The Fear of Getting Old

We live in an ageist culture. It’s not only that we’re terrified of death and hurry to sequester the topic away under the nearest rock or stuff it into the closest corner; it’s that, in a culture that reveres youth, beauty, and physical perfection, we fear aging itself. We fear the lines that inevitably appear on faces. We fear the roundness and softness of skin and bodies. We fear the gray hairs that sprout out as if to say, “Welcome to aging! No matter what you do, you won’t be able to fight the passage of time.” But we live in a culture that encourages us to fight it: to dye, exercise, and Botox the signs of aging away as quickly as they begin.

Like caring about what others think, absorbing other people’s lives, the fear of failure, and the addiction to perfection, the fear of aging is another byproduct of living in a culture that is largely informed by the externalization of self. The underlying and pervasive message is that our worth is based on externals – how well we do in school, how much money we make, who we marry (and that we marry at all), what we look like – and we’re conditioned from an early age to follow the timeline and expectations of the culture, which don’t allow for coloring outside the lines and following our own needs, preferences, and temperament. It’s an externally-referenced model at every turn.

Of course, this extends to the aging process. If self-worth is based on smooth skin and non-gray hair, what happens when age exacts its claim? If our self-worth is attached to any external, and we know that one of the principles of life on this planet is that we’re subject to the ever-changing river of impermanence, it becomes immediately clear that our reliance on externals for self-worth is a recipe for emptiness, self-doubt, and, of course, anxiety.

This is not the case in every culture. One of my favorite parts of the documentary “Happy” – and I loved the entire film from start to finish – was the section on the culture of Okinawa, Japan, where they discussed that one of the secrets to their renowned longevity and basic sense of wellness is their respect for the elderly. Elderly people are seen as carriers of wisdom and, as such, are regarded as treasures in the culture. They even have a national holiday called “Respect for the Aged Day” where elderly people are honored throughout the community with parties and gifts. There seems to be a widespread understanding in the culture that getting older is not something to hide and feel ashamed of but is an achievement worthy of celebration, and so people don’t fear aging as much as we do here in the West. As May Sarton writes, “My neighbor’s wish to be known forever as thirty-nine years old made me think again of what K said in her letter about the people in their thirties mourning their lost youth because we have given them no ethos that makes maturity appear as an asset.” And it’s not only that maturity isn’t seen as an asset; it’s seen as a liability.

Over the last few weeks, as I approached my 47th birthday and thought about aging, one particular image kept coming to mind: my son’s Bar Mitzvah over the summer when my ring of soul-sisters gathered from all parts of the country and we danced in a circle under a white tent, and as I looked around – at our beautifully aging faces, our lines and gray hair and rounder bodies – I felt such a surge of tenderness for our vulnerability and also for the unspeakable blessing of moving through the ages together. From elementary school through adolescence, into twenties, thirties, forties and beyond, we have held each other through every dark night and celebrated every joy to arrive at that moment of celebrating my fourteen year old son’s transition into adulthood. The wisdom we’ve gleaned lives in our faces, our triumphs speak through our bodies, our hair tells the stories of our traumas and joys. There is no part of these sacred bodies that do not tell and carry our stories, the strands of our history that comprise the quilt of our lives.

The culture tells us that the process of aging is something to be avoided and feared, but what could possibly be loathsome about the blessing of growing old together? In seeking to erase the evidence of our stories, the culture tells us to silence our voices, our wisdom, our songs. We will not be silenced. As Marion Woodman says, “Tell the image makers and magazine sellers and the plastic surgeons that you are not afraid. That what you fear the most is the death of imagination and originality and metaphor and passion. Then be bold and LOVE YOUR BODY. STOP FIXING IT. It was never broken.”

We think that what we fear most is the aging process or death itself, but what we truly fear – what causes soul-quaking and heart-withering – is the death of imagination. What we fear most is the lack of wisdom and sources of true connection that help us tap into this wisdom. What we long for is the poetry of being alive, the poetry that helps us make sense of being alive. What we crave in our cells is not youth or physical perfection but the inner rudders and outer guideposts – the rituals, the dreams, the metaphors – that teach us to live life more fully and to inhabit the blessing of these bodies through each stage of life.

Tonight, as I cross the threshold from forty-six to forty-seven, I will sit with my Colorado sisters, in ritual, in circle, with our hearts open like petals as we reflect together on what it means to age, on stepping into new stages of life, on motherhood and children and how to let go and come back to the central column of Self. They will hold me in their love and through the ache I feel every year at the waning light, the ache that weeps my heart at the awareness of the passage of time, and I will breathe into the blessing of allowing my community to catch the ball of my ache in their rainbow parachute and bounce it back up as joy.

***

The best immunization against the misguided mindsets and expectations of our culture is to strengthen your central column and fill the well of self from the inside out. When you know yourself and love yourself, you will naturally trust yourself, and when you trust yourself you can push against the cultural expectations that tell you how life and love “should” be and instead live your life according to your own rhythms, temperament, and timeline. This is what I teach in Trust Yourself: A 30-day Program to Help You Overcome Your Fear of Failure, Caring What Others Think, Perfectionism, Difficulty Making Decisions, and Self-Doubt. This is the last week to sign up, and I won’t be offering it for at least another six months. You can learn more and sign up here. The following articles discuss various aspects of self that are negatively impacted by lack of self-trust:

The Imposter Syndrome

The Myth of a Calling

Filling the Well

Absorbing Other People’s Lives

World Anxiety

Perfection and the Fear of Failure

24 comments to The Fear of Getting Old

  • Thank you, Sheryl, this is beautiful. I’ve been struggling with this entire concept myself, as I can already see some judgment coming up in my context over my aging, and as I judge myself at times. It’s work to push against culture, but it’s worth it. Thank you for the reminders.

  • Caitlin

    Happy birthday (for tomorrow) Sheryl – I hope you have a wonderful day!

    With love…all the way from London, England x

  • quietcourage

    “They will hold me in their love and through the ache I feel every year at the waning light, the ache that weeps my heart at the awareness of the passage of time, and I will breathe into the blessing of allowing my community to catch the ball of my ache in their rainbow parachute and bounce it back up as joy.”

    Wow. I can see this image in my mind, and it is breathtakingly beautiful.

    Blessings to you on your birthday, Sheryl. May you be surrounded by love and fullness.

  • Jennifer

    Wishing you so well on your birthday and this coming year. Your work & journey are so beautiful. Thank you for sharing of yourself! Blessings to you and your family. namaste, Jennifer

  • What a beautiful celebration of your life, work, and all that you have authored inside and out. I celebrate you and the courageous light you bring guiding so many of us to nourishing our well of self. I am most grateful for your birth, rebirth, and unfolding in this spiritual journey. May your journey around the sun be filled with abundant health, joy, and poetry. In deep gratitude!!! Parabéns as we say in Portuguese 🎉❣️🌟💕

  • Happy Birthday dear Scorpio Sister! 🎂

  • Angela

    Happy Birthday Sheryl🎉🎁🍾🥂🎂 Enjoy your special day. I hope you get spoilt.

  • Tündi

    How beautiful and soothing! My Dad is turning 60 tomorrow (along with my boyfriend turning 31) and I’ve been having some anxiety about it myself. This came at a great time. Thank you! Hope you have a wonderful day, Sheryl! Happy birthday & many blessings to you! Sending you much love, Tündi

  • Lucy

    I’ve been happily surprised to find a new acceptance of my body after giving birth to my son. The “worst” happened in terms of how my belly now looks, and the best happened in terms of how I feel about it. Deep love and appreciation and curiosity for my wonderful belly and body! I’ve actually tried to care that I no longer have the shape I used to, and … I simply can’t! What a gift.

  • Bernadette

    Happy birthday Sheryl 😊 I hope you had a wonderful day xx

  • Cami

    Your acceptance of the vulnerability and pain that aging entails is so soothing, dear Sheryl. Transitions are sometimes so difficult to accept. Uncertainty feels so scary. My cat is in the hospital. He’s been sick for two days. It’s been two nights without him at home. The fear of not knowing what’s wrong with him invites my body and soul to grieve. The uncertainty of not knowing what is wrong with him is just so scary. The sadness that invades my heart when I see my little boy hurting is heart breaking. I’m trying to breathe into it and accept it as it comes. I’m trying to counteract the fear of the pain of him passing away with the gratitude of having had him for a short period of time. I’m praying so that he feels better soon. I’m asking God and the universe to keep him safe and without pain, whatever that means for me. But these life transitions sometimes are so, so hard to deal with. I’m sending you positive vibes, Sheryl. May this year be full of nothing but blessings for you. Thank you for your work, you’re a blessing to all of us. Happy birthday <3

  • Grateful for your years and the wisdom in them. Happy birthday!

  • Christy

    Beautiful Sheryl-thank you for sharing.

  • Emma

    Happy birthday Sheryl!! Thank you for your wonderful work.xx

  • Katers

    Happy Birthday Sheryl! Trust Yourself really helped me start a path to really face my fears and build self trust. It’s a hard and ongoing process! I also really appreciate your weekly blog as a reminder to turn inward. Thank you for sharing your guidance and wisdom, and for your hard work providing this blog and the online courses!

  • I hope it was a happy birthday! I hit 60 this year and have for some time been exploring both what a positive vision of ‘elderhood’ might look like in our contemporary society and what seems to be an increasing interest among women of embracing the ‘crone’ years as a time of coming into feminine power and wisdom rather than loss of youth and all that goes with our emphasis on the ‘maiden’ and ‘mother’ stages of our lives. I just wrote quite a long post on The Season of the Crone, including Crone qualities and embracing the role of modern Crone that might interest you – https://www.passagetojoy.com/elderhood/season-of-the-crone/

  • Thank you, all, for your beautiful birthday wishes! I feel them like spring flowers in my heart.

  • Fay

    Sheryl, you actually published this on my Birthday! It was just a present to find it in my inbox. It was just a meaningful post to me that I’ve shared it with some of my friends who are dreading the transition from their 20s and 30s. Thank you and Happy Birthday

  • Maddie

    HBD Sheryl! Irrelevant, but would you happen to be an INFJ? I’d love to know! I hope you had a wonderful birthday:)

    Maddie

  • Peace seeker

    I once wished that you would have been my mother:) and my actuals mum’s birthday is also november 5th:) but really i wish i was raised by someone like you .. hope u had a beautiful day and always keep us warm with your wise work please

  • Cait P

    Happy belated, dearest Sheryl!

    Your work is a gift to me every day and it continues to help guide me on my growth path. I learned that saying, “I can’t thank you enough” is a tad silly because I can give you thanks every day by continuing to grow, push through resistance, and take care of my Self with the tools you have provided for me. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the work that you do and for being an inspiration to my life and the many you look out for here on CT and the world at large. You deserve many more days of peace, comfort, and warmth as you have brought that to all of us throughout the years.

    Many good vibes sent from PA!

    Love,

    Cait P 🙂

Leave a Reply