As a counselor, I work with many female clients in middle and older adulthood (ages 40 and above), a period of diverse transitions within personal relationships, health and reproductive status, and social and professional roles. Life changes are frequently motivated or accompanied by increased introspection which can elicit strong emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, and shame.
Often, my clients express feelings of isolation and loneliness during this “time of questioning,” so I thought that I would share a few of the most common fears that I have heard when working with women who are struggling with the challenges of aging:
“I’m no longer attractive or desirable.”
Women face societal pressure to meet specific guidelines for appearance that are communicated and ingrained in us through television, the internet, movies, magazines, and other media sources. Unrealistic expectations often contribute to our feelings of being valued solely on our physical appearance:
“We live in a youth-obsessed culture that is constantly trying to tell us that if we are not young, and we’re not glowing, and we’re not hot, that we don’t matter. I refuse to let a system or a culture or a distorted view of reality tell me that I don’t matter. I know that only by owning who and what you are can you start to step into the fullness of life. Every year should be teaching us all something valuable. Whether you get the lesson is really up to you.” —Oprah
"I don’t know who I am anymore.”
Women’s changing roles due to life events such as career transitions, empty nest syndrome, divorce, widowhood, and aging parents can trigger regrets about past decisions, and fear of failure amplified by societal “shoulds” leaves us unable to move forward. By living in the past and worrying about the future, we forget to focus on the present moment and recognize the opportunities and adventures that life presents us as we age:
“Above all, don't let people tell you that you have no right to be unhappy with your life. It is okay to lose your equilibrium when others think your life should be smooth sailing. It is okay to question your life's purpose. It's okay to say, ‘I don't know who I am.’ It is better to ask the questions and seek the answers than to live a numb life. Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself.” –Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D.
“I’m scared that I’m going to end up alone.”
As women grow older, our social networks might grow a little smaller due to life events such as relocation, decreased mobility, illness, and financial changes. The good news is that research shows that whether a woman has a single good friend or a much larger group of friends, positive relationships will positively influence health and enhance self-esteem. By reaching out to a close female friend or joining a support group for older women in transition, women can realize that they are not alone in their issues with aging.
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'” –C.S Lewis
"I’m afraid that I won’t have enough money.”
Whether single, divorced, or widowed, financial worries are not uncommon as women age. Although our society has progressed and women have more opportunities than previous generations to have a career and be financially independent, men still tend to be more financially secure, make more money, and have a bigger Social Security checks. However, with changes in technology and access to information on the internet, this fear is expected to diminish as women gain confidence about managing their money.
"I'm scared about losing my job or not finding a job as I get older.”
Older women get hit with the double whammy of ageism and sexism in the workforce. After learning to accept the normal anxiety of a job loss or search, there may be an opportunity for a woman to explore and reinvent herself based on what most resonates with her inner values.
Wendi Knox, founder of Oh My Goddess, faced this challenge after getting laid off from a management position later in life and shared this observation:
“What I notice is that I am able to be more seen and heard in the outside world because I am seeing and hearing myself better on the inside world. Instead of pushing against myself, I am embracing myself. It’s an amazing process.”
You Are Not Alone!
Do these challenges sound familiar? I could fill pages with others, but the important takeaway to remember is that you are not alone! Some, and dare I say ALL of the strongest and most resilient women I have ever met have gone through hardship, particularly around life transitions. If you find yourself nodding along to this article, you might have gone through your own trial or you might be midway through a hard spot and looking for some guidance. The feelings can be overwhelming, but finding a solid support system and a safe place to make sense of your feelings can help. Women have incredible wisdom and we can learn from each other, both in terms of what to expect and how to keep ourselves strong and resilient.
I’ll end by sharing a quote that resonates with me from one of my favorite authors:
“In terms of days and moments lived, you’ll never again be as young as you are right now, so spend this day, the youth of your future, in a way that deflects regret. Invest in yourself. Have some fun. Do something important. Love somebody extra. In one sense, you’re just a kid, but a kid with enough years on her to know that every day is priceless.” -Victoria Moran
Joanne Blum is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and specialist in mental health needs for older adults. She is currently running a support group for women in transition, Stronger Together.