Aging ‘gracefully’ can be daunting. See how to change the narrative

The image I see of myself in my mind is of a photograph taken in 1992, when I was 22 years old. The photo is of me and my friend Sean. I had gone with him to take his professional photos (he’s an actor and songwriter) and the photographer had offered to take some of the two of us. The frame is a close-up of our faces. I’m sitting on his lap, my arm around his neck, my eyes fixed on something beyond the camera. Sean looks straight into the lens with all the confidence and defiance of youth. We’re both very, very young.

Although I know, as a relatively intelligent, mostly fit, adult woman that I no longer look like the person in that photo, which I see in the mirror These days always take me by surprise. It’s my mother’s face that stares back at me, a face that causes both grief and sadness. When and how did I start looking so old?

“There’s a certain sadness, sadness when we look at our faces [as we get older] – I should mention that I am 73 years old,” Naomi WoodspringThe author and gerontologist, tell me. “However, notions, ideas about what we see in the mirror are seen through the lens of our current era.”

And those ideas change as we change.

Intellectually I know that cannot magically remove all aging effects of my skin and my body, no matter what advertisers and (often) the media want me to believe. I also know that there must be some way to let go of my internal psychological equation that youth equals beauty and that without it I am no longer attractive. I’m not sure, though, how to change my outdated definitions of these things.

I talked to three psychologists and researchers about ways to alter the narrative that runs through my head, the one that talks about how old I look and how unattractive the wrinkles and sagging on my face are.

How psychologists approach aging

“First, you have to make the decision to accept yourself and to accept aging. Think about what prevents you from doing this. You may think, ‘I’m not attractive, I’m invisible’. But what, really, does that stop you from doing?” He asked Ann Kearney-CookeThe author, speaker, and director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute.

“How do you really want to spend your time?” she asked me.

I don’t particularly want to think about how I look. It was never something that really bothered me or took up my time, at least not until a few years ago when I turned 50. lines and creases In my face. I want to change that narrative in my head.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Thought Restructuring

Goali Saedi Boccialllicensed clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the Pacific University School of Graduate Psychology, explained the process of cognitive behavioral therapy and restructuring thoughts. Essentially, she explained how I could begin to alter the story in my head, the one that continually mourns my apparent untimely death.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is very much about changing our thoughts, Saedi Bocci told me — which is not an easy thing to do, at least not for me. I have a very loud, insistent voice in my head that sometimes spews out all sorts of negative things. I suspect many of us. It is difficult to change this perspective. This, however, is exactly what I needed to do.

“Cognitive restructuring, cognitive reframing and thought distortions are challenging,” said Saedi Bocci. One type of thought distortion is catastrophizing, she explained. An example would be noticing a line or wrinkle and catastrophizing by thinking something like, “My aging is premature. When I’m a specific age, I’m going to look a specific way.”

The subtext, of course, is that this particular way will be old and no longer attractive.

“One thing doesn’t have to lead down this rabbit hole of thoughts,” continued Saedi Bocci. “I can make an observation, take a step back and say, ‘OK, I’m evaluating, yes, this It’s a real physical change. I won’t say this wrinkle isn’t here, but I can change the meaning of it.’”

That goes hand in hand with practice mindfulness and no judgment, Saedi Bocci explained. “We are so obsessed with the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. If we remove the label, we withdraw and do not make judgments; well, this is the healthiest place we can be.”

As soon as we label something like good or bad, delicious or disgusting, or whatever, it becomes that. words are incredibly powerful. As Kearny-Cooke said, “If you move around the world thinking it’s pitiful, people will see you that way.”

“In my research, most people readily admitted that there was a certain amount of suffering related to aging.”

– Naomi Woodspring, author and gerontologist

“And so,” said Saedi Bocci, “to be conscious and intentional with our words, with our thoughts, is powerful. See the story behind it. What does beauty mean? What does attractiveness mean?

As I thought about these things, their backstory, I realized that I was able to change some of my preconceived notions, or cognitively restructure my thoughts.

As Saedi Bocci explained, cognitive restructuring it means taking a pre-formed thought – one based on social norms, values, expectations, or things your parents may have taught you – “into a courtroom and discussing all sides of it. Is this something that is true? It’s fake? Is it useful? It’s useless?”

These types of questions are important when there is a level of cognitive rigiditylike believing that only one thing – youth – equals beauty.

To combat this rigidity, talk and think about other forms of beauty. “Ask yourself, what is leading to this? Where did you get these messages from?” she continued.

She told me I needed to find a way in, the only place where I could start to unravel whatever narrative was running through my mind in an unhealthy way. (I confess, sometimes there are several.)

changing the narrative

One way to start changing your narrative is to discover what your signature strengths are, Kearny-Cooke told me. This could be a big smile or big legs. Think about how you appreciate and/or show them, she suggested.

“Also, challenge yourself to stop seeing yourself through the eyes of men,She added. That, as Kearny-Cooke said, is often a difficult thing. But what if I reset it? She suggested that I track every day whatever I do that makes me feel good about my body and/or with myself – things like going for a walk or learning something new or planning a trip I wanted to take.

One type of thought distortion is catastrophic, when someone gets stuck on a line or wrinkle and thinks something like: "My aging is premature.  When I'm a specific age, I'm going to look a specific way."

Klaus Tiedge via Getty Images

One type of thought distortion is catastrophist, when someone fixates on a line or wrinkle and thinks something like, “My aging is premature. When I’m a specific age, I’m going to look a specific way.”

She also suggested that I alter my inner monologue to include phrases like, “I’m eating healthy, I’m moving. I have good relationships with people. I have goals. I’m proud of what I’ve done in my life.”

“We’re all proud of some of the things we’ve done and not so proud of others,” Kearny-Cooke said, “but if we really try to tell ourselves a story, a new narrative about our life story, we can decide what the next chapters are. will be.”

One way to help do this is that instead of getting together with friends and bemoaning our culture and how older women don’t seem to be valued as much as younger ones, spend this time with your friends. walkingplanning adventures (I’m partial to cycling variety) or learning a new language.

“Remember, curiosity, courage and adventure-seeking are youthful qualities,” he added. As I pondered this, I thought of another photograph of myself, taken a few years ago, during a month-long cycling trip through Central Asia. In this photo, I’m laughing. I haven’t showered or seen a mirror in days. And I don’t think I look old.

All three experts I spoke with emphasized the importance of creating my own narrative about my life. Kearny-Cooke described it as “honoring all the things you’ve overcome, the things you may still be struggling with, and the knowledge you’ve acquired throughout your entire life — truth honor them,” she said. “And then make a decision about how you want it to be this time. Ask yourself how you can gain power.”

Who do you want to be?

As most of us know, we cannot control a culture’s or other people’s reactions to us. We can, however, decide to be someone people want to spend time with and get to know. We need to decide who we want to be.

“Am I going to talk about issues or values ​​I have? Am I free from this evolutionary selection of the young? Thank God I’m out of it. I’m free of it. I can create my own version of a middle-aged woman,” said Kearny-Cooke.

His suggestion on how to start doing this: Make deliberate choices and write them down every day until they eventually become a mindset.

“Regardless of how you live your life, you bring so many years of experience to that face in the mirror,” Woodspring told me. “In my research, most people readily admitted that there was a certain amount of aging-related sadness.”

“But there was also acceptance,” she continued, “and I believe that acceptance comes from all these years of life experience and is part of what happens when people realize they’ve lived more life of what they left to live. We started to see the world differently. We started to see each other differently.”

Essentially what I think she wanted me to know was that I’m at the beginning of this transition to what I think could be called ‘old age’, that eventually I would do what she called a pivot, a pivot where I start to see me differently.

A trick to help you change your mindset

Kearny-Cooke has a rowboat metaphor that she uses when advising people about beauty, aging, and acceptance. Imagine you are in a rowing boat and the rudder that steers the boat is stuck. There is also water at the bottom of the boat. You have a bucket with holes in it, but you keep trying to get the water out. You spend all your time and energy on the water problem that you can never solve, completely ignoring the fact that the boat’s rudder is stuck and that’s really what you should be paying attention to.

What I take away from this is that I need to stop rescuing water. There’s nothing I can do about aging, but what I can do is focus on regaining control of my narrative and accept that I can’t stop the effects of aging.

Although Sean and I aren’t as close as we used to be, we still check in occasionally. In the early 90s, we went dancing two or three times a week. About 10 years ago, I sent him an email rambling on about those nights we spent in questionable bars and sketchy music halls and lamenting the absence of proper dance time in my current life.

He simply replied, “I’m always, always dancing with you.”

And I think, for me, that’s part of how I start to come to terms with aging. It’s not that I want to be “young” again or go back and relive it all (God forbid), but I find comfort in believing that there’s a 22-year-old me always and forever dancing with a 23-year-old. old Sean. Her existence helps me recognize (and honor) everything that has happened in the last 30 years, as well as this new version of myself – who may have wrinkles, gray hair, and her mother’s face, but is still alive, learning, and growing. and becoming, and maybe, maybe also a version of “beautiful”.

And as I write these words, maybe I’m taking the first step to make it that way, to decide what the rest of my life’s story will be.

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