Age Shame: Why It Cuts So Deep and How to Cope

The aging process is inevitable, but knowing that doesn’t automatically make aging easier. Both men and women can struggle with getting older. While we’ve made some societal efforts to reduce ageist stereotypes, we still have a very long way to go, and this form of discrimination still runs rampant.

As you transition from middle age to older age, it’s important to be mindful of the changes you may experience both physically and emotionally. Let’s unpack what you need to know.

Understanding Shame

Shame is a universal emotion affecting people of all ages and demographics. Shame is often a combination of guilt and embarrassment that leads people to believe they are inferior or unlovable.

When you feel ashamed, you feel like you’re somehow fundamentally broken or different from other people. This can magnify symptoms of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, and it can reinforce low self-esteem.

Sometimes shame happens when you are negatively perceived by others or when you make a mistake that feels careless or personally upsetting. In most cases, shame passes with time, although it can continue to be activated when confronted with certain triggers.

Sometimes shame can morph into toxic shame when the shame is deeply internalized and feels a part of who you are. This kind of shame often coincides with pervasive feelings of worthlessness, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and unresolved trauma.

What Is Internalized Age Shame?

Internalized age shame refers to feeling guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed about your age. People with this internalized ageism have negative attitudes about aging or people within their age demographics. This comes with a sense of doubt, fear, and ambivalence about growing older.

Internalized age shame can come in many forms. It may be subtle and sound like statements that say, “Well, I’m too old for…” or, “It’s too late for me to..,” or, “Of course I forgot his name. How could someone my age expect to remember that?” In some cases, these statements may be true and fairly neutral. But other times, they speak to the impact of negative age bias.

Internalized age shame also plays out in how people perceive their physical bodies. In a society that covets having a youthful appearance, many people feel pressured to maintain their looks regardless of the natural tides of change.

The female body, in particular, tends to be scrutinized, but men are not exempt from this kind of discrimination. For this reason, many people struggle to accept the physical signs of aging, and some will take great lengths to slow the changes down as much as possible.

Furthermore, ageism can be compounded with other harmful stereotypes, including ableism, racism, sexism, and more. For instance, a queer black aging woman may face more discrimination than a straight, white aging man. These realities can add more complexity to the aging process.

What Are the Effects of Ageism and Age Discrimination in Modern Society?

Unfortunately, age discrimination is one of the last forms of socially acceptable discrimination. Many people are deeply entrenched in negative beliefs about what aging entails and what to expect as they grow older. These stereotypes can affect people in the following ways:

Interpersonal Ageism

This type of ageism specifically entails ageism that occurs within interpersonal relationships. Consider a boss who doesn’t assign an older employee a certain project due to their age. Or a younger friend planning an outdoor trip and automatically assuming that their older friend can’t keep up on a longer hike.

These types of ageism are not intended to be rude, which is what makes their nature feel more challenging and painful. Older people on the receiving end of such discrimination often feel left out, disappointed, and misunderstood.

Institutional Ageism

This type of ageism refers to discriminatory social norms and rules. For example, it’s known that most clinical trials focus on healthy young adults, but often leave older persons out of research. Even among mental health professionals, many don’t receive significant training in working with older clients.

Institutional ageism results can result in people feeling underrepresented and invisible. Some may feel the need to advocate for their welfare, and others might struggle with believing it’s a futile cause. This is also a problem within the greater media, with older people having less prominence in TV shows, movies, and mainstream music.

Workplace Ageism

Workplace ageism is an ongoing problem, and research suggests that 78% of people have experienced or witnessed age discrimination at work. Although this type of discrimination is illegal, that doesn’t stop employers or colleagues from projecting age-related issues onto others.

Workplace ageism comes in many forms, but it can include:

  • generally preferring to hire people within a certain age group
  • disregarding ideas or participation from older adults
  • underpaying older employees
  • engaging in microaggressions (i.e. “This technology might be too advanced for you,” or “I’m surprised you were able to finish this so quickly!”)
  • encouraging or mandating retirement
  • using negative aging language

How to Cope With Negative Feelings About the Aging Process

Struggles with aging are a real phenomenon, and you’re not alone in how you feel. There’s nothing wrong with having mixed emotions about growing older, but it’s important to be mindful of how your emotions might affect your self-esteem or behavioral responses.

Here are some ways to manage the negative stereotype you may have about aging:

Explore Your Own Ageist Stereotypes

People often hold strong age stereotypes whether they realize it or not. For instance, you may associate old age with dependence on others, and that can unveil uncomfortable emotions that coincide with guilt, fear, anger, and sadness.

You might also assume that getting older automatically translates to medical issues, including memory loss, fragility, or terminal illness. While it’s important to be proactive with your health care, it’s equally important to be mindful of how you react to these automatic beliefs.

Aging stereotypes play into sexuality, friendship, attractiveness, and more. Spend some time thinking about how you compare old and young people and what conclusions you have about these different demographics. Even if some of your stereotypes are valid, they are still worth exploring.

Take Care of Your Mental Health

As people age, they naturally experience many changes that can affect their mental health. Empty nest syndrome, retirement, medical concerns or medical trauma, loss and grief- these all represent significant adjustments that may impact your physical and emotional well-being.

Mental health symptoms rarely show up for the first time in older age, but it’s possible to feel more depressed or anxious as you get older. Subsequently, the type of self-care you might have once enjoyed may no longer be as accessible or meaningful.

With that, looking after your mental health is an important safeguard for your happiness. This can look like sticking to a regular sleep schedule, staying connected with loved ones, getting enough physical activity, and taking your medication as prescribed.

Find Positive Role Models

In our youth-oriented society, it’s easy to fall prey to the negative stereotypes about aging. With that, it can be helpful to find positive role models who continue to thrive and take care of themselves regardless of their age. These people can act as a source of inspiration for you, and they may also be able to offer motivation for you to continue accomplishing meaningful goals.

Allow Yourself Space to Grieve

Aging can certainly coincide with grief. You might miss parts of your younger self or long for what you lost. It can be difficult to adjust to the natural changes associated with your health or relationships with others.

Grief is a natural process, and grieving doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Giving yourself permission to feel your feelings is a sign of self-compassion.

Stay Connected to Others

Both older and younger people benefit from strong social support, but friendship may even matter more in later life. Unfortunately, due to sudden changes or bereavement, isolation is one of the greatest detriments older people face.

Research has linked social isolation with a myriad of health issues, including a weakened immune system, cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, and heart disease. Conversely, people who are connected to others tend to have a greater sense of purpose and a better mood.

Remember that quality-based connection can be more important than how much time you spend with others. Some strategies for staying connected include:

  • reconnecting with old friends
  • prioritizing making connections with new friends
  • signing up for a class that piques your interest
  • getting involved with regular volunteering
  • making an effort to get to know your neighbors better
  • taking on a part-time job that entails ongoing social interaction
  • planning to spend more time with family

Therapy for Aging Concerns and Healthy Aging in Austin, TX

Older adults can benefit from having the support and compassion offered within a therapeutic environment. If you’re struggling with your emotional well-being, grief, or other specific aging concerns, therapy offers

As a seasoned therapist, I am passionate about supporting people throughout the lifespan. I specialize in all types of grief, medical concerns, caregiving issues, and difficulties associated with getting older.

Regardless of your specific concerns, I would be happy to support you and help you find a sense of joy and meaning in your daily life. I welcome you to contact me today to schedule an initial consultation to determine if we might be a good fit.

4601 Spicewood Springs Road Building 3, Suite 200
Austin, TX 78759
(512) 988-3363

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