Living Through the Ages
A corollary to the idea that your felt age might not match up with your calendar age is that you aren't confined to one chronological designation. If your ever-young psyche refuses to accept the fact of physical aging, or if you've resigned yourself to a miserable accumulation of physiological and psychological pain, I suggest trying a particular kind of manipulation: felt age time travel. By performing a few wizardlike quantum leaps—pretending that your felt age is years or even decades older or younger—you can visit different life stages, culling what is best from each. Here are some of my most useful era-hopping practices.
- Exercise one: Get past the pain. Hint from Sigmund: Whenever you're overwhelmed by a strong negative emotion, your felt age is probably that of a child. The next time you're anguished, enraged, or terrified, ask yourself, How old do I feel? Let a number pop up. This is the felt age of your suffering self.
It's important not to demand that others coddle you like a 2-year-old, though this is what most of us unconsciously expect when we're in the throes of emotional age regression. Instead, use the resources you have now (friends, literacy, a driver's license) to comfort the hurting kid inside you. Become very young for a few minutes, and the child you were will tell you what she needs. The answer could be anything from curling up with an inspiring book to running out the door to catch a matinee.
- Exercise two: Go back for the good stuff. Caring for your inner child has a powerful and surprisingly quick result: Do it and the child heals. Then you'll find that feeling young can be an absolute delight, full of wonder, curiosity, and joy. I find one of the best ways to visit my own child self is through laughter. It is reported that the average adult laughs 15 times a day; the average child, more than 400 times. I think the felt age of someone who's laughing out loud is always brand-new.
Mind you, I'm not talking about the nasty Styrofoam laughter people produce at business meetings. I mean the irrepressible hilarity that arises when we're genuinely tickled, physically or mentally. Scout your environment for things that spark this kind of spontaneous mirth. Collect them. Fill your home with them. Right now I'm within spitting distance of countless things that tickle me: people, books, cards, dogs, songs, photographs, silly newspaper clippings, Web sites, and, of course, medication. All right, not medication, but it amused me to write that down. Score one for my toddler self.
- Exercise three: Tap teenage torridness. What laughter is to childhood, sex is to adolescence. Now take three deep breaths while vividly remembering the best sexual experience you ever had. Don't worry about whatever happened afterward—you had twins; he got a sex-change operation—just recall the physical details of that fabulously unforgettable encounter. Notice how your breathing deepens and your muscles begin to relax. You may start to feel a delicious melting sensation as your body shuts off stress hormones, replacing them with the elixir of love.
Congratulations: You've just retrofitted your body to operate more like it did when you were a teenager! This kind of time travel helps you understand why your mom's best friend lost 20 pounds doing the tango when she had her affair. It will remind you why luring your sweetheart into a midnight rendezvous is well worth the lost sleep (as Romeo put it after his all-nighter with Juliet, "The sweeter rest was mine"). Whatever your calendar age, by recalling a passionate encounter, you reawaken the vitality of adolescence, without the acne. And, I've found, it's often why my single clients finally hook up with the man or woman of their dreams. Again, we get it backward; we think that attracting the right person will make us feel young, but really it's feeling young that helps us attract the right person.
- Exercise four: Discover the wisdom of the ages. Here's an exercise that reaches forward in time, rather than backward. Think about the worst aspect of your present life situation, a problem you're not sure you can solve. Now invite a visitor into your presence.
The visitor is you, age 150.
But, you may be thinking, I probably won't live to see 150.