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How I Faced My 40th Birthday

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An image of New York Times bestselling author Mandy Hale.
Courtesy Mandy Hale
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Forty, for me, always loomed sort of big and scary on the horizon. I remember celebrating my 29th birthday over a decade ago and putting “Come help me celebrate my last year in my 20s!” on the invitation. As though 30 was so old. All during my 29th year, I had major anxiety about trading the “2” in my age for a “3.” But then the day arrived — the big 3-0 — and it wasn’t so scary, after all. It really didn’t feel much different than 29. It helped that my early to mid-30s were pretty life changing for me. I traded in my full-time job in public relations — complete with its benefits, job security and 401(k) — for a full-time job as a writer, complete with none of the above. And I achieved success! My 33rd year, I published my first book. My 34th year, I hit the New York Times best-seller list with my second book. I even got to check “work with Oprah” off my bucket list. I was on a career high and loving life in my 30s. For a while, I forgot all about the impending 4-0.

Then my late 30s arrived, and with them … life challenges. Personal, romantic, career, family: I was hit on all sides with great, big, life-altering things. And I floundered. I struggled. I faced battles with depression and anxiety. For the greater part of the last three years of my 30s, I felt like I was fighting to simply keep my head above water. The dread I had felt way back at age 29 about someday turning 40 started to rear its ugly head.

And then, somewhere in the midst of my 39th year, I simply grew tired of my own BS. Which, as you may or may not know, is the first step to change. Real, genuine, lasting CHANGE. I found a therapist who is helping me confront all my baggage. I found a new publisher, one that better fit who I was becoming. I released my fourth book, which unabashedly and unapologetically detailed my journey through depression, anxiety and intensive group therapy. I let go of relationships and friendships that had been draining my spirit. I got real with myself and with everyone else in my life. And something beautiful started to happen: I stopped looking at turning 40 as a curse and started looking at it as a celebration. I had made it! I had survived!

There is a quote that says: “If life really begins on your 40th birthday, it’s because that’s when women finally get it: the guts to take back their lives.”

About a week before my birthday, I enlisted my friend Laura and together we did an impromptu photo shoot on my iPhone. I wanted to capture the essence of whom I had become in my 30s: a different woman leaving than I was when I started, with a few more battle scars — some visible, some not — but still standing. And better yet: still smiling — perhaps bigger than I had in years, because I had reclaimed myself. I had taken back my life. I had found my joy again. And I couldn’t be ending my 39th year in a better, stronger, more confident place. No, I didn’t get to 40 unscathed, but I got there. And that’s what matters.

So, friends: This is 40.

Advice I had gotten over the years from friends who hit 40 before me tended to fall into one extreme or the other. Either …

Forty is when everything falls apart: your body, your eyesight, your marriage, etc. etc. It’s just another stop on the train to old age. Beware! Beware! Beware!

Or …

Forty is when it all comes together and you really tap into your inner goddess. You stop worrying about what people think of you, and it’s a complete freedom and confidence like you’ve never known before.

And here is what I know, having now crossed that bridge into 40 myself:

Forty — and any age before or thereafter — will be exactly what you make it. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. You can mourn the end of one decade and chapter … or you can celebrate the beginning of an entirely new decade and chapter. Whichever one you decide to do will set the tone for your 40s. Forty and frustrated, or 40 and fabulous? It’s entirely up to you.

If you’re facing down a milestone birthday, instead of viewing it as losing yourself and/or your youth, how about viewing it as reclaiming yourself? Here are a few simple ways to do so:

  1. Decide that now is the time to confront your own junk. There’s literally no time like the present. Don’t take the past with you into one more year. Commit to therapy or find a new therapist that better represents who you are today and can help you become the person you want to be tomorrow.
  2. Release toxic/unhealthy relationships. It’s time. You know the ones I’m talking about. It’s hard to embrace who you are becoming if you’re surrounded by people who want you to stay as you are. Relationships that do not support and encourage your growth are not healthy. Let them go.
  3. Get real with yourself and with the people in your life. Stop apologizing for who you are, your hopes, your dreams, your politics, your religion, your goals, etc. Ask yourself, am I in the career that most brings me to life? And if the answer is no, start looking for the thing you really want to do. The thing that lights you up inside. Life is too short to spend chained to someone else’s desk or living someone else’s dream. Plan that trip you’ve always wanted to take. Start exploring adoption if you’re like me and still single but want to be a mom. A milestone birthday is the perfect time to take inventory of your life and start doing and being the things you always dreamed of.
  4. Finally, look back with gratitude, not regret. Where you’ve been doesn’t define you. The only thing that matters is here and now, and you are right where you are meant to be. Trust your path and where it has brought you. That way, when it’s time to say goodbye to one age and hello to another, you’ll be ready to smile and say: Thank you, next.