This is the third of a series of articles written by our colleague David B. Wolfe noted author and older consumer expert.
by David B. Wolfe
How Bridget Chose Self-delusion over Self-Realization
I once met a woman named Bridget who proudly told me how in her early 40s, after years of letting life happen to her, she took control of her life to make it for her. The first thing she said she did was to throw her husband out. Quite excitedly, Bridget told me how she successfully worked through issues that had long kept her from becoming the person she wanted to be. As she added more detail to her story I interjected, “Isn’t it wonderful that in midlife some inner voice begins prompting us to reexamine our lives.” She exploded, “There was no inner voice. I did it all myself! Don’t take anything away from me!”
I had unwittingly injured Bridget’s sense of autonomy. She vehemently rejected any idea that developmental forces might be at the root of her decision to “take control of her life.” Her reaction is not unusual. We readily acknowledge developmental forces in children’s behavior, but it’s not easy to recognize them at work our own.
Personality development is a lifelong journey marked by milestones. These milestones generally appear in behavior at generally predictable times and in generally predictable ways. Bridget was not unique despite her ego’s contrary position. Typically in early in midlife, inchoate forces emanating from our genes launch us on the way to what Carl Jung called self-realization. As he saw it, the principal task of the second half of life is to pick up at a higher level the perennial adolescent question, “Who am I,” in quest of the real self and its purpose in being.
Throughout the first half of life, our personas – Latin for “mask,” and so named by Jung – play a heavy role in our interactions with others. This interferes with having a picture of our real selves. Thus it is, that in the second half of life according to Jung, we begin dissolving the persona to clear away the foggy perceptions we have of ourselves. That is the self-realization process. Personal development milestones anticipated in our genetic makeup predispose – not predetermine – the general character of our worldviews, needs, motivations and how we seek satisfaction of needs. While many details of our lives may be shaped by conscious will, the roots of behavior are planted outside the direct access of the conscious mind.
With no apparent knowledge of empirically derived tenets of human development in the adult years, Bridget saw nothing other than her own will involved in her personal makeover. So, she adopted a confabulated reality on the issue. She had no place in her mind for the words of famed neurologist Richard Restak, on whose work PBS’s award-winning series The Brain and The Mind were based: “We have reason to doubt that full awareness of our motives and other mental activities may be possible.”
Brain scientist Bernard J. Baars puts the matter this way in his book, In the Theater of Consciousness: “Our inability to accurately report intentions and expectations may simply reflect the fact that they are qualitatively not conscious.”
Several years ago while discussing the unconscious roots of behavior at a sales training workshop, a woman suddenly jumped up from her seat and yelled at me, “Mr. Wolfe, you may not know why you do what you do, but I know why I do everything I do and it’s not because of some inner voices that my mind doesn’t know are there.”
Contemporary brain research has told us otherwise. The “inner voices” that our conscious minds can’t hear are legion. They stealthfully prompt our conscious minds to reflect on process issues toward decisions that benefit us. Of course, not all of our decisions turn out to be the best ones for any number of reasons.
The unconscious cues that catalyze our behavior are influenced by our changing needs across a lifetime. Teens are prompted towards behavior that favors their socialization. Bridget was prompted toward behavior that favored self-realization – the discovery of the true self, stripped of the persona of youth.
The urge to reexamine our lives when they are approximately half done is an important part of what defines us as humans. It marks a shift from the self-centeredness of youth to the others-centeredness that inclines people in their middle years to start “giving back.”
My prediction about the coming of the Age of Aquarius II nearly 20 years ago in Serving the Ageless Market could have been made as early as 1994. That is when decline in the U.S. fertility rate fell below population replacement rates. This meant that no cohort following boomers would be large enough to hold back a massive change in the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – that reflected the characteristic worldviews of midlife. By worldview, I mean how one connects to the world beyond one’s skin, not necessarily what one believes. Children connect to the world differently than teens do, teens differently than young adults, young adults than middle age adults, and so on.
My prediction that an unprecedented wave of “giving back” lay ahead was based on simple demographic arithmetic with a psychographic overlay. Shortly after the turn of the century 11 years ahead, boomers would makeup 90 percent of the midlife population. They would far outnumber adults between the ages of 18 and 39. Today the ratio of middle age and older adults to younger adults is 136 million to 86 million.
By the sheer weight of their numbers, the older population, led by aging boomers, would inevitably shift the zeitgeist toward the worldviews and values long attributed to the middle years and beyond by students of adult development.
Next: How the seasons of life shape our needs and how we seek their satisfaction.