Now in my late thirties, I notice that I surround myself with only healthy relationships. In my youth, I would be happy spending time with anyone who wanted to be friends with me, even if the relationship was unhealthy.
If you’re a woman in or near your 40s and a perpetual people-pleaser, I have good news for you! You’re about to enter a new stage of psychological wisdom and maturity. The people-pleasing that ate away at your sanity is going to become a thing of the past.
Last June, I attended a conference for my doctoral program. I learned of a case study invovling a 16-year-old girl that was suffering from major depression and anxiety. Her mother, a 40-plus-year old woman known for being submissive and passive, asserted her feelings about her daughter’s behavior to her husband and therapist. This was out of the ordinary for the mother, as she, for the first time, spoke up about her daughter's problems and her awareness of what might be causing them. Our professor, herself 40-plus years old, spent the session discussing how it is psychologically normal for women to find a voice at this stage of life. Even women who were incredibly shy or suffered low self-esteem in their youth sometimes begin to assert themselves in their mid-30s and early 40s.
A 42-year-old classmate spoke up. She stated that, in her 20s, she had low self-confidence and was always afraid of what others thought of her. She bent over backwards to impress people in order to get them to like her. In her 30s, she began caring less about what people thought of her. She married, had children, and focused on raising a family. In her 40s, she said that she no longer cared at all what people thought of her. She suddenly found the ability to assert herself for the first time in her life.
According to my professor, 40 marks a turning point in many women's lives. At this point, women have gained life experience and wisdom; they know who they are. For the shy, people-pleaser, this brings out self-confidence. Many experience a new potential of developing their inner voice, then wanting to share their wisdom and experience with the younger generation and make their mark in the world.
I’m starting to see this change in myself. I was very insecure, shy, and a people-pleaser in my adolescence and 20s. In my early 30s, I focused on improving my professional skills, abilities as a parent and spouse, and character growth. Now in my late 30s, I notice that I surround myself with only healthy relationships. In my youth, I would be happy spending time with anyone who wanted to be friends with me, even if the relationship was unhealthy. I am learning to say no and set limits to what I am willing to do for others. In my 20s, I’d do favors for others, even though it drained me and I'd grit my teeth with resentment. Ten to 15 years ago, I didn’t have enough life experience to distinguish between healthy versus unhealthy thinking. Now, after years of pain and struggle, knowing the difference comes naturally to me.
I’ve been in and out of therapy for years. I started working with a new therapist in September, and decided to make it a long-term commitment. I’m learning that knee-jerk reactions to situations can tell you a lot about yourself. If people do something offensive, I automatically become defensive and start to question my self-worth. With time, therapy has helped me fill the gaps in my heart, where the self-worth should have been all along.
I had a breakthrough last week. A friend forgot about a lunch date we had scheduled and consequently went out with someone else. My knee-jerk reaction was to feel happy for her, and content in the opportunity to spend time by myself. My therapist congratulated me on my growth. It was a healthy sign of a mending heart, and a secure attachment to a friend.
I imagine approaching 40 as emerging from a cocoon; born into a beautiful butterfly. The wings are a breathtaking work of art, made of the wisdom you’ve gained up until now. As they flap, you fly, brilliantly dancing in the wind. Your inner wisdom is no longer dormant and shines for all to see. You have grown and will continue to grow. Your heart is on the mend. You fear no more. You are becoming secure in yourself and able to assert your truth. You no longer have to put on a mask and tie yourself in knots, in desperate effort to win others’ approval.
Although I'm not there yet, I am well on my way thanks to therapy. I look up at the sky colored with those beautiful butterflies, and hope to join them soon.