We spend a lifetime building our identity: Discovering our hidden talents, realizing what we’re passionate about, deciding who we want to become and coming to terms with what we have accomplished. It’s a highly personal experience and it can take years. Then, almost suddenly, the time comes when we’ve lived through what is considered our “prime,” and the identities we’ve built are challenged by the changes that come with growing older.
It can feel unfamiliar at times, especially as appearances change or new physical limitations make it harder to participate in hobbies. For older adults, it’s particularly important to understand how these changes start to affect self-perception and self-esteem—and find the balance between holding on to what makes us who we are and accepting how our identities may change.
Here are a few things worth thinking about if growing older begins to interfere with your sense of self:
Adjusting to Life After a Career
Many of us spend the majority of our life working full-time, whether we’re working in an office, caring for our children or something else entirely. And while many people look forward to having more free time in retirement, the adjustment can be jarring as we come to grips with just how much free time we really have. It’s normal to base your identity on what you do for a living—you probably spend dozens of hours a week at work, after all. So, while adjusting to life in retirement, it’s important to find new ways of feeling accomplished. That is, in many ways, what we cling to in our careers and families. Some ways to achieve this might be through volunteering in your community, finding new projects to work on (and see to the end!) and mentoring or tutoring younger people.
Contending with Grief or Loss:
Is your attitude on life a core piece of how you see yourself? Or, in even other words, do you feel your personality defines you? Most of us probably answered yes—though, it’s okay if you didn’t. Either way, when we experience grief or deep feelings of loss, we may notice our outlook starts to change—but, when it doesn’t simply “snap back” like we thought it would, we may start to feel out of touch with who we are. When this happens, it’s important to understand how to ask for help. Depending on what you feel, you may benefit from a spiritual advisor, life coach or therapist. In many cases, contending with grief is more about feeling at peace and finding ways to enjoy the things we used to.
Adapting to Physical Changes
You wake up to get ready for the day and it hits you like a ton of bricks: those crow’s feet weren’t there yesterday… were they? Is that hip pain new, or are you just now noticing it? The cold weather sure isn’t helping—but, wait, when did that start being an issue? Changes in appearance may start out gradually or come on suddenly, but when it becomes a burden, it can leave us feeling less confident or less secure. This can be complicated to grapple with, but it’s important to find ways to keep up your self-esteem. Much of this shift is internal and may rely on placing value on what’s on the inside. Some ideas for keeping your sense of self in the face of physical changes might include holding onto your favorite style (even if you’re confronted with criticism about what’s “age-appropriate”) or pampering yourself with a spa day. There are many ways to preserve identity despite physical changes, but the goal is to seek things that make you feel your best.
In the end, one thing to keep in mind about our identities is that they have always changed as we reach new milestones in life.
As teenagers, we learn how to outgrow childhood and welcome responsibility. As young adults, we spend years trying to discover our “purpose,” like starting a family or finding success in our careers. In middle age, some of us face the fact that we must let our children find their independence as adults—and forfeit the piece of our identity we dedicated to them. Our identities have never been set in stone, yet we all adapt. The changes we face in our golden years are no different.