I recently started thinking about the “self”; who we are, who we have been and who we will become. As an Adlerian therapist, I have long concluded that we all want to “become”. What we aspire to is in large part informed by ideas we have about the possibilities that we see for ourselves. Naturally, over the course of our lives, this will change based on life experiences, access to opportunities and the situational factors that influence our lives directly or indirectly. A huge part of our distress and disappointment arises from transitions among different phases of life. The “self” as we know it is not static. Certain aspects of who we are become more important at different points in our existence. One of the things that brings many a sense of regret is grief over who we used to be.
Heraclitus gave us the saying “the only constant in life is change”. It is an undeniable truth and yet, there are aspects of ourselves that most of us cannot abide changing. One of those things is our physical appearance. As I approach my mid-forties, I am struck by the unwelcome realization that my body will no longer look the way it did twenty, ten or even five years ago. Suddenly, the body I have inhabited my entire life seems to have taken on a life of its own. Although we tend to associate disordered eating with young women and adolescents, we are noticing a trend of late onset disordered eating in middle aged women. There is also the mistaken perception that it is white women who develop disordered eating problems even though the actual data shows that this problem spans all ethnicities, socio-economic groups and ages with some reports showing that binge-eating does not abate until the age of 70! We mistakenly tend to associate disordered eating with women when the fact remains that one in three persons struggling with this issue is male and anorexia among boys is now being diagnosed as young as eight years old.
We can blame our youth-obsessed and fat shaming culture for this disturbing trend. We know that people in general, and women in particular, are under tremendous pressure globally to maintain as youthful an appearance as possible, as long as humanly possible. This is evident even in the comments people received when participating in the 2019 “Ten-Year Challenge” on Facebook. The ideal scenario was to show everyone how eternally young we looked. However, this challenge obviously does not account for the multitude of actual factors that influence our aging process. Imagine being one of those people who faced very difficult and stressful life circumstances like chronic illness, sustained stress, major life events like divorce, menopause, caregiving duties for our older parents and children, and a myriad of other concerns that derail our diets and sap the finances or time we would use to go to the spa or gym.
I have recently been having conversations with women both in my capacity as a therapist and as a friend about how our perimenopausal bodies are causing us to feel betrayed and depressed. Even among fitness instructors, there is a recognition that weight management is more difficult despite strict nutrition plans and exercise. Celebrities are no different, as seen with Wanda Sykes who famously named her “roll” Esther. She acknowledges a complete lack of control over the weight around her middle despite working out. The clips of her talking about Esther are funny because of the universal quality of the sentiment. I look at photos of myself when my metabolism was higher and my waist measurement lower and I feel a mixture of sadness and acceptance. I am learning that I may never look that way again but, that means that my new “best”, although different is by no means “undesirable” or “inferior”. This work of constantly accepting ourselves just as we are is very difficult but, in order for us to actually be happy, it is essential.
Another area in which we struggle with current iterations of “self” is in recognising when parts of who we used to be no longer fit who we are today. Recently, I returned to a previous career to see if it still “fit”. What I noticed was how much energy the job I used to enjoy took out of me. I watched myself become stressed, overwhelmed, exhausted, agitated and completely consumed by the demands on the “to do” list related to that job. I remember the over ten years I spent in that profession with fondness but, I realise that the mould no longer “fit”. In my case, it was a nice experiment that taught me that I have moved on from where I used to be and, thankfully I am at peace with that. However, this is not a universal standard. I work with all different types of people who are facing transitions which show them that they are no longer who they thought they were in ways that are very anxiety-provoking. There is an element of grief and loss that pops up in this situation that is perfectly normal even if we don’t talk about it. Nowhere is this more obvious than when we approach retirement. My job as a therapist in these moments of despair is to help people make peace with the loss of a role while embracing forward movement towards “becoming”.
You can always grow and change without wanting to return to a former version of yourself. You know you have come to your authentic self when you feel a sense of purpose. When the opinions of others no longer influence your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It is this point of true self-acceptance where you stop thinking about what you “should” be doing, who you should be dating, what you should be buying, how you should look and, you simply become “good” with who you are.
Finally, since we all change over the course of our lives, our relationships often change as well. This applies to friendships, familial ties and, as expected, romantic partnerships. I was once told by an older relative that the people who know you best are the friends you grow up with. I have seen this to be true once people are able to maintain these friendships through the natural cycles of life. However, not all friendships can stand the test of time. When friendships end, it can often be devastating and trigger grief and loss. Even when the partings are mutual, they still cause some amount of pain. Often times, people describe breaking up with a friend as more painful than breaking up with a romantic partner, because friendships tend to outlast intimate partner relationships. The Google search “when friendships end” brings up forty-two million results. The sheer number of results is a clear indicator that this is a very common and yet, very human experience. There is lots of advice about friendships ending which acknowledge the process of grief inherent in this situation in a manner that should bring us all comfort since we are clearly not alone. Learning to be ok with letting go would be a valuable skill to apply to this type of scenario.
Familial ties at the best of times can often be fraught with negative emotions and interactions. As the saying goes, “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family”. Sometimes, these relationships lead to estrangement in amicable or explosive ways. One lens we can use to help us process this is to remember that if we change over the course of our lives, so too do our family members. Conventional wisdom would dictate that we have to keep blood relatives in our lives. We act upon this information in a manner that forces people who would otherwise be toxic to each other, to engage in ways that may cause deep emotional, physical or financial harm. As a therapist, I have sat with countless people telling me that they are conflicted by the knowledge that their relationship with a relative is unhealthy and abusive but that they feel obligated to continue to suffer for the sake of “family”. My response is usually to gently rubbish this idea since I know that a lot of abuse, secrets and exploitation happens in families. In fact, the research shows that this is a very common reason why adult children cut off their parents. Should you find yourself facing this painful choice, I would strongly encourage you to speak with a therapist to process your thoughts and feelings. No two situations are exactly the same but, ultimately you generally benefit from staying true to yourself.
Intimate relationships do not all endure over time. It is commonly known that 50% of marriages end in divorce. However, there are usually numerous other romantic break-ups experienced before one marries in the first place. Who we are changes over time and based on experiences and so, it is understandable that we may grow apart or change in a manner that makes us otherwise incompatible. This can happen when one party decides to live authentically and may come out as gay, trans, polyamorous or any other way of being. Sometimes it is unacceptable behaviours and substance use that destroy a once thriving relationship. Often times, our partner’s changes have nothing to do with us. It is not uncommon to ruminate about a relationship that has ended but, it is very important to remember that not because we are no longer together means that time was “wasted” on the other. Relationships can be very important points of learning for us if we let them. One of the most valuable things we can learn from romantic relationships is how to love ourselves and relate to another.
If the constant theme of life is that things will always change, then it would be wise to prioritize ourselves so that we can adapt. Learning to embrace the natural processes of aging and maturation would go a long way in minimizing psychological distress when we are no longer who we were. To quote Alfred Adler, “trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not of words. Trust movement”. As we move towards the end of 2020, it is my hope that your movement takes you to your authentic self. That is truly the space in which a life is well lived.