often stay in positions longer than they should even when they know the position may be toxic to them. Many times this is purely pragmatic and based on economic need. However, even in those circumstances where an HSP may be in a less than ideal position the need to develop and grow may remain very strong leading the person to pursue interests or hobbies outside of work. In some cases reaching mid-life may be a time for the HSP when a decision has to be made regarding staying the course or choosing a new one. This may be true for anyone, but for the HSP even more so due to a deep need for meaningful work.
Some HSPs set incredibly ambitious goals like achieving a graduate or post-graduate degree. For those individuals the path is straight up. It is to those who set goals which elevate their socioeconomic status radically that I address this article, especially those who may come from the lower class. Success for individuals whom little was expected of may experience a certain amount of cognitive dissonance as their expectations from others are not met. I experienced this to an extent with my achievement of a PhD.
As a first generation college graduate I was the first in my family to attend or graduate college and certainly the only one to have ascended to the top academic degree one may achieve. For people from middle class or better families this might have been merely a pleasant accomplishment, but not entirely surprising if the person possessed the requisite curiosity and drive. For those from the lower class however setting high goals and actually achieving them is an entirely different affair. There are a couple of important considerations here to unpack:
- redefinition of personal standards in behavior, attitudes, and ethics. More than a mere realignment with a different social class’ standards here I am implying that one must go through a process of questioning and reevaluating old morays and folkways releasing those that are no longer useful or valid and embracing new standards that support a new conceptualization of you.
- reframing our view of others who have not set similar goals or achieved on a similar scale. It may be difficult for those from the lower class to truly relate to the new life you have created for yourself through sheer force of will. They may be happy for you, but they cannot truly relate simply because it is largely out of their frame of reference. This is even more true of those who conform to their socioeconomic status which implies a limited worldview with little room for other than immediate concerns.
- adjusting to the new reality of moving in a different social circle with individuals of vastly different socioeconomic classes. When we achieve high goals and set ourselves apart from others we have redefined ourselves in new terms and a commensurate realignment of how we interact socially with our peers is in order, though it may prove a lengthy process.
- reframing our worldview. For those of us who have risen from the lower class reframing our worldviews may prove essential as we become more expansive, tolerant, and open-minded. With an increase in educational attainment there is a proportionate increase in openness to new experience, tolerance of ambiguity, and personal confidence. This does not mean we become ego-centric, rather we develop increased senses of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and an internal locus of control. In short we become more in control of our own lives and less at the mercy of external forces who prey upon us for economic exploitation and gain based on our lack of education, gullibility, or economic desperation.
- Humility. As we progress forward in our lives our sensitive side tells us we should be compassionate toward others, more egalitarian in our willingness to help others, and in all ways humble about our success. Humility also breeds compassion for others, which may in large part alleviate any dissonance we may feel at others inability to relate to who we have become. Retaining our humility helps ensure we move forward in ways that honor our new station in life while reminding us to mentor others who are still in various segments of their own journeys.
As highly sensitive people we may simply not reach a sufficient level of self-awareness to adequately commit ourselves to a life pursuit until mid-life. There is no reason to feel bad about this. It’s society that has created the narrow box of conformity goading us into confinement we aren’t meant for. If you found your path at mid-life and are driven enough to achieve your goals you may experience a greater joy at completing your aspirations since as older adults we aren’t nearly as concerned with starting families or as ego-centric or materialistic as younger individuals. Revel in your success! Celebrate your achievements, even if quietly and privately. Feel free to fully embody who you have become and do so with your characteristic HSP conscientiousness and passion.
Embarking on a new career at mid-life brings its own challenges. One of which is the outdated notion of retirement. The idea that a person should retire at a preconceived age was based largely on their usefulness to industry in a physical sense. Many people in physical occupations do indeed have accumulated injuries to various limbs or the back that make similar work increasingly painful, but for many in the new world of non-physical work the considerations aren’t so much about physical ability to life 50 lbs. repetitively, but reinvention of oneself throughout life as the workplace changes.
Retirement as well should be scrapped as an ideal that we cling to believing that when we are seniors we will finally be able to do the things we spent a lifetime wishing we could. Reinventing oneself at mid-life is a commitment to a lifetime of meaningful work that may stretch well past the traditional retirement age, This doesn’t mean we necessarily work in traditional positions with heavy workloads and time commitments, rather that we create the conditions we need to function optimally if possible and adjust our workloads to our energy levels as we age.
In mid-life many people are presented with the golden opportunity of being child-free for the first time since their 20s. This time is a time of what should be freedom and redefinition of self post-child-rearing. Some people, of course, are never able to move beyond the identity they have built as a parent and instead embrace the role of grandparent with zest. For others there may be a long period of open time when they are free to become what they always wished to be or what they always felt they were capable of, as in my case.
For those individuals who continue on the path of individuation, self-actualization, and realization of potential mid-life may be the fruit finely ripening on the vine. It is to those lovely, long-suffering individuals that the greatest sweetness has been given, just as the grape that suffers in the poorest soil yields the most interesting wine.
“This, I believe, is the great Western truth: that each of us is a completely unique creature and that, if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.” ~ Joseph Campbell
Dr. Tracy Cooper is a highly sensitive person researcher, a consultant, author, and expert in the field of HSPs and careers. His web site may be found at drtracycooper.com.