“Men used to look at me. I was quite a beauty in my prime. Now I feel invisible.”
Paige, a 62-year-old woman with large blue eyes, chiseled cheekbones and brown shoulder-length tendrils, averted eye contact as she explained the reasons for her distress.
Although she had trouble articulating her feelings, she knew she was experiencing discomfort due to the changes in her body. I could tell from the words she used, and her difficulty in maintaining eye contact, that Paige was experiencing shame.
More specifically, she was experiencing age-related shame.
The Concept of Shame
First, let’s look at what shame is. Guilt is the feeling that one has done something bad, whereas shame is the pervasive feeling that one is bad. It’s the sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us. Shame involves an evaluation of the whole self and corresponding feelings of being bad, defective or unworthy.
We all experience shame from time to time, but in most cases the experience is short-lived. In other words, shame causes a temporary state of painful self-evaluation, but the person generally works through the feelings and bounces back pretty much unscathed.
The Myth of “Aging Gracefully”
In Paige’s case — and with many other people I see in psychotherapy — the shame that corresponds with aging is not so fleeting. And there’s a reason for this: age-related shame pervades our culture so insidiously we don’t even realize it’s there.
For instance, do an Internet search on aging. You’ll find tons of articles on aging gracefully. At first glance, this may appear to be helpful advice. However, the notion that there are supposed ways to age gracefully implies that there is something bad about aging, and that aging needs to be navigated with finesse. Statements like You look great for your age reveal our culture’s underlying perception about aging.
Even if, on the surface, we don’t agree with this perception, it still affects us. (I’ve even seen age-related shame in patients in their thirties.) And these feelings of shame can often lead to depression. I have seen people stop dating, no longer look for employment, or give up pursuing hobbies. They say: I’m not attractive anymore. No one wants to hire people over 55. That’s for young people.
Our Obsession with Youth
Additionally, the obsession with looking young has become so fanatical that many people take radical measures to maintain a youthful appearance. I have had many patients come to me following numerous plastic surgeries and/or injections, who are still not satisfied that they look young enough. Anti-aging creams and anti-aging serums have become de rigueur. People go to extreme instances to ward off signs of aging for as long as they can.
This is such a damaging trend in our culture that I have seen it in patients as young as 35, though more commonly, it starts closer to 60.
Depression Due to Shame
Paige, along with many patients I have worked with, suffered from a type of depression that was directly related to her perception of herself as an aging woman and the sense that she was less worthy. Her sense of being invisible related to her feelings of being negatively judged by the physical signs of aging, and not seen for who she was beneath her appearance.
Once Paige became aware of her shame, she was able to talk about it. One example she gave was being at a restaurant where a group of women in their thirties were given a table before Paige and her friends. She felt it had to do with their age. This is happening more and more frequently, her lips quivered as she discussed her experience. It makes me feel unimportant. She had been feeling more and more slighted, and a pervasive sense of worthlessness had developed.
Getting the Shame Out
Working with Paige, we focused on all of the wonderful things she offered people in her life, as well as her inner strengths and the characteristics that fundamentally reflected her worth.
More and more she felt the sense of being a valuable person, regardless of her age. She started going out more. A divorcée, she even began dating. There were still situations where shame enveloped her, but the feeling was temporary and quickly abated.
Age-related shame is a real phenomenon that is the result of embedded cultural ideals and messages. But the aging process is natural, and should have nothing to do with the value and worth of a person.
It’s important that we get age-related shame out in the open.
The more we can identify it and talk about it, the more we can rid our culture, and ourselves, of its negative effects.
Editor’s note: Paige’s name was changed to protect her anonymity.