Aging Gracefully Can Be Scary, But Psychologists Reveal How To Shift Your Narrative

When you've been conditioned to believe that gray hair and wrinkles decrease your value in society, how do you adjust your perception? Experts weigh in.
It's likely that the parts about aging that bother you most can be softened if you change your perception.
Nick Dolding via Getty Images
It's likely that the parts about aging that bother you most can be softened if you change your perception.

The image I see of myself in my mind is that of a photograph taken in 1992, when I was 22 years old. The photo is of me and my friend, Sean. I’d gone with him to have his professional headshots taken (he’s an actor and songwriter) and the photographer offered to snap a few of the two of us. The frame is a close-up shot of both of our faces. I am sitting on his lap, my arm around his neck, my eyes fixed on something past the camera. Sean stares directly into the lens with all the confidence and defiance of youth. We are both so very, very young.

While I know, as a relatively intelligent, mostly adjusted, grown woman, that I no longer look like the person in that photo, what I see in the mirror these days always takes me a bit by surprise. It is my mother’s face that stares back at me, a face that sparks both distress and grief. When and how did I start to look so old?

“There’s a certain amount of sadness, grief when we look at our faces [as we get older] — I should mention I’m 73,” Naomi Woodspring, an author and gerontologist, told me. “Yet notions, ideas about what we see in the mirror are seen through the lens of our current age.”

And these ideas change as we change.

Intellectually, I know I cannot magically remove all the effects of aging from my skin and body, no matter what advertisers and (often) the media want me to believe. I also know there must be some way to let go of my inner psychological equation that youth equals beauty and that, without it, I am no longer attractive. I’m not sure, though, how to go about changing my outdated definitions of these things.

I talked with three psychologists and researchers about ways to alter the narrative running through my head, the one that prattles on about how I look old and how unattractive the wrinkles and sags in my face are.

How psychologists approach aging

“First, you have to make a decision to accept yourself and accept aging. Think about what prevents you from doing that. You may think, ‘I’m not attractive, I’m invisible.’ But what, really, does this keep you from doing?” asked Ann Kearney-Cooke, an author, lecturer and director at the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute.

“How do you really want to spend your time?” she asked me.

I don’t especially want to think about how I look. It was never something that really bothered me or occupied my time, at least not until a couple of years ago when I turned 50. Now I’m often overly focused on the gray hairs and the lines and creases on my face. I want to change this narrative in my head.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and thought restructuring

Goali Saedi Bocci, a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct faculty at Pacific University School of Graduate Psychology, explained to me the process of cognitive behavioral therapy and restructuring thoughts. Essentially, she explained how I could start to alter the story in my head, the one that continually laments my apparent untimely demise.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a lot about changing our thoughts, Saedi Bocci told me ― which isn’t an easy thing to do, at least not for me. I have a very loud and insistent voice in my head that, at times, spews all sorts of negative things. I suspect many of us do. It’s difficult to change that perspective. That, though, is exactly what I needed to do.

“Cognitive restructuring, cognitive reframing, and thought distortions are challenging,” Saedi Bocci said. One kind of thought distortion is catastrophizing, she explained. An example would be taking notice of a line or a wrinkle and catastrophizing by thinking something like, “My aging is premature. By the time I’m a specific age, I’m going to look a specific way.”

The subtext, of course, being that that specific way will be old and no longer attractive.

“One thing doesn’t have to lead to this rabbit hole of thoughts,” continued Saedi Bocci. “I can make an observation, take a step back and say, ’OK, I’m assessing, yes, this is a true physical change. I’m not going to say this wrinkle isn’t here, but I can change the meaning of it.’”

This goes hand in hand with practicing mindfulness and nonjudgment, Saedi Bocci explained. “We’re so obsessed with good, bad, pretty, ugly. If we take back the label, remove ourselves and not make a judgment; well, that’s the healthiest place we can be.”

As soon as we label something as good or bad, delicious or disgusting, or whatever, it becomes that. Words are incredibly powerful. As Kearney-Cooke put it, “If you move around the world thinking you’re pitiful, then people will see you that way.”

“In my research, most people readily admitted that there was a certain amount of grief connected with aging.”

- Naomi Woodspring, an author and gerontologist

“And so,” said Saedi Bocci, “being aware and intentional with our words, with our thoughts is powerful. Look at the story behind it. What does beauty mean? What does attractiveness mean?”

By thinking about these things, about the backstory of them, I realized that I was capable of changing some of my preconceived notions, or cognitively restructuring my thoughts.

As Saedi Bocci explained, cognitive restructuring means taking a pre-formed thought ― one based on societal norms, values, expectations or things your parents may have taught you — “into a court of law and arguing all sides of it. Is this something that’s true? Is it untrue? Is it helpful? Is it unhelpful?”

These kinds of questions are important when there is a level of cognitive rigidity, such as believing that only one thing — youth — equals beauty.

To combat this rigidity, talk and think about other forms of beauty. “Ask yourself, what is leading to this? Where have you gotten those messages from?” she continued.

She told me I needed to find a way in, the one place where I could begin the unraveling of whatever narrative has been looping through my mind in an unhealthy way. (I confess, at times, there are several.)

Shifting the narrative

One way to begin shifting your narrative is to figure out what your signature strengths are, Kearney-Cooke told me. This could be a great smile or great legs. Think about how you enjoy them and/or show them, she suggested.

“Also, challenge yourself to stop seeing yourself through men’s eyes,” she added. That, as Kearney-Cooke said, is often a difficult thing. But what if I redefined that? She suggested I keep track each day of any thing I did that made me feel good about my body and/or myself — things like taking a walk or learning something new or planning a trip I wanted to take.

One kind of thought distortion is catastrophizing, when one fixates on a line or a wrinkle and thinks something like, "My aging is premature. By the time I’m a specific age, I’m going to look a specific way."
Klaus Tiedge via Getty Images
One kind of thought distortion is catastrophizing, when one fixates on a line or a wrinkle and thinks something like, "My aging is premature. By the time I’m a specific age, I’m going to look a specific way."

She also suggested I alter my inner monologue to include phrases like: “I’m eating healthy, I’m moving. I have good relationships with people. I have goals. I’m proud of what I’ve done in my life.”

“We all are proud of some of the things we did and not so proud of others,” Kearney-Cooke said, “but if we really try to tell ourselves a story, a new narrative about our life story, we can decide what the next chapters will look like.”

One way to help do this is that, instead of getting together with friends and lamenting our culture and how older women do not seem to be as valued as younger ones, spend that time with your friends going on a hike, planning adventures (I’m partial to ones of the cycling variety) or learning a new language.

“Remember, curiosity, courage and adventure-seeking are all youthful qualities,” she added. As I pondered this, I thought about another photograph of myself, taken a couple of years ago during a monthslong cycling trip across Central Asia. In this photo, I am laughing. I haven’t showered or seen a mirror in days. And I do not think I look old.

All three of the experts I spoke with emphasized the importance of creating my own narrative about my life. Kearney-Cooke described it as “honoring all the things you’ve overcome, the things you may still be struggling with, and the knowledge you’ve gained through your whole life — really honoring them,” she said. “And then, make a decision about what you want this time to look like. Ask yourself how you can gain power.”

Who do you want to be?

As most of us know, we can’t control a culture’s or other people’s reactions to us. We can, though, decide to be somebody that people want to spend time with and get to know. We need to decide who we want to be.

“Am I going to speak out about issues or values I have? Am I free from that evolutionary selection of the young woman? Thank God I’m out of that. I’m free of that. I can create my own version of a middle-aged woman,” said Kearney-Cooke.

Her suggestion on how to begin to accomplish this: Make deliberate choices and write them down every day until eventually they become a mindset.

“Regardless of how you live your life, you bring that many years of experience into that face in the mirror,” Woodspring told me. “In my research, most people readily admitted that there was a certain amount of grief connected with aging.”

“But there was also acceptance,” she continued, “And I believe that the acceptance comes from all of those years of life experience and is part of what happens when people realize they have lived more life than they have left to live. We begin to see the world differently. We begin to see ourselves differently.”

Essentially, what I think she wanted me to know was that I am at the beginning of this transition into what I guess could be called ‘old age,’ that, eventually, I would make what she called a pivot, a pivot where I would begin to see myself differently.

A trick to help you pivot your mindset

Kearney-Cooke has a rowboat metaphor that she uses when she counsels people about beauty, aging and acceptance. Imagine you’re in a rowboat and the rudder that steers the boat is stuck. There’s also water in the bottom of the boat. You have a bucket with holes in it, but still you keep trying to bail out the water. You spend all your time and energy on the water problem that you can never solve, while completely ignoring the fact that the rudder on the boat is stuck, and is really what you should be paying attention to.

What I take from this is that I need to stop bailing out the water. There is nothing I can do about aging, but what I can do is focus on regaining control of my narrative and accepting that I cannot stop the effects of aging.

Though Sean and I are not as close as we once were, we still check in occasionally. In the early ’90s, we’d go out dancing two or three times a week. About 10 years ago, I sent him an email rambling about those nights we spent in questionable bars and sketchy music halls and lamenting the absence of adequate dance time in my current life.

He wrote back, simply, “I am always, always dancing with you.”

And I think that, for me, that is part of how I begin to accept aging. It’s not that I want to be “young” again or go back and relive any of it (God forbid), but I find comfort in believing that there is a 22-year-old me always and forever dancing with a 23-year-old Sean. Her existence helps me to recognize (and honor) all that has transpired over the past 30 years, as well as this new version of myself — who may have wrinkles, gray hair and the face of her mother, but is still alive, learning and growing and becoming, and maybe, maybe also a version of “beautiful.”

And as I write these words, perhaps I am taking the first step to making them so, of deciding what the rest of the story of my life will be.

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