Healing Shame about Aging
People become much more conscious of the fact of aging through midlife and into the later years. This awareness often comes with a sense of shame. How can we begin healing shame like this?
I remember in my own case one particular moment when I began to feel this type of emotion, when I noticed a simple change in my hands that made them appear more venous, and well, …older. A very small thing, and yet very uncomfortable. Certainly many people past the age of even 35 can relate some experience of this type.
Is there any way that we can move forward through our various life transitions, that would allow us to begin healing shame about aging?
How Did Getting Older Become a Stigma?
Dr. Barry S. Anton, former President of the American Psychological Association relates a story which will resonate with many of us.
At a recent dinner party, a friend asked, “How old do you feel you are when you think of yourself?” To my amazement, everyone at the table answered that they felt at least 25 years younger than they actually were. Were my friends in denial? Were they yearning for the fountain of youth? …. Were we ashamed of our seniority? In our culture, youth is celebrated and old age dreaded. [Italics mine]Barry S. Anton, “No Shame in Being Older”
Dr. Anton is surely right: we live in a culture that worships youth. Billions of dollars are spent on advertising products designed to make people feel younger, and, above all else to help them look younger. Looking older is considered a very bad thing. This is especially true for women, but each passing year finds increasing pressure applied to men to present themselves as more youthful, too.
In our culture a particularly powerful form of shame is body shame. If we don’t have the body we are “supposed” to have, we experience intense shame. In this sense, one powerful aspect of shame associated with aging is bodily shame.
Silence Around the Shame of Aging
Shame leads to silence. Evolutionary psychology shows that the emotion of shame evolved to prevent us from doing things that would lead to us being outcast from the our group or tribe, which in prehistoric times could mean the difference between life and death. Shame prevents group members from doing things that are taboo, and it also keeps group members from talking or thinking about things which are taboo to the group. As U. Montreal Professor Daniel Sznycer states,
The feeling of shame is an internal signal that pulls us away from acts that would jeopardize how much other people value [us].
Shame is fundamentally tied to social interaction and the norms of the group. In our age and time, people who are getting older feel pressure to be silent about their aging — because speaking about the challenges of getting older, and perhaps even celebrating parts of the aging process, would tend to challenge the norms of our social group, which include the idea that “younger is just better”.
But is younger better? While our culture seems to be convinced it’s true, many cultures have had very different values. To see a very powerful example of that, we need look no further than our own Canadian First Nations. As the First Nations Pedagogy Online website clearly states:
Elders have been the Gatekeepers of First Nations wisdom, knowledge, and history. Elders traditionally hold crucial roles in supporting…First Nations communities. They impart tradition, knowledge, culture, [and] values.
We might feel that “Well, that’s all fine for First Nations — we’re different.” Yet the fact is that it’s not all that long ago that elders held a similar place in our own cultures, and European societies also greatly valued people as they grew older. Perhaps an important part of healing shame about aging consists of re-connecting with this stream in human culture — and re-affirming the experience and fruit of living in ourselves.
The Wise Old Woman / Man
Throughout the literature and cultures of the world, the image of the wise old woman or wise old man play prominent roles. From a Jungian perspective, they represent an inherent capacity within us to respond in a wise way, from the depths of our processed experience, and from the promptings of instinct.
We need to re-connect with that potential wise elder in ourselves as we grow older. The elder represents our own capacity to respond to the situations of life in a wise way. We need to recognize that this may be a unique wisdom, also. No one else has had exactly the life journey that you have had, and no one else can tell exactly the story that you can tell. The more we work on ourselves, the more we realize how this is profoundly true, precious and worthy of great respect.
Coming to a place of appreciating and affirming the elder in ourselves involves recognizing, affirming and reflecting on the unique parts of our own journey. This work of self-compassion and healing the shame of aging can often be greatly assisted through working with a skilled and genuinely supportive /a-midlife-transition.