A decade ago, a frail, elderly woman in tattered clothes sat next to me in a restaurant. She ordered free samples, and I observed that I felt uncomfortable, no, if I’m honest, I felt repulsed. My inner dialogue went like this: “She shouldn’t be here at my favorite vegan restaurant. It’s so sad, those wrinkles, that frailty, poverty and neediness. I’ll never be like that.” The sensation in the pit of my stomach was tight, nauseous. I felt uncomfortable, repulsed, and afraid.
I was meeting an unconscious shadow character in me that was projecting onto her what I was denying and rejecting in myself – my own loss of youthful vitality, and my potential dependency, loneliness, and poverty. In fact, I was projecting onto her a dark image of my future self, if I lived long enough to be an old lady, and deeply disliking what I saw and felt.
I was shocked by this new awareness because I had worked and rallied against the other “isms” and stereotypes of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. And I had felt acutely aware of the impact of cultural messaging, media marketing, and biases against groups. Yet here, deep in the hidden recesses of my unconscious, ageism, invisible and insidious, persisted into my late life.
After years of inner work with my own shadow, I was able to catch this one – and name it “my bag lady” shadow. That is to say, I became aware of my inner ageism hrough this personal image of “the bag lady.” She personifies the fear of losing everything, being unable to take care of oneself, and ending up abandoned on the streets.
I attuned to my inner dialogue: “I’ll never be like that.” This gave me a cue that I was separating myself, creating an us/them.
Then I felt the emotions: disgust and fear. This gave me a cue that I was emotionally overreactive, and a projection was involved.
Then I observed the sensations in my body: nausea in my solar plexus, tightness in my shoulders.
After I became familiar with the inner voice, feelings, and sensations of my inner bag lady, she took on dimensionality for me.
Finally, I recognized my projection onto the woman – the bag lady.
We often meet the shadow in an unconscious projection onto another person, attributing to him or her a rejected part of ourselves. So, if we deny our own aggression, laziness, or sexuality, we may encounter it indirectly in another and feel an exaggerated reaction to that person – he’s really a pushy bastard, she’s really a lazy couch potato, he’s such a sex addict. We shoot the arrow of projection and unconsciously attribute this quality to the other person in an effort to banish it from ourselves, to keep from seeing it within.
With ageism, we project our negative fantasies of “old” – ugly, frail, needy, senile – which leads to condescension and stereotyping: greedy geezer, old bat, over the hill, out to pasture. And when millions of young people project what they fear about aging onto elders, the latter try to appear and to act as if they are younger. Hence the epidemic of anti-aging marketing, advertising, surgery, and hormone replacement therapy. Further, as elders buy into a stereotype that devalues them and their lifetimes of skill and wisdom, an inner ageist is forming.
I didn’t know it at the time, but “the bag lady” is an epidemic image of the inner ageist within women in our culture. In 2016, Allianz Life Insurance Company did a survey that found that almost half of all women respondents said they often or sometimes fear losing their money and becoming homeless, regardless of income level. The fear of becoming a bag lady was highest among single and divorced women. But it also was present among high earners. So, I was not alone.
When we begin to recognize a projection as I did that day in the restaurant and create a conscious relationship to an inner figure that was previously unconscious, which I call a shadow character, we are turning within to read the messages encoded in the moments of our daily lives in such a way that we gain consciousness, depth, soul.
When we meet the shadow and deny it, turning outward in blame, we live in projection, not reality. And we banish the shadow once more into the dark cavern of the unconscious.
I learned to observe when the bag lady erupted into my awareness and brought up feelings of fear, repulsion, and vulnerability in me. I endured the discomfort and opened to it with curiosity because I did not want to succumb to denial.
But I also learned to turn toward the homeless women and men who live on the street in shame, invisibility, and powerlessness. I had felt so ashamed when I realized that I had unknowingly succumbed to the undertow of ageism – and that shame connected me in compassion to the real-life bag ladies crouched in rags on the street corners of my city. As my heart opened to them, it opened to my internal figure as well.
The consequences of unconsciously agreeing with this inner ageist are devastating: It warns of a terrible fate beneath the boundary of awareness: the loss of home, love, family, and dignity. And, of course, this is just as true for men, although their inner image would not be female. One 80-year-old friend has outlived his money and needs to drive an Uber. He told me that, when he was forced into retirement, he was terrified of becoming homeless and thought about entering a monastery just to have shelter. A male client, 70, told me that his shadow figure is a lazy, ineffective guy who “can’t get it done”—the opposite of his “go-getter” ego ideal.
So, when we’re younger, this hidden figure drives some of us to make choices that avoid risk, to choose business over the arts, or teaching over music, or one husband over another to ensure security.
In addition, it leads us to reject whole generations of older people, thereby robbing us of valuable friendship, mentoring, and guidance, as well as robbing them of the opportunity to transmit their love, skills, and wisdom. Finally, if we obey the inner ageist, we are rejecting our own futures.
I learned slowly and gently to coax the bag lady out of the darkness, listen to her message for me, respond differently to older people, and deal with the fear and dread of my own aging. When my inner ageist erupts these days, or a homeless woman holds out her hand, my heart cracks open – and my gaze turns toward, rather than away.
The dramatic consequences of the inner ageist are not well known. It turns out that what we believe about age throughout our lives – consciously and unconsciously — shapes how we age in later years. The brain/mind/body connection becomes highly visible here: Living as a target of stereotyping projection affects our self-image, health, brain, and behavior in a dynamic process that takes place across the lifespan. Therefore, aging is not solely determined by physiology; it is a more individual, subjective experience with health outcomes tied as much to social values and cultural beliefs and biases as to biology.
When we internalize ageism and believe that aging makes us useless, worthless, unattractive, and inferior to youth; when we believe that aging means only decline, dementia, suffering, and death, then we behave accordingly. We deny the natural aging process, striving to remain young; we refuse to let go of old habits and roles, even when they are well worn out; we lose a sense of meaning and purpose and may grow depressed and depleted, ignoring our self-care; and we suffer health consequences, losing resilience for the inevitable challenges ahead.
This dynamic also may help to explain the epidemic of depression among older people. Although the American Association of Suicidology acknowledges undiagnosed depression as a leading cause of suicide among us, (along with death of a loved one, illness and pain, social isolation, and changing roles), it does not acknowledge individual and collective ageism, internalized as inferiority and self-hate, as a contributing factor.
On the other hand, when we reject the collective ageism in which we swim and make a conscious relationship with the ageist within us, we can choose to view late life differently: as a vital stage of adult development for continuing our emotional and spiritual growth, for cultivating wisdom and contributing to future generations, that is, as a time of new possibilities. Then we can more easily align with the realities of our individual aging, accept ourselves more deeply, and reinvent our lives accordingly. In this way, we become models of aging well for others.
Becca Levy, a psychologist at Yale School of Public Health, has pioneered research on “implicit ageism,” the unconscious operation of age stereotypes and prejudice. She is credited with creating a field of study that focuses on how positive and negative beliefs about older people, which she calls age stereotypes, can be embodied, having profound effects on their mental and physical health.
Levy describes a process in which age stereotypes are internalized during childhood and young adulthood and embodied when they lead to self-images. Ultimately, they carry more force than direct personal experience, such as when younger workers have regular contact with older workers yet continue to buy into the stereotypes that the latter are less productive.
Levy cited a study that showed that college students, when subliminally exposed to the word “old,” made associations with negative traits more quickly (and more unconsciously) than when primed with the word “young.” “It is likely that implicit ageism will continue to operate when the students are at the 50th reunion of their college class,” she said.
Eventually, over the years, these stereotypes become “self-stereotypes,” which I would call the inner ageist. As a clinician I have seen how this process of internalization leads to self-hate and a merciless inner critic (“I’ve become weak, useless, worthless”). If we assign meaning and value only to our appearance, accomplishments, physical strength, or roles, and they are diminished, then the inner ageist can be relentless.
Levy’s findings are startling and confirm that ageism, operating below conscious awareness, has ripple effects throughout our bodies and minds, as we navigate through a youth-centered, ageist culture. She reviewed her research in The Journals of Gerontology series (July 2003):
- In 1994, she studied their link to memory in older people and found that those exposed to negative stereotypes (“senile”) performed worse on memory tasks than those exposed to positive ones (“wise”). She concluded that these stereotypes can influence cognitive ability.
- In 1999-2000, she tested whether aging self-stereotypes influenced the will to live and found that older individuals exposed to positive stereotypes tended to accept life-extending medical interventions, while those who saw negative ones did not.
- In 2000, she explored the impact of ageist self-images on cardiovascular reactivity, an autonomic response to stress and found that negative associations triggered stress.
- In 2002, she found that people who had positive beliefs about growing older, as measured 23 years earlier, gained 7 ½ years of life – more than the longevity gained from low blood pressure, low cholesterol, healthy weight, cessation of smoking, and regular exercise!
- A 2016 study showed that the influence of the inner ageist extends to actual changes in the brain: People with early negative beliefs about aging had greater loss in their brain’s memory site and more growth of tangles and plaques, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. And the more negative their views, the worse the changes in the brain.
Aging stereotypes, then, which include expectations for late life, are internalized early as shadow characters and later become self-images. They are then consciously and unconsciously triggered to exert their harmful or beneficial influences on us through several pathways.
Given this complexity, we cannot fight ageism in ourselves merely by replacing negative thoughts or images with positive thinking. That is merely a conscious process. And the beliefs and images in the shadow, outside of our awareness, are elusive and contagious.
And we cannot fight ageism only from the outside in, within our institutions. Rather, we need to fight it from the inside out, emphasize positive images of aging among the young through intergenerational activities and reject the negative projections onto older people by the media and the culture at large. And we need, as elders, to become aware of how we are targeting ourselves, as well as becoming targets of others.