6 Ways to Change the Way You Think About Aging
The first step toward making any change in perspective is acknowledging and confronting the issue. You would be surprised to hear how many women are reticent to acknowledge that aging looks bother them. Decide if your concerns over aging and beauty are issues you would like to resolve. Take an honest, courageous look in your mirror and ask, "Do you recall a moment in time that felt like a turning point in your aging process?" Was there a moment when you said to yourself, "I feel and look old"? This first step allows us to own our honest feelings about our changing looks and see clearly through the paradoxical pulls that cloud our vision.
Through the stories of the women we interviewed, we see that "uh-oh" moments are experienced deep within us, as if something fundamental has changed in our identities. This is often accompanied by embarrassment and shame, as if we've been caught off guard and feel guilty that we care. We fear that we have lost control, as if abducted into an unwelcome phase of life. The first step is acknowledgment that our uh-oh moment exists and can be used to gain awareness. Only then can we turn uh-oh into aha!
2. Allow yourself to be seen—unmasked and unashamed.
This step is about coming out of hiding, from behind beliefs and actions that disconnect us from what we really feel. These behaviors can make us look truly unnatural (those lips!), sometimes downright silly (those tight cutoffs!) and certainly distract us (those overtime hours!) from dealing with real issues. We are much better off removing the inappropriate coverups and allowing our vulnerability to show instead. Only then can we learn our genuine feelings. And they are often less problematic than the masks that cover them.
The reality is we are getting older, but "aging" doesn't have to be a dirty word. In other words, 40, 50 and 60 are just numbers, stages of life that don't have to—nor can they—be warded off. After all, what does 50 really look like today? It surely isn't the picture we have of our mothers or grandmothers. From our perspective, 50, 60 and older can look great if you take off your mask and let your face grow into becoming who you are. Masks are brittle. Masks are fake. Stop hiding, take a look and see what's coming. You are getting older, but you're going to be more than okay.
3. Talk back to that internal dialogue.
It's easy to say, "Face your uh-oh moment, take off your mask and listen closely to the words you hear inside your head." It's not so easy to do when the words you hear shout, "You look old!" We know, and hopefully you know by now, that you're like millions of women who take a look at themselves and hear: "You look tired. You look terrible. Give up. Give in. Get your face done, a little of this, a little of that. It's at least a fix. Fix what? You look like your mother. You're invisible. Too visible, too old!" Maybe it's time we retort, "shush up" to the voices that get in our way. Listen to where these interfering voices originate.
If you pay careful attention, you'll be able to hear that they most often come from your past. Sometimes they resonate with the voices we hear coming from TV or social media. Take hold of this dialogue and rewrite the script. You will always have conversations in your head. We all do, men and women alike. But you can create new lines with new roles that speak to you in a kinder and gentler tone. The words can come from your voice now rather than from those in your past. Speak up, loud and clear.
4. Give your mother her due.
We all know that we tend to look to our mothers to explain why we are who we are, the good, the bad and the ugly. But a lot of us are mothers now and know how easy it is to blame and be the recipients of blame rather than take responsibility and change. Sure, our mothers had an important influence on the development of our self-image, just as we do on the perception our children have of themselves. So did our dads, our siblings and our teachers. Vogue and Revlon did as well!
This step encourages us to learn how that all developed by examining our own unique personal histories. We know that our mothers' roles and all those other influences are reflected in self-images that grew, stabilized and became firmly rooted in our identities. That's why it is so hard to let go. But it's time to see these old reflections for what they are so we can take charge of them and let them shift. Aging requires flexibility at any stage of life or we get stuck. The most reliable source of positive regard is reflected in the accommodating and accepting "I" of the beholder. And that is you!
5. Use adolescent memories instead of repeating them.
When we look back on adolescence, we can learn from the memories it evokes. Just a peek at your high school yearbook picture may bring up feelings of awkwardness, uneasiness, volatility and instability. "How weird I looked!" Or, "How strange I felt!" Our self-criticism at that time is a close rival to the kind of harsh judgment we place on ourselves at midlife. The transitions during both phases are difficult, filled with confusing physical experiences, mixed cultural messages and chaotic emotions.
As much as we may long for our youth, there's no way we want to be 15 again. We may yearn for the smooth skin, the energy and the sense of possibility. Sure, those are the memories of adolescence we tend to nostalgically recall. But it might serve us well to also remember how we did—and did not—cope and use that knowledge to manage our feelings now. We have not gotten this far in life to get stuck feeling like teens in turmoil. This time around, we can avoid some of the impulsive, irrational decisions we made while feeling so topsy-turvy. Maybe we can get through these new transitions with fewer bumps and bruises, especially ones that are so hard to heal.
6. Say goodbye to your old idea of beauty—and define a new one.
This last step is the most important, complex and emotional one. We need to say goodbye to the good old days, much like we do all the losses in life. But this is a very particular kind of loss—one that experienced deep within. It is about letting go of that psychological equation that equates youth with beauty. It is about detaching our sense of attractiveness from a narrow definition to make room for a broader, more flexible self-image.
Rather than buying into the promises our culture offers to magically remove changes that come with age, we can face reality. Rather than striving to revive images of old selves to try to stop a natural biological process, we can move on. Only then can we allow a new meaning of beauty to emerge that makes sense for the women we have become. Definitions of beauty need to change with age so that what it means to be attractive at age 30 does not mean the same thing at age 40, 50, 80 or 90. Remember, aging does not stop. So it's time to say goodbye, shed some tears and then optimistically embrace our ever-evolving selves.
Vivian Diller, PhD, is a New York-based psychologist, a former dancer and retired model, having appeared in Glamour, Seventeen, national print ads and TV commercials. She has written articles on beauty, aging, eating disorders, models and dancers. Her book FACE IT: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change (2010), written with Jill Muir-Sukenick, PhD, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
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