My Experience Coaching Men in Their Fifties and Sixties
–by Jim Nolan
I Coach a lot of men in their fifties and sixties who have long been tired of their lives. Our cultural lens does not view that age span as any kind of natural or legitimate developmental stage, other than perhaps as the one in which we are thinking about when to retire. So men often come to me awkwardly, not knowing what to name what they are experiencing, because we have not given it a name yet…So they stretch toward “depression”, or they wait until it shows up in some physical way, because, well, that’s a “thing”, right? But we both know it is not those things. And so the journey begins…
Yes, many view this as the age when men start to shut it down, slow down, or relax. But I have found that for many men in their fifties and sixties (and sometimes even forties), this view is way off the mark. Here are some of the things I find in my Coaching clients:
- Men get tired or bored with what they’ve been doing for too many years. That doesn’t mean they are ready to retire or croak. It means they want something more in their lives.
- They have allowed themselves to become the financial foundation for lives and lifestyles that are not their own, and they can’t gracefully, let alone graciously, bow out of these roles. They experience a stuck-ness, as they feel forced to keep doing what they are tired of doing to sustain somebody else’s dream–one they no longer share (if they ever did.) This can even be a “Golden Cage”, where on the outside, everything looks good–beautiful house, good job, blah blah blah…But the guy is miserable, unhappy, unfulfilled. And almost embarrassed to feel that way.
- A lifestyle that once suited them no longer does, but they’re feeling trapped in it, and by it. It is assumed by others (sometimes the men themselves) that because they made these decisions at one point in their life, they have to stick to them now, in their later years too. But you know what? We are all allowed to change and develop, and want something different now than we wanted when we were 25, or 35, or 45. These guys don’t know that yet…They will soon…
- There’s stuff they always wanted to do more than they have allowed themselves to do it, whether that is writing poetry, tinkering in the workshop, martial arts, getting back to the guitar, or being more reflective rather than action/work oriented. When do they get their turn? When they’re like 85?
- They often have physical issues that they (and others, including doctors) attribute simply to aging, when those issues might equally or more accurately be related to either not acknowledging their developmental needs, or denying them, mismanaging them, or mistaking the whole experience for something else.
- They have concerns related to money and career, and may find it scary to consider making much-desired changes due to uncertainty over what viable and fiscally sustainable options are really left for them, or open to them. Others are often dismissive of their thoughts about changing life work, telling them to “get real”, or “you can’t make any money doing that…” This leads to either giving up the dream, or facing the possibility of very disruptive change in their relationships…It is not uncommon to see some variation of “gaslighting” going on at this stage of things…intentionally or not, others make you feel like you must be nuts to be having the experience you are having…
That’s a lot to hold.
Do Men Have Permission to Change?
I find that men often don’t even really know what the hell their own experience really is. They often stuff it down, and wait until their gut hurts, or they feel symptoms of depression, or they get terribly out of shape, or experience marital/relational complications. As men in this culture, they often have never felt permission (from the culture, from their family, or from themselves) to actually listen to their own inner yearnings. “This is a hell of a time to start thinking about that!” And men often do not have a great vocabulary for their emotional experience, so they may not be able to articulate to themselves or others what is going on… (For a little musical break, here is Utah Phillips’ great and relevant song “All Used Up.”)
But as I have suggested, often the physiological, or psychological, or relatonal are viewed as the “primary issues”, when they might more profitably be seen as symptoms of a more global “life dissatisfaction”, and the fading hopes that there could be something better ahead, or another intersting, exciting, or meaningful chapter in their lives. No one wants to feel dead or done before their time.
A supportive and encouraging Coaching relationship (here’s “What To Look for in a Coach”) with another male can be enormously helpful in opening men up to a more thorough, holistic, honest, informed exploration and audit of their lives. This process requires a lot of courage, because it almost inevitably will lead to a recognition of the need for changes in one or more areas of life. And while embraced change can evolve into Transformation, it’s still not always easy or welcomed. ESPECIALLY, perhaps, by those others in these men’s lives who are comforted, supported, dependent, or simply familiar with the way the man has been up until this time.
A long time ago, Harriet Goldhor-Lerner wrote eloquently and powerfully (in The Dance of Anger) about how when women make profound and potentially transformational change in their lives, they are often met with pushback from those who want to return things to the status quo, because it met the other’s own needs for stability and comfort. As I recall, she encouraged women to anticipate this push for return to the status quo, because the woman would need extra courage and resolve to hold her ground in the face of the opposition that would greet her strivings for change.
This point holds too for men who want to make Transformational changes in their lives. It takes resolve, commitment to oneself, a level of self-reflection and self-care that is not part of the set of the expectations Americans have for men. And I cannot tell you how many of my friends from childhood have already experienced cancer, heart attacks, and other life threatening or life-ending illnesses or accidents, due in part to their holding the enormous weight of the expectations they, and others, had of them, with virtual total disregard for the price the man might be paying. (I wrote a poem about my Dad, who embodied this story as starkly as anybody I have ever known…I am looking for it…)
And you have already guessed that this piece is about me as much as it is about any of my clients. I can be helpful because I got the same cultural Kool-Aid they did. It has been a long road for us all…I have worked my ass off to free myself from this whole cultural pattern, and I will continue to do so for the rest of my life…
If you are a man, give this piece some thought, and see if it resonates. If you are the friend or a loved one of a man in his fifties or sixties, take a minute or two to wonder whether this piece might resonate with him, and if so, please share it with them…
Thank you all for reading.
This is a big piece of the work I do in my private practice.
To contact me, text me at 505.699.7616
Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I do work long-distance, wherever you are…
You don’t have to die doing what you are doing now…