On a clear day the sun always casts a shadow. In fact, the brighter the light, the more vivid the corresponding silhouette. That is why any complete discussion about positive aging requires the acknowledgment that a dark side exists. And while I am certainly not a professional who understands all the implications, I do think it is important to explore how it may affect us as we age. That’s because no matter how optimistic we remain about aging, none of us knows for sure what our complete future holds. And, like with all shadow work, it’s SMART to accept its existence as well as how it can potentially affect our lives if we want to experience the days to come as an authentic and whole individual.
In case you are someone unfamiliar with the metaphor of the shadow, let me provide a brief definition. The famed psychologist Carl Jung first used the phrase to describe those parts of a person’s personality that were repressed or lying below our normal waking consciousness. In other words, the thoughts, urges, reactions and dreams that we usually don’t even want to admit to ourselves are a “shadow” that we often pretend doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, the more we try to hide or reject those things we suspect lie deep inside us, the more they pop out in destructive or inappropriate ways. Ever feel like you sabotage yourself? Guess what—that is probably your shadow trying to be seen. Have a lot of fears? Yep—those are likely shadows too. Like to judge the actions of others? That’s a classic shadow reaction.
The shadow can be particularly problematic for those of us who like to see the good in everything. They can also be a hindrance for those who like to think of themselves as “good,” or spiritual, or anything that focuses solely on the positive. But the truth is, all of us—yes me and you included—have some very positive qualities and some less than pleasant characteristics. What Jung recommended, and many other psychologists and teachers have gone on to teach, is that we recognize and accept all parts of ourselves if we want to be whole and self-actualized. That doesn’t mean we act out those dark parts of ourselves, or indulge them whenever they pop out. What it means is that we acknowledge that all of us are filled with light and contradiction, and from there, we can consciously choose which part of ourselves we will express at any given moment.
The same holds true for positive aging. I consider myself to be a cheerleader for the positive aspects of getting older. But it would be naïve and perhaps even less helpful to others if I pretended that it is all goodness and light. The truth is that some of us have it much better than we imagined—and others have it pretty tough. That doesn’t mean those of us who have it good ought to be sad, worried or guilty about our experience. But it may be more compassionate to recognize that others see it differently AND that our own experience can change as well. Plus, only when we see all aspects of ourselves and our situation can we make the best choices for ourselves and those we love.
With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful for me to list a few shadows about aging that I recognize inside myself as well as in others I know. They are:
- There will be good days and there will be bad days. Let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter how old you are—some days are a lot better than others. Sometimes we wake up with a pain we didn’t have before or something happens that rocks our world. Fortunately, it seldom lasts forever. If we recognize that not every day is sunshine and light, it very likely will help us move through a rainy day. It’s also good to know that pain is unavoidable but suffering is a choice. (yes, I have a blog post about that!)
- If I just eat right, exercise a lot, and take lots of vitamins I will stay young forever. While you and I might want this to be true, I think it is wise to remember that no matter how healthy we are today, things happen. We have all heard stories of men and women who appeared to do absolutely everything right and were at the peak of physical health and then just keeled over. It happens. That doesn’t mean that we don’t attempt to take care of ourselves, but to pretend that we can fight off all illness or changing capacities for the rest of our lives isn’t realistic.
- I seem to be more forgetful these days—can’t remember many people’s names and sometimes forget where I parked my car—so I will probably get Alzheimer’s like my mom. I admit that I sometimes worry about ending up like my mom—it is a possibility for sure. But I must also remember that all the reading and research I am doing tells me that only a relatively minor percentage of people slide into full dementia at old age in spite of the fear. And sure, I might not remember everything the way I want, but sometimes that is just an indication of an over-busy mind that thinks too much. And let’s face it, worrying about it doesn’t help a bit.
- If we aren’t really careful with our money we will end up broke and destitute. (another variation of this shadow is the idea that Social Security will soon be bankrupted and we will end up destitute.) Like I said earlier, none of us knows for sure what the future will bring. But chances are good that this fear is not one that many of us, especially those of us who have made decent arrangements, will ever have to face. But if we allow this shadow to stay repressed, we will worry and be angry at anything (and anybody) who seems to tell us that it won’t happen. So not only will we pessimistically face the days ahead filled with anxiety, we might often blame others for the problem, and make them miserable too.
- Other people might get old but I am special and I look as young as ever and can physically do everything I could do when I was 25. Every single person I know my age or older has a little of this shadow inside. We want to believe we are somehow special, different, better(?) or unusual enough that the regular statistics about aging won’t apply to us. But again, the reality of that shadow is something we often don’t allow ourselves to just accept and acknowledge. No matter how healthy and happy I am today, tomorrow might be different. There are things we can do (especially mentally) but the only constant is change.
- Because I don’t have children (or a spouse, or good friends, etc.) I will die alone. I’ll admit that one of my biggest concerns is living beyond my husband. We are very interdependent and I know that if I live longer than him it will be extremely difficult to move past. However, I also know that having a spouse, or children or even friends are no guarantee that I won’t die alone. But by the same token, who says? If knowing I want to have people I can count on right up to the time I die, then the time to do what I can to help make that happen is now. Worrying is never the solution. Taking steps, accepting the endless possibilities and then making the best of it is a solution I am choosing in this moment.
- If I just figure out the right formula, I won’t ever grow older and die. The biggest shadow of all is probably the fear of death. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer to call death a “transition” because I really like to think of it as a movement between this level of existence and another. But the shadow of thinking that we can live forever, or refusing to acknowledge that those we love will eventually pass, is very often denied in our culture. That repression ends up making people spend money trying everything they can do to look, feel and act young. Or acting overly protective to keep loved ones safe. In some ways, I think that it also promotes ageism because it tells others that getting older is scary and holds no advantage—just the ongoing struggle to hold off death. I think the sooner that we can consciously accept that all of us will eventually “transition” to another realm (whatever that realm may be to us) the more whole and healthy our approach will be to the days we do have to live.
Many teachers who specialize in shadow work promote the idea that once we learn to accept those repressed fears and thoughts, we will be more at peace. Plus, instead of using a lot of our conscious energy to hold down those aspects of ourselves, we will free ours to be more creative, open, and yes, even loving, to those around us. Chances are very good, we will also be more understanding and accepting of others when we learn to accept ourselves. After all, how can any of us make true conscious choices, and act in the best interest of ourselves and others, if we aren’t even aware of what we repress out of fear?
While I doubt I touched on all the shadows that exist around aging—positive or otherwise—I think it is critical that we recognize they exist. From there, the SMART perspective reminds us that our own awareness is key to making conscious choices for ourselves and others regardless of what the future holds.
Okay, your turn. Have you heard of “shadow work” before? What do you think of it? And are you in touch with some of your “shadows” regarding aging or any other aspect of your life? Please share in the comments below.