This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis(39) of the American Psychological Association. This article is submitted by Sandra Buechler, Ph.D., Training and Supervising Analyst at the William Alanson White Institute in New York City, and superviser at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy.
When I look in the mirror as the years flow by, who will I see? Will I recognize and respect myself, or is it inevitable that I will be ashamed of aging and alienated from myself?
Like adolescence, aging can be a tumultuous time. An identity that has been firmly in place is challenged from without and within. In both eras we may mourn the loss of the familiar self and feel palpably insecure about the person we are becoming. At these periods of transition, we may look in the mirror and find ourselves changed, perhaps even unrecognizable. In both eras, rebellion is one form that mourning can take. Adolescents often paint, pierce, and otherwise decorate their bodies as posters to advertise that they don’t identify with their elders. Similarly, I suggest, as we age, we may use our bodies to express our reluctance to identify with the changes that are occurring. In both adolescence and aging we may be clearer about who we don’t want to be, than who we are now. Messages (from both the outside world and the internal world) threaten us with shame and challenge our ability to feel we are still our familiar, good enough selves.
In this brief paper I use short stories to examine conflicting senses of self, as we age. More specifically, I look at challenges to identity from changes in the body, the mind, and the heart.
As My Body Changes
Dolly, in Grace Paley’s story, “Distance,” identifies her youthful self as the home that she has lost. “Still, it is like a long, hopeless homesickness my missing those young days. To me, they’re like my own place that I have gone away from forever, and I have lived all the time since among great pleasures but in a foreign town. Well, OK. Farewell, certain years. (p.227).”
Why do we feel estranged from our own bodies as we age? As I see it, we use defenses to deny that our bodies have changed, but this strategy backfires, as such strategies always do. It results in our detachment from our first self, our first identity. As the famous book title expressed it, “Our Bodies, Our Selves.” I think that as we age we often experience ourselves as dispossessed from our “real” bodies, the younger bodies we still identify with, failing to see the part our own defensive strategies play in our alientation. Perhaps another way to express this is that, as our body ages we fall out of love with it. Part of this may be due to our identification with our culture’s attitudes but, I suggest, it is also a result of the alterations themselves. Society doesn’t demean the young adult’s body, and yet the adolescent often feels awkward about his or her body as it changes. Thus, even when the culture is not prejudicing us, when our bodies undergo radical shifts, we feel unsettled about the change itself. Our bodies have lost the familiarity that we counted on, without knowing it. So it should be no surprise that, as aging and, perhaps, infirmities change our contours, as messages from the culture privilege younger looks, and as our own psyches draw away from reminders of mortality, we feel banished forever from the bodies we used to inhabit, that we still unconsciously identify as home.
As My Mind Changes
In a chapter about Psychoanalysis in Old Age written by Martin Bergmann when he was nearly 100 years old, he says (p.239) “In old age, the future as a dimension disappears, and there is nothing to hope for.” What, then, happens to our sense of purpose, a quality that, elsewhere (2004), I have argued is essential to our wellbeing?
I don’t think anyone has portrayed the pain of losing the future tense more movingly than Henry James. In his short story, “The Middle Years,” James raises profound questions about how we can bear the loss of the future tense. The protagonist, an aging author, reflects (p. 171) that “He should never again, as at one or two great moments of the past, be better than himself. The infinite of life was gone, and what remained of the dose a small glass scored like a thermometer by the apothecary.” How can he reconcile himself to the knowledge that, for him, “...something precious had passed away. This was the pang that had been the sharpest during the last few years-the sense of ebbing time, of shrinking opportunity; and now he felt not so much that his last chance was going as that it was gone indeed.”
I suggest that those who are able to avail themselves of many defensive styles and interests are better equipped. A narrow self definition, an over-dependence on one strength for a sense of self, leaves one at greater risk. One of my longstanding beliefs is that, for many of us, rather than mellowing as we age, we become more entrenched in our defensive styles and character issues. The challenges of aging can strengthen our need for the defenses we have cultivated all our lives. I think it is not infrequent that the schizoid become more isolated, the obsessive more exacting, the hysteric more preoccupied with their bodies, the depressed more gloomy, the paranoid more fearful, and, perhaps above all, the narcissistic more vulnerable to self esteem injuries. I see aging as the ultimate test of character. In short, what are our resources for coping with psychic and bodily changes?
As My Feelings Change
As we get older, it is impossible to avoid suffering losses. Loved ones die and the world becomes a place primarily designed by younger people. Opportunities shrink, and roads not traveled become permanent regrets. We are challenged to bear loss without succumbing to depression, and to recognize our familiar selves in the process. That is, as I come to terms with my own losses, can I still be me? Can I laugh as I have laughed, get angry as I have in the past, and be as curious as ever? Or, if with age my emotional patterns change, can I still accept and adequately admire and love myself?
In much of my own work (2004, 2008, 2012, in press) I have asked the question, how can we bear personal losses without depression, and how can we bear professional losses without burnout? I would say that if I admire my courage in facing my losses, I may love myself enough to bear them. If the joy of passing something on heartens me, I may accept the loss of a future tense for myself. If curiosity still excites me, I may open new doors when fading memory closes others. I differ with Bergmann’s words, but, perhaps, not his spirit, when he says that in old age the future dimension disappears and there is nothing to hope for. I think and hope about the future all the time. In that future my own body, mind, and heart will be altered and, eventually, absent. But in my attachment to that future, in my hopes for it, in my work toward it, I am still me.
Bergmann, M.S. (2014). Psychoanalysis in old age: the patient and the analyst. In
S.Kuchuck (Ed.) Clinical implications of the psychoanalyst’s life experience.
(pp.237-247). New York: Routledge.
Buechler, S. (2004). Clinical values: Emotions that guide psychoanalytic treatment.
Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.
Buechler, S. (2008). Making a difference in patients’ lives: Emotional experience in
the therapeutic setting. New York: Routledge.
Buechler, S. (2012). Still practicing: The heartaches and joys of a clinical career. New
Buechler, S. (in press). Understanding and treating patients in clinical psychoanalysis:
Lessons from literature. New York: Routledge.
James, H. (1992). The middle years. In J.C. Oates (Ed.) The Oxford book of American
short stories (pp.171-190). New York: Oxford University Press.
Paley, G. (1966). Distance. In J. Moffett & K.R. McElheny (Eds.) Points of view: An
anthology of short stories (pp.227-236). New York: New American Library.