How Letting Go Gave Author Kelli Wheeler Freedom in Midlife
By KELLI M. WHEELER
I’ve always been a competitive person.
In elementary school, I had to finish first, get an A+, and outrun any game of tag.
This evolved into more as I grew older. I needed to be the first in line, in the fastest lane, the girl who knew the most about sports, the woman who could shut down any debate.
I thought this was who I was. I’m here on this earth to compete. I always saw it as a positive trait. I was praised and rewarded for my overachiever tendencies.
But then, I got a reality check.
I was attending Maria Shriver’s book signing for And One More Thing Before You Go… when she was First Lady of California. I stepped before her with my copy and teased, “You’ve published four books before I can even get one published!”
Maria looked at me and said, “It’s not a competition.”
The rebuke stung. I mumbled something about, “You’re right, it’s not,” but my words had no conviction.
Maria was right. I should not be competing with other authors. We should be supporting each other.
So instead, I began competing with myself. I should do better, work harder, and be the best at whatever I set my focus on.
Let me tell you: I’ve learned in my 52 years on this earth that you will never win against yourself. There will always be a higher mountain to climb; an opportunity missed; a goal unachieved; a desire unfulfilled. It’s not because you haven’t tried hard enough or aren’t worthy enough. It’s simply life.
It’s not about winning.
The other day, I heard another set of words that hit me like a lightning rod. Brené Brown was on Guy Raz’s podcast, How I Built This, talking about her vulnerability research.
As I raced against myself on the elliptical machine, Brené talked about how we self-protect.
“One of the developmental milestones of mid-life is to understand: How did we self-protect as children? What kind of armor did we find when we were young to self-protect?” she said.
My body tingled. Being competitive was my armor, not my character trait!
As a young child, I was shy, introverted, and didn’t have a lot of friends at school. I was picked on—by my own family, with my most self-conscious physical features used to torment and tease me.
So rather than be vulnerable to rejection, I decided to wrap myself in an armor of trying to be faster, smarter, and more ambitious than those around me—in any way I could.
I see now how this will not serve me.
Ah, midlife. When you start to have more years behind you than ahead of you, life has a funny way of coming into focus. You start to realize what is important: people, relationships, kindness, helping others, cherishing what you have, and time with those you love and care about.
My competitiveness has been a lifelong trait. It’s taking time to remove it fully, but I’m trying every day.
I was recently on a bike ride on Sacramento’s American River bike trail. I felt triumphant that I had caught and passed a fellow biker and was now focused on putting distance between us. Suddenly, I rounded a corner, and the most breathtaking field of purple wildflowers stretched before me.
I wanted to stop and take it in. Get a picture. Relish in the beauty of nature. But my competitive nature said, “She’ll pass you if you do.”
Pedaling at 18 miles an hour past that gorgeous field, I heard another voice: It’s not a competition.
I slammed on my brakes and pulled over as my worthy opponent sped past me. As I soaked in the bounty, I relished the worth of stopping, removing my armor, and taking it all in. I like the new armor-free me.
So now I ask you: What armor can you take off to set you free?