Why is aging so challenging for gay men?
Aging can bring with it fear of invisibility, rejection and physical decline. For gay men aging, these concerns can be heightened because of the extra pressures placed on us to look forever young — especially in Los Angeles. We might protect ourselves from this by busying our lives, denying the inevitable and spending an inordinate amount of time or money on looking young. Fortunately, there can be positive experiences with aging too.
Having provided psychotherapy to clients from ages 12 to 86 the past 16 years, I’ve seen how they’ve developed throughout the lifespan, some having an easier time than others. Each developmental stage comes with it tasks to complete that we don’t get to bypass. When we avoid them, they tend to build up and over time can make it difficult to fully embrace our lives, careers and relationships. According to Erik Erikson, an influential psychologist known for his theory on psychosocial development (see stages below), the developmental task of adolescence (12 to 18 years old) is to get to know ourselves well enough to have a sense of self. Without this level of intimacy with ourselves, it can be difficult to relate to others from this place, the developmental task of young adulthood (19 to 40 years old).
Addressing Internalized Ageism
Most of us who are LGBTQ have experienced shame for who we are at our core from external societal, religious and familial oppression, in one form or another. Without necessary validation and encouragement in our teenage years, we can learn self-protective mechanisms to survive the onslaught of homoprejudice that extends into our adulthood. We can deny our own sexuality, check out, overcompensate, become addicted, get self-absorbed or become too focused on another (co-dependence).
Thankfully, becoming more mindful and compassionate with ourselves as we age, continuing our internal work, we can learn to thrive in our lives. It can be a time to deepen our appreciation for life and to prioritize the importance of being our most authentic self. We can learn to have more comfortable ease in the unknown and access our internal wisdom more fully. It is our task in middle adulthood (40-65 years old) to be connected to our mission in life and give to the world in some way that is meaningful for us — a sense of generativity. We can then truly look back on our lives feeling fulfilled; the developmental task of maturity (over 65 years old).
For several years, I’ve co-led weekend workshops with Rik Isensee at Esalen, a personal retreat center along the Big Sur coastline, focused on helping gay men thrive throughout their lives. These have been unique opportunities to explore various obstacles we face aging while embracing our lives with the support, warmth and humor of other gay men.
This article was originally published by THE FIGHT Magazine, March, 2013.
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