After my knee replacement, I decided to join a gym. I was frightened and uncertain. For years now I have barely exercised and any attempt to walk at even a semi-brisk pace led to back spasms and neck pain. Before the surgery, my husband broke the news to me.
You hobble, he said.
So after the surgery, I signed up at a local gym and got a trainer. My trainer, a young, fit and beautiful woman in her early 20's, started to ask me to do things. Things like squats, lunges, step-ups, push-ups and mountain climbers. Every fiber in my body resisted. I can't do this played over and over in my thoughts.
I can't do this, I muttered to myself as I tried to do one push-up. And then I saw it.
It flashed across my mind. The image of an old lady, feeble, weak and brittle.
I saw myself as a vulnerable old woman.
And I knew it then. I had a fixed mindset about aging.
I was on the little old lady highway, and not moving very fast.
My internalized mindset was interfering with my getting stronger.
In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck illustrates the concept of fixed mindset and explains how it disrupts learning and growth.
When an individual has a fixed mindset such as, I can't do push-ups, exploration and learning is halted. A fixed mindset adheres to black and white reality. There exists success or failure, capacity or no capacity, talent or no talent, and nothing in between.
On the other hand, a growth mindset encourages flexibility, is changeable and multidimensional.
Dr. Dweck defines a growth mindset as the more adaptable way to problem solve and learn. Perceiving situations with a growth mindset creates possibility. A person with a growth mindset even views failure as part of the path towards change and success.
Dr. Ellen Langer has been addressing the limits of a fixed mindset for years. At Harvard, she investigates cultural and individual mindsets about illness, biology and psychological well-being and aging. Dr. Langer's findings strongly point to the simple fact that who we are and what we do is heavily influenced by the stories we tell ourselves.
And the stories we tell ourselves about aging are fixed.
Many of my older clients are trapped by fixed mindsets. They see no way out.
It's too late to change. I made my bed so I have to lie in it. The time to change has passed. I have too much invested in this job, or marriage, or identity, etc., to do anything about it now.
Despite misery, many conclude that there are no pathways to change.
So how do we cultivate a growth mindset about aging?
Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, started a conversation with the goal to disrupt aging. AARP Real Possibilities calls for change in the agist narrative that restricts women and men over fifty.
Jenkins' campaign has gone viral. It is supported by women who defy limits, like Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Cindy Lauper. Each month I eagerly open my AARP magazine for more stories of women over 50 who are actively twisting their plots, embracing change and making transformation.
AARP's conversation to disrupt aging is weaving new threads of diversity and opportunity in the post-fifty cultural narrative.
But we have to take some individual responsibility too.
In order to disrupt our own personal, entrenched notions of what it means to be older, I suggest we cultivate and practice some essential skills. Here are a few:
Elizabeth Gilbert calls curiosity a gentle, forgiving and constant friend. You can make connection with curiosity simply by asking questions. How else could I see this? What else could I try? Who else could I be? Sometimes just posing the questions opens us to flexible adaptive responses to our lives.
For me, I noticed the image of the debilitated old lady and asked myself, Can I do better than this right now? What will happen if I really try to do three push-ups? Just asking the questions loosens the hold on the mindset. I am making progress and I actually think that I can be strong again.
A practice of curiosity loosens the fixed nature of our thinking and behavior, encourages a growth mindset and helps us change.
On AARP's disrupt aging website, Cyndi Lauper shares her belief that we are brainwashed by aging stereotypes and she suggest we listen to our inner selves. But what does that mean?
How does one develop the capacity to listen beyond the din of fixed, expected cultural norms? Attuning to one's inner truth is a skill that requires practice.
For me, listening beyond the naysayer in my head was not easy. I had to listen long enough to connect with my desire to be strong and grounded. This desire lived underneath a multitude of judgments about my body and women's bodies. But now when I work out I try to listen to the voice that says - You are a strong woman with strong arms, legs and heart.
Taking the time for quiet reflection, journaling and making art are all ways that one can tune into oneself and listen for other states of being and potential.
In order to let go of what we know and expect, we have to be able to envision something else. We have to let ourselves imagine a way of being, a new role, or an untapped possibility in order to help it manifest. Imagining is an act of creativity. And it is available to all of us. It is in our human nature to make up stories, play with reality, pretend, perform and expand our concept of self.
I imagine myself, not as my younger self, but as a future self who is strong, bold, creative and capable. I create this woman out of a new mold. And I help her come to life.
We can take the time to let our imagination create new stories and see ourselves differently. We can tell the new story to ourselves and then to others.
If we all work individually, in big and small ways, we can contribute to a growth mindset about aging and do our part to disrupt the negative, restrictive narrative.