I remember sitting on my fathers hospital bed and telling him that he would not recover from this illness. He was surprised, shocked, and ultimately denied what I was saying. I often notice the same reaction from people who become aware of how old they are and what that means in this society.
Just as in my fathers example, there is usually and event that triggers the emotions surprise and shock. It could be getting an application to AARP in the mail, as it was for me, or a medicare application, someone calling from the bank on eligibility to pension benefits, or any number of events. Some can be quit pleasant as someone offering a seat in the subway or politely addressing you as Mister or Maam.
What often follows is a hyper awareness of age. It is similar to noticing the same make, model, and color of a car that you recently purchased. Hyper awareness is rarely beneficial and in this case people start to notice their limitations when it comes to activities, exercise, job prospects, and socializing. They will also notice body pains, reactions to different foods, allergies, and appearance.
Hyper awareness of these limitations along with what other people tell us, TV shows, advertisements, and ultimately what we tell ourselves come together to a realization that we in fact are old. What often follows is anger, sadness, depression and anxiety and panic about impending death.
Common thoughts that triggers the anger are: “this should not be happening to me.” “I wasted my life” (and I shouldn’t have), “I haven’t achieved anything in this life” (and I should have), “there is so much I wanted to accomplish” (that I should have accomplished). This anger at the self often spills into frustrations and irritations at others. Then, we get labeled, “old grouch,” people withdraw and sadness and depression set in. Common thoughts are of worthlessness and loss of purpose. Finally, anxiety and hyper awareness over impending death takes up most of our daily attention.
What I find interesting is that just one week prior to this event that triggered the surprise and shock, we did not feel sad, depressed or anxious and panic. We went along with our lives focusing on our day to day activities, relationships, and goals.
*** This article is part 1 of a 3 part series where I go over acceptance based strategies for dealing with agism. ***
Lets first take a look at the labels that we use to define our identity and how helpful this is.
As I mentioned above, other people in this society think up what old is and should be. Then, they feel compelled to tell us about their thought. “Oh, you don’t look 50.” “You are too old to be dating.” “Have you thought of retiring?” “Aren’t you too old to be going back to school?” When I hear these thoughts, I have 2 choices; internalize the thought and identify with the label old, or see it as something that was just generated by my friends mind. I ask myself, which choice would work best for me right now?
Minds evolved to generate random thoughts, evaluations and judgements. These thoughts can be consistent with reality or not. Either way they are still just thoughts generated by the mind, your friends mind, your mind, or an advertisers mind.
Exercise: Take a minute to remember the last time you were sure of something and it turned out to be wrong. Notice how the mind generated a thought that was inconsistant with reality, and how much you “bought” into the thought.
Exercise: Sit comfortably in a chair, take 2 deep breaths, close your eyes and imagine you sitting in the chair. Allow your imagination to notice the room you are in, the flooring, art on the walls and anything that may be happening in the space.
Now, open your eyes and take a minute to notice the room, flooring, art and anything else happening in the space.
Are they different? If you are like many, you will notice that your imagination or “thought” in this exercise was limiting. It was limiting because it all occurred in your mind. When you opened your eyes and became aware of your reality, you notice the richness of life outside of your mind, and the experience of sitting in a chair in this room.
These exercises are designed so that you can become aware of the separateness between what your mind generates and your reality or experience. By separating the two, you can notice that others and yourself generate random thoughts about age that can be limiting.
Your thoughts are not you or your experience, they are just thoughts. You don’t have to identify with these thoughts and labels and make them your reality.
*** Practice the exercises above until my next article on aging. ***