By Kate Taylor
“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”
That’s what Eleanor Roosevelt had to say about aging positively.
Her words are famous. Celebrated. Loved by so many over the years that it’s possible to buy posters, t-shirts and even underwear inscribed with them.
And yet, few of us seem to view our own aging with the pride and open-mindedness expressed in that quote. Instead, many of us behave as if we’re ashamed of our years.
For example: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone denigrating their middle-aged muffin top, beer belly or arm “wings.”
Conversely, I’ve never seen someone lean toward a mirror, notice a new line or white hair and exclaim “Awesome! Now I’m even hotter!”
When it comes to our own faces, figures and hair, many of us fight like street cats to stop time in its tracks.
We shell out big bucks for cosmetic procedures, steam it up in spa treatments, slather on expensive anti-aging lotions, sunscreens and make-up. We divorce entire food groups and blend strange ingredients into gray-green smoothies. And we dress to flaunt our most attractive (read: youthful) assets.
For most people, the former lady’s beloved quote might as well be “…but beautiful old people (other than me) are works of art.”
Striving for Youth Comes at a Price
Yet there’s a terrible price that comes with all that striving, psychology experts say. Our efforts to stay young are often accompanied by feelings of “age shame,” says Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of many books including “The Dance of Anger.” This shame, she adds, is especially acute in women.
As an example, Lerner points to the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” social policy regarding women’s ages. That policy, she says, is alive and well in many social circles.
“Women have long been shamed for growing older—which is, after all, everyone’s wish,” she says. “Women have actually been taught to conceal their age, to joke and even lie about it, to treat it as a shameful little secret.”
And that little secret can be toxic to our souls.
“By hiding our age, we perpetuate the notion that there is something shameful or lesser about growing older,” Lerner says. “We further shame and disempower ourselves and all women by agreeing that it is best to conceal the number of years we have been alive.”
One way to start breaking free from age-shame is to be straight-forward about your age, she insists.
Though society’s youth-obsession continues to rage, voices like Lerner’s are slowly helping to shift our negative views on aging.
“We’re beginning to see hints that people are recognizing that there’s beauty at any age,” said Pamela Mayberry, associate director of the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute in Ithaca, New York.
She points to the Dove “Real Beauty” advertising campaign – which features photos of women of all ages, skin tones and body types — as an example of this trend.
To explore this idea, I Googled “Gorgeous Oldsters” and was heartened by the images that popped up. There, as expected, were the glamorous, gravity-defying faces of Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren and Denzel Washington. But there also were the weathered, spirit-filled faces of everyday strangers from around the world.
Elderly Ukrainian women with twinkly eyes and color-soaked headscarves. Elderly Indian men with coffee-dark skin, silver hair and heart-melting smiles. People who look their age but are being presented as indisputably beautiful.
If you’re feeling shame, guilt or stress about your own aging, it may be time for some self-exploration.
The following five questions can help you start identifying where your aging-negativity is coming from, and start to release it. Then you’ll be able to re-focus on what you love most in life.
- “Am I really bothered by my wrinkles, or am I following someone else’s script?
“Aging positively” is a pretty modern term and concept. So many of us grew up hearing our parents’ or grandparents’ expressing dark views about getting older.
But do you really believe that?
You might be following a script delivered to you from society, the media, cosmetics companies, or even your parents. A script that tells you how you are “supposed” to feel about aging.
Question that script. Ask yourself, “What do I really believe?”
Don’t let other people’s negative scripts become your own. Aging positively means disregarding others’ negativity.
- “What makes me feel alive?”
Do whatever it is, if you can. Don’t let your age stop you. Age is a privilege, not a disability.
Doing what makes you feel energized and alive is a form of self-care—and when you take extra-special-good care of yourself, it’s much easier to let go of negative feelings when they arise.
(Think: the difference between zipping down the highway with a full tank of gas, versus crawling through gridlock, running on empty.)
- “Is there a part of me that needs to be comforted or soothed? What would feel good right now?”
Soothe that part of you that feels depressed about aging with a hug, a walk, or a few words of reassurance.
In order to comfort yourself, you may first need to release some of the negative emotions that are getting in the way. One way to do this is by thwacking a pillow with a hand towel that’s been knotted on one end, safely, in private—while simultaneously expressing (aloud) all the things you’re angry about.
Imagine all those negative feelings leaving your body. Feel yourself growing lighter and less burdened with every thwack.
- “What kinds of thoughts repeatedly run through my head? Are those thoughts helping me or undermining me?”
Perhaps you’re constantly allowing your inner critic to run rampant, filling your mind with thoughts like, “Ugh, my wrinkles are gross!”
Are those kinds of thoughts helpful to you—or anyone else, for that matter?
Remember that you have the power to change your thoughts.
Choose thoughts that are helpful, not undermining. Learn to love to be yourself.
- “What can I do, right now, to make the world a better place?”
Aging positively is all about focusing on your inner light—the Love that’s inside you—and letting that light radiate out into the world.
Don’t let perceptions about aging dim your brilliance.
Share yourself with the world. Do it now.
Remember, you don’t have to do anything “big” to make the world a better place.You can write a letter to a friend. Or be present and attentive when someone is speaking. You can smile. Or remain calm in a crisis. You can be a good parent or grandparent, loving a child unconditionally.
The best antidote to feeling “invisible” or “unimportant” is to treat yourself with love and respect.
When you do this, your inner light glows even brighter. You feel naturally inspired to give love to others, to help and serve. You don’t have to try.” It just happens.
Love has no age limit. So don’t let age limit your Love.
QUESTION: Do you worry a lot about lines and wrinkles or other perceived “flaws?”
What helps you to chuck the negativity and re-focus on what really matters?
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