The Narcissistic Injury of Middle Age

As we pass our prime, it is with a growing awareness that younger people coming after us haven’t yet reached their peak. Those who can’t bear the shift to a supporting role may become increasingly narcissistic in the unhealthy sense of the word.

Oliver Herford (Phenomenal Fauna/Library of Congress)

“I feel invisible.”

I often hear variations on that statement from people who are middle-aged or older, especially women. As our bodies age and younger people find us less physically attractive, they seem to look right through us, as if we no longer exist. Finding that we have lost our sexual currency can come as a blow to our self-esteem, even for those of us who haven’t relied heavily on our looks to garner attention. Most people enjoy being noticed and found attractive. Hardly anyone wants to feel as if they don’t exist.

As we begin to develop a sense of self during the earliest months of life, being “seen” by our caretakers plays a central role. The joy we perceive in our parents’ gaze makes us feel that we are beautiful and important, an experience that lays the foundation for healthy self-esteem. Even as adults, we depend to a significant degree on being noticed and admired to maintain our sense of self. This isn’t merely narcissism in the unhealthy sense of the word. Human beings are social animals, defining ourselves through interconnection: Although we build self-esteem by living up to our own personal values and standards, we also rely upon the regard of others to feel good about ourselves.

The primary definition of the word regard is “a feeling of respect or admiration for someone” but in its secondary sense, it conveys the idea of looking or gazing. Throughout our lives, when other people look upon us with respect or admiration, it supports our sense of self-worth.

In later life, when others stop looking, we naturally experience it as a narcissistic injury, as if it means that we are no longer “beautiful” and important. Even people who have never traded on their looks will find this experience painful to some degree.

The many articles on the subject of increasing invisibility with age tend to blame a superficial, ageist society that places supreme value on youthful sex appeal. While valid, this social critique ignores the fact that getting older inevitably involves a kind of narcissistic injury: with the changing of the generational guard, it is no longer “our turn.” The locus of social interest shifts to much younger men and women, now going off to college and launching their careers.

For those of us who married and reared children, we watch as they wed and start families of their own. It’s no longer about us, not in the same way. As we pass our prime, we may continue pursuing goals and ambitions, but it is with a growing awareness that other, younger people coming after us haven’t yet reached their peak.

On a biological level, this is all in the natural order of things, but many of us nonetheless find it a painful fact that our personal passions and concerns no longer take center stage, that we’re now more often in a supporting role than playing the lead. In his seven stages of psychosocial development, the psychologist Erik Erikson identifies the “crisis” of middle age as a conflict between generativity and self-doubt. Generativity means we come to place increasing value on guiding the next generation—as parents, educators, artists, or social activists. A person who instead remains self-centered, unable to accept the changing of the generational guard, grows increasingly dissatisfied and stagnant.

People who make contributions to the younger generation and to society at large tend to feel good about themselves at this stage and find it a consolation for the loss of top billing. They will grow old with a sense of grace and acceptance. Those who can’t bear the shift to a supporting role may become increasingly narcissistic in the unhealthy sense of the word. Even adults who haven’t seemed particularly narcissistic for most of their lives may become so as they age. They will ape the behaviors, clothing, and attitudes of the young, trying to preserve their sexual appeal. They may opt for plastic surgery. Socially, they become more self-absorbed and insensitive, demanding to remain the center of attention.

Such behavior is undoubtedly encouraged by a world that places decreasing value on wisdom and experience, historically the social currency of those who are older. In the work force, for example, older employees (those who earn more due to seniority) are commonly replaced with young people who may know less but also cost less to employ.

At the same time, rapid technological innovation often renders an older person’s skill set obsolete—they no longer have something useful to teach. The Internet has also reduced the social value older people once held by virtue of their accumulated knowledge: who needs to ask an old person a question when you can find the answer yourself within seconds on Wikipedia? Medicine is one of the few professions where being older is actually an asset, the presumption being that years of experience have endowed me with emotional wisdom, something technological innovation hasn’t (yet) replaced.

So what then are middle-aged people to do as they approach a retirement in which they may no longer be “seen” as having social value? It’s difficult enough to face the prospect of old age, declining health, and eventual death, but to confront it from a position of social irrelevance is nearly unbearable. For some people, feeling connected to and loved by their grandchildren is enough. Many people will find new ways to contribute through volunteer work or second careers. But for others, especially those who have developed a sense of self-worth largely through their professional identity, the prospect of becoming invisible in retirement is terrifying.

Perhaps it makes sense that middle-aged people increasingly cling to youth when the alternative is the slow drift into irrelevance. Growing older has always represented a kind of narcissistic injury; but in the modern world, with so few ways to salve the wound, it should come as no surprise that cosmetic surgery continues to increase, year after year. In 2012 alone, Americans spent $11 billion on facelifts, Botox injections, and other aesthetic procedures. The comedienne Joan Rivers speaks for many when she asserts that preserving a youthful, sexually attractive appearance as long as possible makes sense in our modern world. What else is there?

Erik Erikson tells us that the alternative to self-centered stagnation is to find new sources of meaning in life by using our accumulated wisdom and experience to help guide the next generation. Sage advice.

But what if the young conclude that we have nothing of value to offer?