How Do I Avoid Thee? Let Me Count the Ways!

I think that one of the biggest differences between the way women approach the midlife transition and the way men do derives from the very strong tendency that men have toward avoidance of significant midlife issues. It’s also one of the biggest dangers that men face going into midlife, because it effectively prevents us from making the shifts in perception and understanding that characterize a successful midlife transition. There’s a popular saying that goes: when you avoid a lesson from the universe, it will keep comi gbgng back to you until you learn it. There’s a lot of truth in what ‘they’ say. In fact, in this case, the lessons not only keep coming back until they’re learned, they get progressively worse with time and repetition. Avoidance tends to aggregate the problems, like a snowball rolling down a steep hill.

I’m sorry to have to report that I think that there are an awful lot of snowballs out there, growing at an enormous rate – especially now that all of us ‘boomers’ are into the midlife transition (at least). The extent of this growing epidemic is at least partially the result of the vast number of avoidance opportunities that we men have at our disposal . . . and they’re growing every day. Almost anything that enhances our quality of life can also be perverted into an effective (and addictive) avoidance behavior. For example, let’s take our ubiquitous computers (and related computing devices like PDF’s, Blackberries and cellphones) and our consequent capacity to surf anywhere in the world for anything we desire. Push-button escapism was never so handy nor easy-to-use 24/7! Welcome to one of the newest fields of study in the universe: virtual addiction.

I’d like to introduce you to an acquaintance of mine, Dr. David Greenfield, the founder of The Center for Internet Behavior in West Hartford Connecticut. Dr. Dave is the psychologist who popularized the term ‘virtual addiction’ (see virtual-addiction). Essentially, a virtual addict is someone who loses himself (or herself) in a virtual world. It can be computer games, social networking, cybersex or any other foray into a computer-generated (or assisted) fantasy world. These worlds – these mental constructs – can be inescapably attractive because, one the one hand, they lack the soul-challenging conflict that can make real life so disgustingly complex and painful, and, on the other hand, they supply liberal doses of adrenaline- and endorphin-induced highs. The simplicity of devolving back to childhood patterns of pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance can be irresistibly attractive when you contrast them with the challenges demanded of us by the real world. Yet, even apart from the compulsive grip of addictive behavior (remember the rats that starved to death pressing the pedal that triggered pleasure-generating electrodes in their brains), getting stuck in the pleasure principle not only means avoiding pain, it also results in avoiding growth.

There are so many inventive ways available to a guy so that he can almost effortlessly avoid having to grow up. Virtual addiction using a computer and/or the internet represents only part of the story. There’s an older, more venerable (and, at one time, more socially acceptable) means of keeping yourself safely ensconced in childish fantasy: it’s called work. Obviously, work provides the necessities of life: from hunter-gatherer times, through agrarian societies, through the industrial revolution, all the way to our knowledge-based economy, work has made both life and progress possible. As such, work represents a means to an end (survival and progress). Addictive avoidance turns work (the idea of survival and progress) into an end in itself. Work brings with it such side-effects as creative expression, a sense of accomplishment, a boost in self-esteem and, from time to time, acknowledgment from others (even fame). Once again, the pleasures of achievement (like the fortunes amassed by Scrooge and Marley) become their own reward. In fact, workaholism, like its cousin, virtual addiction, brings rewards without your ever having to address the grimy nitty-gritty of the bigger picture. What’s it all for, after all?

I don’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that most of Dr. Dave’s patients are men. I’m going to say something pretty harsh here, but I hope that it’s taken in the spirit of challenge in which it’s given: men generally lack courage. Of course, it takes courage to face and meet external challenges. In fact, it takes even more courage to face internal ones. Most women face personal pain with resolve: they undergo the agony of child-birth (like Carol Burnett said, it’s like taking your lower lip and stretching it up over your head) and they confront the discomfort and emotional disorientation of having to adjust their worldview during midlife head-on. They’re not shy about admitting how they feel; nor are they too proud to share their feelings with others. That takes courage. There’s really no ‘high’ associated with self-examination and self-revelation. There’s no enjoyment of the victory or the kill to celebrate. There’s no escapist pay-off for embracing maturity. The only reward that mature men and women enjoy for facing the scary prospect of feeling your feelings comes down to the unanticipated serenity of a life lived in aligddnment with your purpose.

What’s my biggest challenge as I strive to get the message out about the most effective ways that men can manage their midlife transitions? It’s that one ‘stopper’, avoidance. It’s not so much an issue of men disvaluing my insights as it is men choosing to remain willfully ignorant of what’s going on inside them. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘If I ignore it (or cover it up with good feelings), it’ll go away.’ Sadly, it won’t. As I said at the beginning, like a snowball, the avoidance simply compounds the immaturity and the resulting problems become gradually worse, until they explode in the loss of a relationship, the loss of a family, the loss of a career, or a breakdown in your health. By then, the consequences of a midlife crisis are unavoidable, and you’re into damage control. Here’s a challenge, guys: e-mail me and let me know that you’ve read this far (and congratulations on your courage for having done it). If you’ve reached this point, it means that you’ve got the courage to look seriously at your feelings and behaviors. The rewards for your bravery will be greater than you may have imagined!

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
ProActivation® Coaching

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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown

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