Summer is the season of birthdays at my household. Friends, parents, children, and pets are all part of the "wheel in the sky that keeps on turning." Even I am included in this special mix. Unfortunately, I am part of that age group. Oh, you know, the one where people assume that I must be a divorcee because surely a woman of that age must have already been married. The one where twenty-somethings giggle I can't be that age because I don't look that old.
That age group is best described by Stephanie Dolgoff, fellow Psychology Today blogger, in her new book due in August, Formerly Hot Life: Dispatches from Just the Other Side of Young. Dolgoff discusses the adult ‘tween' years, experienced in the thirties and forties, where one is "neither young nor old." Although having a great impact on those in the thick of it, this transitional time doesn't have a name. Dolgoff's purpose is to finally give it a name. You are now a Formerly, "formerly what you were but not sure what you are."
Dolgoff reports that during this time women "occupy a different space." Although many approach aging with fear and dread, Dolgoff feels that when you become part of what she playfully calls Formerly, "you are old enough to know what you want and young enough to enjoy it." Many focus on the things that are lost with aging, but Dolgoff instead chooses to focus on what is gained. In her book, she sees the transition of aging through a lens of humor. Aging, according to her, is an opportunity to laugh at yourself rather than cling to those things that you fear are slipping away. The purpose, for Dolgoff, is not to stay young but to find happiness while getting older.
Laughing at this time of transition, Dolgoff feels, is the best medicine. But if you are not able to find the humor in these changes there is no need to change your feelings. The pressure that women place upon themselves to feel a certain way about their aging, Dolgoff states, is just as bad as the pressure society places on us to look young. The best coping strategy is to "feel the way you need to rather than to feel what you are supposed to."
Every day in my office, I witness patients struggling through these life transitions. Two of the most commonly seen changes are those experienced by mothers and by their daughters. Both feel discomfort with alterations in their bodies, grapple with a new identity, and reevaluate their meaning in the world. During a time when mothers feel they are losing their Hot selves, daughters are just on the cusp of discovering them. Although this loss and gain feel like polar processes, they are actually parallel requiring identical therapeutic interventions.
So as my birthday looms over my head, and my friends tell me it is not so bad on the Other Side of Young, I turn to those techniques I have used in practice. In order to acknowledge that something exists one must have awareness of its existence. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been credited with bringing mindfulness practices to the Western world. This has been used in Buddist practices in the Eastern world for centuries. Mindfulness requires an awareness of components of the self. If you are struggling with internal or external changes from aging becoming aware of these changes, as well as your feelings toward them in a nonjudgemental way, may decrease negative emotions or at minimum decrease the feelings of loss of control. For example, upon examination of external components you may acknowledge that you can no longer wear your favorite fitted dress without the aid of Spanx and become aware that this makes you feel unattractive and depressed. Or, examining the internal components, you may feel that you are too old to pursue your dream of becoming an American Idol superstar, and you acknowledge that the loss of this dream makes you feel disappointment and anger. Of course, as your therapist, I would disagree and confront both of these statements, but in the beginning awareness of them is enough.
Once you become aware of the contents in your head you can move toward acceptance. True acceptance is not a denial of negative feelings or a false sugar coating of that which is unpleasant. Standing naked in front of the mirror chanting "I love my cellulite" is not true acceptance. Acceptance is allowing yourself to have these feelings whatever they may be, and when you are ready continuing to move forward regardless of their presence. This may include expressing to yourself, to others, or on paper that you have these thoughts, such as "I do not want wrinkles." You then acknowledge your feelings behind them, "Having wrinkles makes me feel unattractive, and I am afraid that I am no longer sexually relevant with them." Many women who have these thoughts are afraid to acknowledge or express them because their concerns may appear shallow. When working toward acceptance, analysis of what kind of thoughts you have is totally unnecessary, they are what they are and you don't need to criticize them. Just acknowledge them and be accepting of their presence.
Now all of this awareness and acceptance only goes so far, eventually you must do something with these cognitions and emotions when they negatively impact your life or negatively influence your actions. Going through the aging process, whether it is moving from childhood to adolescence or young adulthood to middle age, requires a recalibration of your identity. You are not who you were anymore. Life involves constant change, without it you would be dead. Some change feels good and some change feels bad. Focusing only on the losses to your identity is only going to depress you. You can certainly acknowledge your losses but crying over spilt milk is an exercise in futility. In order to achieve emotional balance you must look at the gains. For example, I may not be able to pull an all-nighter any more or fit into my old jeans, but I can produce work with more efficiency and quality and am more confident in my own skin than I ever was in my twenties.
Like any effective recovery process, the group of friends and family with whom you chose to associate can be critical in facilitating a smooth transition. If you want to feel better about the changes you are undergoing associate with friends and family who already feel that way. For example, if I feel like crap-o-la about my body, and I hang out with women who count every calorie, complain about their backsides, and obsessively exercise social psychology dictates that I will follow suit. If I want to feel good about my changing body, I need to find women who are happy with the way they look, exercise for health and adventure, and eat for pure unadulterated enjoyment. Misery loves company but joie de vivre loves company too!
Like any therapeutic intervention, addressing surface thoughts and beliefs underneath them will not access the root of the real problem. Only examining and working to change the tip of the iceberg is like putting a band-aid on an infected wound. If you cannot execute a deeper processing on your own speaking with someone, whether it is a trusted friend or professional, can help with the Big Dig. So here's an example of what I might hear in my office, "I am freaking out about my birthday because I am getting old." This is the automatic thought that can run through your head. It is usually immediate, basic, and does not spring from analysis. Now I query more deeply about the thought, asking such questions as where this is coming from, what does this really mean, or why is this so troublesome. The response may be that getting old means "I will no longer look attractive", "I cannot do the things I wanted to do", or "I might get sick". When I dig further underneath those responses, fear is usually the emotional seed that bears the cognitive fruit. Many have fear of not reaching their potential, or not achieving their lifelong dreams, or losing their looks because that is all they think they have to offer the world, etc., etc., etc. This exercise is not an easy one to wrestle, but you might find some true healing from this honest examination.
And now from the sublime to the ridiculous, well not that ridiculous. My work would not be complete without an examination of the wardrobe and how it offers insight into and facilitation with the aging process. You can still be attractive no matter the age, and the wardrobe can be an effective tool to get there. As Dolgoff states, "nothing is off limits because of age as long as it belongs on you." She feels that your style should be an expression of who you are not an attempt to be someone you are not. Your clothing should capture the essence of who you are in the present.
Open your closet doors and make note of how much of the past you are holding onto, and I don't mean last week's purchases. I mean keeping your cheerleading outfit when doing the splits is no longer part of your future. I mean keeping your high school graduation dress when you graduated fifteen to twenty years ago. I am guilty as charged! There is nothing wrong with holding onto the past, sometimes nostalgia is wonderful, being stuck in the past is a problem. Look to your wardrobe to assess if you are holding onto all of your past or a certain piece of it. Find out what it is about that time that you miss and try to create that in your current life. You can't see what is ahead of you if you are always turning back. Maybe, it is time to ditch the old duds!
Keeping clothes that no longer work for the perception you have of your body is another fashion sin that keeps you from moving forward. You may not have the body you had in your teens and twenties, it may be a lot better...or a lot worse. Either way, work with your understanding of it not against it. Notice I did not say work with your body, I said work with your understanding of it. If you are a hot mamma and feel that your legs are the cat's meow wear the mini. Now maybe other people might look at your legs and think that they would look best under a thick tight, but this is not about them now is it? Maybe you have the best breasts on the block, other women would kill to have your décolletage, but you hate them. Well, if you hate them you don't have to display them. When you dress in a way that is not in sync with how you feel about your outer shell the outfit will not work. If I give a woman a makeover, and I think she looks fabulous, her family thinks she looks fabulous, her friends think she looks fabulous, but she does not think she looks fabulous the look will suffer.
A close cousin to dressing inappropriately for the perception of your body is dressing in a way to appear younger than you actually are. This usually includes an embarrassing display of super trendy pieces. If you are choosing pieces with the intent to hide your age rather than actually liking the items, you are not fooling anyone. I see this happening all of the time, sleek, sophisticated, and often insecure women look to the high school and college girls for their wardrobe inspirations. In order to age gracefully, Dolgoff feels that women should break the connection between young and hot. Women can stay hot by not taking themselves and their aging so seriously. Hotness can be found at any age.
Another painful wardrobe result of aging issues is a total loss of style hope. Women who feel that they are getting older and would rather give up now than try have succumbed to the false social message that an aging woman is no longer a woman. There are beautiful clothes for women of every age that fit many different lifestyles and body types. You deserve to find those clothes and feel good in them. You deserve to take the time to put a comb through your hair, run an iron over your clothes, and throw on some sparkly jewelry.
Aging is a universal progression felt in a very personal way. You may refuse to "grow old gracefully" or throw yourself an "over the hill" party. You may choose to discount Dr. B. and Stephanie Dolgoff's message or make Formerly Hot your go-to for all things aging.
No matter your choice enhancing who you feel that you are rather than hiding from the woman you fear you might become will make this collective experience a fully realized one.
Formerly Hot: Newsletter
Formerly Hot: Book http://www.amazon.com/My-Formerly-Hot-Life-Dispatches/dp/0345521455/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267923081&sr=8-3
Dr. B wants to know what you think, please feel free to join the discussion!