Behind the Curtain: Growth Through a Midlife Unraveling by Dr. Brian Anderson

Behind the Curtain: Growth Through a Midlife Unraveling  

by Dr. Brian Anderson

About 3½ years ago, I started a midlife unraveling. I’m learning now to look back on the entire experience with grace and acceptance, and I hope sharing a bit of that struggle will help others who might identify with what I went through.

For years, I subconsciously believed what other people thought about me had more merit than what I thought about myself. I was living to find validation and self-worth in the approval of others because I didn’t believe in my own intrinsic worth. Fear of disappointing others prevented me from embracing my own authentic beliefs. I had so gradually acquiesced to an inner emptiness that I didn’t even know I was empty.

Neglecting the closest relationships
As I focused on building my orthodontic practice and career, and my wife and I focused on raising our children, I assumed my marriage was rock-solid and didn’t invest enough time or thought to build it. This was not because my marriage wasn’t a priority, but I can see now that I justified other things as more important or I accepted small defeats too easily (for example, trouble finding a consistent babysitter to watch our young children so we could go on dates with each other regularly) because I had become complacent in the comfort and apparent security of the marriage.

Looking back, I can see I was living to “check the boxes.” I was a slave to perfectionism, and I was too often looking externally for direction and approval rather than inwardly or in my most important partnership. I too often kept my deeper feelings bottled up. I’ve always valued being sincere and authentic, and yet I was rejecting parts of myself that I now realize are OK—that make me human and uniquely me—out of toxic shame. I believed because I wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t lovable or OK just the way that I was. This shame pushed me to a place to question the bedrock of who I am, including my religious beliefs and my marriage, and to self-sabotage.

In this place of guilt and shame, I made some mistakes and hurtful choices—some big, some small. I fi led for divorce after 16 years of marriage. I both caused and experienced deep pain, and I’ve felt profound remorse.

Through that dark abyss, my faith, counseling and introspection helped me develop stronger boundaries, greater self-awareness and resilience to shame. I am now more empathetic and less judgmental because of the mental and emotional processing of my own failures, and the development of compassion regarding the hurtful behavior of others.

A rebuilt self-worth and focus
My work as an orthodontist and business owner, although often busy and stressful, has been a refuge throughout this difficult time. Being able to show up and focus on contributing in a meaningful way to the lives of patients and team members has boosted me emotionally and helped me to be more empathetic, patient, genuine, compassionate, mindful and straightforward with patients. Interestingly, my businesses and conversions improved to the best of my career during this time, and I attribute much of that to being able to connect more meaningfully with people as I step more into my authentic self and become more resilient to shame.
Dr. Brian Anderson’s recommended reading list:

The Second Mountain,
David Brooks

12 Rules for Life,
Jordan B. Peterson

The Courage To Be Disliked,
Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

Gentle and Lowly,
Dane C. Ortlund

The Way of the Superior Man,
David Deida

Radical Acceptance,
Tara Brach

Daring Greatly,
Brené Brown

Why Buddhism Is True,
Robert Wright

No More Mr. Nice Guy,
Robert A. Glover

I Hear You,
Michael S. Sorensen

Hardcore Zen,
Brad Warner

Wherever You Go, There You Are,
Jon Kabat-Zinn

There’s something wonderful about adding value to the world and sharing yourself with others—focusing your energy on easing their burdens and suffering—that lifts your own spirit and, ironically, eases your own burdens.

I am now finding happiness and peace where I am because of what I have learned through pain, acceptance of what was, gratitude for what is and hope for what is to be. Taking that gratitude into the interpersonal connections of my office was one of the great learning practices of my life.

I finally understand that what matters most is what I think of myself and what God thinks of me. It is not my job to make another person think and feel the way I do or the way I want them to. I am slowly learning to focus instead on my own power to work on myself and take a new and different action on my own behalf.

I have leaned on my close personal friends and therapists during my difficulties (thanks to Drs. Derek Westra, Jeremy Goodson, Chris Teeters and Andy Sarpotdar, to name a few). I have embraced the practice of mindfulness and “radical acceptance”—many thanks to friends and colleagues Drs. Kliff Kapus, Chad Foster and Mike McEwan for sending me book recommendations and books touching on this. (See sidebar.)

I have welcomed the concept of becoming an integrated man—embracing my power, assertiveness, courage and passion in addition to my imperfections, mistakes and darker side, thanks in part to Dr. Robert Glover’s educational materials. I have made connections and had transcendent epiphanies during meditation and ketamine therapies. In essence, I have become comfortable in my own skin and am developing the courage to do what is right (and not expedient), and the courage to be disliked and have people disapprove of me as I seek to be more fully authentic.

I am writing this not for the reader’s approval or forgiveness or admiration, but because I believe it is part of my redemption to share in case my lessons or experiences might be helpful to someone. I hope they can be.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” — Carl Rogers

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are, and change the ending.” — C.S. Lewis

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