I want to toss a stone into an area that has been discussed only lightly in the psychological literature. Perhaps there is scant information in this realm because of a tendency among some older female therapists to retire at a relatively early age, thereby not exposing themselves to the daily jangle of jealous and envious feelings when working with younger patients. Other reasons, and there may be several of them, are beyond the scope of this paper. What this paper will deal with are the feelings and reactions that surface for an older woman therapist in the dyadic relationship, as well as reflections on changes in gender discrimination over time.
I live in a university town. The majority of my clients are young college women between the ages of 17 and 26 years. Many of these young women are coming into treatment to explore their social skills, their sexual identities, their relationships with their current lovers, their career paths, and the process of individuating from their families, as well as issues of depression, anxiety, and self-esteem. They are on the brink of launching their young lives in various unique ways. They are smart, stoked by studying at a great university, and eventually looking forward to landing great jobs, mostly in the sciences and tech field.
In working with them, I find that countertransference reactions of envy are triggered for me. I want to explore why, as a 75-year-old woman therapist, I react to their youth, vitality, mental acuity, and physical beauty in a deleterious manner. As well as not wanting to hold back or contaminate the therapy work with my clients with my own unresolved envy reaction, I want to radically examine what my leaden emotional responses are all about.
Many of the issues here involve my avoidance of getting older, being less physically able, maybe even becoming mentally incapacitated. I am being forced to face the fact that my future life will most likely be shortened by sicknesses, disintegration, and, for certain, death. Even plastic surgery will not save me. My young patients scratch open a vulnerability that I have, up to this point, denied. They have long winding road in front of them. My road is a short one with many hairpin turns and caution signals.
This issue brings up gender, political, and cultural issues for me. Growing up in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, I was exposed to a gender-biased world in which women’s beauty was often objectified. The idea of being the idealized beautiful, sexy girl, though impossible to attain, was emphasized in the cultural icons of the advertising and entertainment worlds. Physical appearance and body contours—that is, looking like a hot young thing—were often what drew men to women and got women the best jobs and most other advantages in the world—and this is still true. In those past days and frequently today, the older woman rarely gets these advantages. She is often overlooked or turned down—something that is very demoralizing and painful.
The historical context of these women’s lives also irks me. They have many doors open to them that we women of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s may never have had for ourselves. As a girl growing up, I was told by my mother that the best opportunities in life for a young woman were to be a nurse, teacher, wife and mother, or secretary. Engineering, science and math, business, history, mechanics were professions cut out mostly for men. Few women of my age dared to think outside the box. Although my life has been full of adventures and wonders and I don’t regret any of it, I still feel the twinges of envy and lost opportunities.
In an article titled “The Macbeths in the Consulting Room” in Fort Da, the Journal of the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology, James V. Fisher writes about the “proleptic imagination,” in which whatever is pictured in the moment or in the future is taken concretely as reality—there is no space between the image or the idea and the fact or the reality. This has been my dilemma, recently arriving at what I call middle-age aging. I still visually imagine myself as that young, sexy, vibrant, energetic young girl, even though I no longer am. It is as if my thoughts or wishes have become a reality just by being thought. The disparity between the two is very painful for me, especially when young college girls come in for treatment and remind me of the opportunities I may never have.
Although I was cognitively aware of the advance of my aging appearance, the wrinkles and aging marks have not been my friends. I am mourning the loss of my once-buoyant, slim, flirtatious, sexy girl. Nor am I the lighthearted, carefree, bright and bouncy, merry woman that I once was. I miss those days. The gradual change has been a sobering experience to my narcissistic self. I meditate. I go to Buddhist trainings. I look at Eric Erickson’s generativity stage and realize my path is to teach and give of myself. Nonetheless, these chilling unresolved feelings surface.
Aging can also destroy some parts of the ego. We don’t always have a say in what we are experiencing as we walk, tumble, run down that glorious road. Aging, in many aspects, imposes itself on us. It’s not always elegant. Most often our mothers, families, husbands, best friends, and acquaintances aren’t around anymore to soothe us.
I label this a psychological aging path that goes from middle-age old to old and older. Although Elisabeth Kubler-Ross writes about the five stages of grief, I think there are distinct physical and emotional stages to growing from middle to old and older age that are generally not acknowledged or spoken about. After living in independent senior homes, being an ombudsman for years, and interviewing more than 35 women for my Ph.D. study, I have found few women who will talk about these transitional passages. Rather than apprehension, most of them have demonstrated a fortitude almost amounting to impassivity.
However, not everyone openly suffers the agony of aging. For some, the gradual loss makes it easier to look in the mirror; they tell me the aging blemishes and wrinkles come on slowly, so slowly they barely notice. Others tell me they have found a spiritual awakeness and believe God will open His pearly gates to them. There they will find their long-lost friends and relatives, be able to eat anything they want without getting fat, purchase anything they want without inflating their credit card, and reunite with their departed husbands. Others find consolation in being a grandmother or a caring volunteer to the needy. Others tell me, “Just take one step at a time and don’t think too much about it.”
Speaking of envy brings to mind the fairy tale of Snow White, in which the aging queen, unable to be the beauty she once was, takes out her malicious envy on her more beautiful step-daughter, putting her into a deep sleep with a poisoned apple. The younger woman is eventually awakened by a handsome prince. For aging women, there is no prince to save us from aging, no resurrection of our youth, no restoration of justice. Society makes us invisible.
Another perspective on aging is that, at any time in our life cycle, each of us has to give way to others who have more talent, financial means, beauty, friends, and so on. In the pecking order of life, there will always be some people who have more than others. The idea is to give up what we once had, and moreover, give it up with a peaceful heart and resolved feelings. It is absolutely certain that one needs to come to terms with all of this and not allow the aging process to become a hostile takeover.
A new friend I have just met in a small village ensconced in the Sierra Madre in central Mexico writes in his book Comes a Time for Dying, “Aging is all about making room for the new shoots, nature nudging you to go out and play, reinventing yourself versus becoming a product of a disposable world. If you don’t use it, it wears down from lack of friction with life, and eventually rusts.”
In the more positive vein, I get great satisfaction from using my years of training and experience, along with my compassion, refined coping skills, resilience, humor, diligence, and curiosity, to help my clients move forward in their lives. Doing so has also reinforced my power and usefulness as an older woman. In closing, I wonder if it is possible that my young clients and I have more in common than I thought, that is, that what we are all truly after is expression and knowledge of self and understanding of what we are meant to do in this life, young or old.