21st Century Aging

Living longer and better.

How Narcissism is Normal as we Age

Managing Hits to Self-Esteem as Our Bodies Grow Older

I discovered running when I was in college. It was the perfect exercise for me. I did not need to join a gym and runner’s high was a great treatment for the stress of college, graduate school, and ultimately, life. I ran 5K and 10K races. I was never the fastest person in a race, but I loved being solidly average regarding my times.

I experienced my first running injury when I was in my 30’s. That was around the last time I could run 6 miles and still have energy. Perhaps more importantly, I endured no physical pain.

Although people can flourish as they get older, aging is difficult and requires us to manage a number of blows regarding the ways our bodies change and let us down. Women contemplate plastic surgery. Men think about hair replacement. As we get older most of us have to deal with a normal narcissistic injury of having bodies that don’t look the same and don’t work as well as we would like.

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Basically, narcissism relates to self-esteem and all of the ways we try to protect our egos. We like it when other people admire us and many of us like to be self-sufficient. We like to be confident and we admire others who are too. When people disappoint us, some of us turn inward for soothing. In other words, some level of narcissistic coping is crucial to our being able to manage a number of stresses and disappointments in life. Even Freud (1917) implied that there is normal and excessive narcissism.

Our relationships with our bodies are inherently narcissistic. We expect to control our bodies and expect them to work when we want them to. I still have dreams about going on a long, long run. I wake up and think, “Wait, I can’t do that anymore!” It’s normal to want to feel competent, and even more normal to want a 25-year-old body.

Yet, narcissism can be problematic when we realize that we need help and can’t ask for it. It is also difficult when someone feels that they can do everything for themselves, when in fact, they no longer can.

Aging and illness increases dependency. Many older adults who function quite well often complain about needing reading glasses or needing to write things down to help them remember. Even for people who can manage these relatively little blows, aging in today’s time reminds us all that we may eventually be much more dependent than we want to be.

In order to age well, we have to come to terms with the fact that our bodies stop serving us as well as they used to. Aging is a blow, but some understandings of narcissism make it hard for people to feel like they can have negative feelings about aging.

The literature in popular culture may make this worse. Much of what we see in the popular press has to do with a blatant denial of aging. Ideas that we can stop the aging process are all over the Internet these days. If you can’t change internal aging, just change it externally by doing everything you can to look younger. It is as if changing the outside (our appearance) will alter the inside (our physical biology).

This strikes me as more than a bit sad. Aging is a reality and it causes us to have mixed feelings. Even people who are lucky enough to age with minimal limitations still suffer some degree of loss. For those who are physically ill, they have even more grieving to contend with. Part of dealing with the sadness associated with growing older is to realize that our self-esteem can suffer as we age.

It hurts to grow older—emotionally and sometimes physically. Managing self-esteem as we age is more about accepting limitations than pretending they do not exist.

For a long time after my first few sports injuries, I could not run. Not because I was not capable, but because I was emotionally wounded that I could not run like I used to. I now jog half as fast as I did when I was younger, mostly on a treadmill. I frequently wonder when and if there will come a day that I won’t be able to run at all. My body may decide that running is no longer for me. In the meantime, I plod along slowly, but happily, on the treadmill. I love every minute of it.

 

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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