I try to have compassion for myself, but I feel guilty that I’m being so superficial, especially as I’ve assumed some of the caretaking duties of my elderly and very ill mother. Do you have any advice for how I can pull myself out of this desperate loop? I don’t want to lose the good, active years that I still have ahead being mired in this.
You’re not alone in reacting to what you see in the mirror. After all, who among us hasn’t grappled with the changes that come with age? At the same time, if you’re being plunged into a “desperate panic,” it’s possible that there’s something at play here that goes beyond your feelings about your appearance—like, perhaps, your feelings about your mortality.
Let me put this in the context of life stages. In the mid-1900s, the psychologist Erik Erikson came up with eight stages of psychosocial development that still guide therapists in their thinking today. Unlike Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, which focus on the id, Erikson’s psychosocial stages focus on personality development in a social context (such as developing a sense of trust in others as an infant, or establishing a sense of identity in society during adolescence). Most important, instead of ending at puberty, Erikson’s stages continue throughout our entire life span, and each interrelated stage involves a “crisis” that we need to get through to move on to the next. They look like this:
1. Infant: Basic Trust vs. Mistrust
2. Toddler: Autonomy vs. Shame
3. Preschooler: Initiative vs. Guilt
4. School-age child: Industry vs. Inferiority
5. Adolescent: Identity vs. Identity Diffusion
6. Young adult: Intimacy vs. Isolation
7. Middle-aged adult: Generativity vs. Stagnation
8. Older adult: Integrity vs. Despair
The seventh stage is where people generally find themselves at around your age. Erikson maintained that in this stage, we become more acutely aware of our mortality and start to think more deeply about how we might generate something or care for people that will outlive us—by, say, passing the torch to our children, mentoring future generations, or creating something professionally that makes the world a better place.
This desire to make our mark on the world helps us to accept the immutable choices we’ve already made and the limitations of the time we have left. Many people use this time to adjust expectations and create clear priorities about what they want to accomplish both personally and professionally in terms of their legacy. If, on the other hand, a person feels disconnected from a larger purpose—something that transcends her own life—she’ll feel panicked and paralyzed, leading to stagnation.
What does all this have to do with sagging flesh? That image you barely recognize in the mirror doesn’t just reflect an older face; it also reflects what that older face signifies: loss of beauty, maybe, but also loss of youth. It is a daily visual reminder of your mortality. It’s probably no coincidence that you’re having this crisis while caring for your aging mother and bearing witness to her mortality, too.