not a (midlife) horror story

Early this month, an innocuous enough question from someone I respect set in motion an unraveling.

At the time, I didn’t realize it for what it was. It wasn’t, after all, delivered with a written announcement: “Congratulations! Your unraveling has officially begun!”

Rather, the question sat with me as I read and reflected early the next morning. I mulled it over as I wondered how it applied to other facets of my life, past and present. The question was prominent in my heart when I then read a Daring Greatly passage I’ve read many times before without once truly understanding it.

Finally, I understood, exclaiming, “Oh. Oh!” before weeping at words I’d only just come to know in my bones.

Since I first read all Brené Brown’s books a couple years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time doing what Brown calls “rumbling.”

As Brown explains the concept in Dare to Lead, a rumble is—among other things—“a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, [and] to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving.” While there’s more to her definition, this is the part that applies to rumbling with myself.

A week and a half (and so, so very much rumbling) after being asked that seemingly innocuous question, I found myself thinking, “Man, this is just not like my other rumbles. What is even happening here? What am I missing? What else am I supposed to be learning in this rumble?”

Something about the way I framed these questions nudged me toward the answer. Wait, I wondered, Is this my midlife unraveling in process? Is this what Brown was writing about?!

I googled “brene brown midlife unraveling” and found this post. With every word I read, I grew lighter of heart:

At long last, the set of patterned responses I’d always thought was me was unraveling,

opening the possibility of my becoming truly me.

The sense of possibility was thrilling, for about a half a day. I was finally clearing out the crap, hurrah! After it was cleared, the sky would be the limit!

Anything at all was possible …


What looks like a universe of possibilities from one angle looks—and feels—very much like an absence of anything whatsoever to hold on to, from many other angles.


The last couple of weeks, I have been doing the best I can. I have been living in simultaneous gratitude for much possibility and exhaustion from attempting to navigate the world without all my old tools crutches.

I’ve been reading furiously and trying to find short-term fixes to get me through to long-term mendings. I’ve plucked potential answers from the ether, crossed my fingers, and plowed forth as best I could.

Once or twice so far, this has worked out okay from the get-go. The rest of the time, it’s worked out not so great—which, thankfully, is itself useful: “Welp, I still don’t know what the answer is, but I know it’s definitely not that!”

This is, how do you say? Oh, yes:

A start.

One of my many recent rumblings has been about boundaries.

What’s OK with me? What’s not OK with me? How do I identify this with clarity such that I can communicate it early, and kindly?

Growing up in profound, sustained violence, I honestly wasn’t aware such things as “boundaries” existed. Even when, late into college, I did start interacting with people who did this super-puzzling thing where they asked me what I thought and then actually acted in ways that showed they genuinely heard me, I had no idea what I was experiencing.

What was it they did that was so weird and wonderful? What was this thing where they treated me like … I was worthy, even when I disagreed with them? Like I was worthy, period?

As I rumble with boundaries as part of this simultaneous unraveling and building-anew, analogies are especially useful tools. I’m trying on and discarding instructional analogies several times daily, seeing what rings true to me heart-wise and discarding the rest.

Unfortunately, sometimes analogies that feel really spot-on one moment fall apart the next.

Fortunately, from a perspective of leaning into discomfort, there really is something to learn in it all.

Middle of last week, I both locked in and acted upon a not-quite-right analogy. While I owe some related apologies, I’m not beating myself up. I very much needed to meander through that analogy to find the one that really worked.

The one that made me go, “Oh. Oh!” and feel an overwhelming sense of resonance-imbued relief:

In my analogy, I’d found a foundation on which I could build,

the possibility from which so many others may flow.

When I first read Brown’s insights on the midlife unraveling, it all sounded like a horror story to me. While some part of me was clear that she didn’t mean it as only a horror story, the non-horror elements simply did not register for me.

Now, I think upon that innocuous early October question that helped really kick off my midlife unraveling and am profoundly grateful.

This is hard, and it is harrowing, but it is not a horror story;
it is a story of wonder, and curiosity, and courage;
it is a story of faith, and exploration;
it is a leaning into possibilities, and
deciding which ones are worth
trying to transform
into actualities.

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