Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Coping With Aging

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It will sound blatantly obvious when we say aging is something that we all must go through as human beings. But there are some psychological factors, some beliefs that could be categorized as faulty thinking patterns, that make the process more painful than it has to be.

One of these faulty thinking patterns is, ironically, that although we all know at the theoretical level that everybody ages most of us secretly believe that our own situations are different, that we can and will be exempt, that growing old and dying applies to all of the other biological lifeforms on the planet but not to us. Because of this secret belief, a belief contrary to all evidence and reason yet firmly embedded within the private world of the psyche, we’re left with feelings of indignation and a sense of injustice as the years go by and the reality of aging becomes a deeply personal experience rather than a philosophical construct.

The objective reality is that we’re all born to die, that the aging process starts the moment we’re born. Apart from the deterioration of our physical or mental health there’s no quantitative change in the aging process, whether we’re new born babies or withered and old time marches on at the same steady clip. We’re all subject to those unalterable rules but there is a qualitative change that occurs, a change in how we perceive ourselves, others, and the world, brought on by the dawning realization that, just like everybody else, we’re not immune from old age and death.

When we’re young aging holds a fully different meaning for us because our possibilities seem limitless, most of us are filled with hope about the future, our behaviors act as building blocks for bigger and better things. We look towards distant horizons, we think we have all the time in the world.

Something Rollo May wrote that has stuck with me over the years, something that perfectly captures the qualitative psychological change we’re talking about, was that one of his patients found himself confronted with the painful reality that life is not a never-ending upward spiral.

When we’re young we do think life is a never-ending upward spiral. But time goes by and sooner or later we realize it’s not, we realize that we probably have more years behind us than we do in front of us. Aging ceases to be a welcome friend helping us along towards our bright futures and instead becomes a menacing adversary, constantly taunting us, threatening us with the obliteration of our beings.

But objectively speaking nothing changes, we were aging before we were aware of our mortality and we keep on aging afterwards. Our own beliefs, our faulty thinking patterns that life is a never-ending upward spiral and that we’re somehow immune from aging and death, represent the real problem, the real dysfunction, because these beliefs are untenable. Reality eventually shatters them and we’re left to pick up the pieces.

Therefore a huge part of coping with aging is simply coming to terms with reality. Every moment that we are alive is a miracle, a gift, a winning ticket with the most astronomical odds in the universe, but the price of admission is agreeing to the rules of human existence. Why squander these precious moments with negativity and indignation around something that every human being must go through when these moments could be filled with joy, curiosity, and self-actualization? Aging and death are set in stone, they’re unalterable, but how we choose to be is completely up to us.