How the Challenges of Aging Can Affect Self-Esteem

Active senior couple plays hula hoop together in parkWhen it comes to self-esteem across the lifespan, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is for adolescents: It really does get better with age. Studies have found that self-esteem typically increases after adolescence and rises throughout adulthood.

But only to a point. And that’s the bad news. It appears even healthy self-esteem can take a serious hit after age 65 or 70.

It’s not hard to imagine why.

When you think of growing old, what comes to mind?

Most of us focus on what happens physically. Skin sags. Wrinkles appear. Muscles lose mass. Joints become stiff. Fat expands and migrates to undesirable places.

For those whose self-esteem is tied to their body image, aging can be a disaster. But even if you can accept the inevitable physical changes gracefully, you’re not out of the woods.

Many of us will reach the heights of our personal mastery, power, status, influence, and achievement by our mid- to late 60s. After that, there tend to be more losses than gains in those areas.

Aging brings difficult milestones. A partner becomes ill or passes away. Retirement downgrades our socio-economic status. Health challenges limit our abilities and our freedom.

Researchers point to these losses as a possible explanation for the observed decline in self-esteem in old age. But not all studies agree this decline even happens.

At the very least, there’s another possibility that could explain a late-life decline in self-esteem. If older people score lower on self-esteem assessments, it may simply be because of their greater psychological insight. They may have made peace with their faults and have less of a need for self-aggrandizement.

Such a modest and balanced view of the self may show up as lower self-esteem scores. But it could also very well represent a gain in self-acceptance.

In any case, one thing you can do to hang on to self-esteem may be to reject stereotypical expectations of old age.

People who continue to view themselves as relatively young and active despite their advancing chronological age may fare better than those who accept the “reality” of becoming sick, weak, and lonely with age.

Self-esteem requires us to take loving, positive action on our own behalf. Good hygiene, a healthy diet, and regular physical activity are no less important when you’re 80 than they were when you were 20.

Research suggests “age rejectors” have better mental health overall, including greater ego strength and an active mastery style. They don’t deny their age, but they refuse to don the negative stereotypes that may be associated with it. They have a more positive self-image than their counterparts who identify as old and sick, old and weak, or old and lonely.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly what contributes to healthy self-esteem in adulthood, but we do know self-esteem is generally associated with emotional stability, conscientiousness, and extroversion.

It makes sense that in order to face the challenges of aging without losing self-esteem, we must play as active a role as possible in our own lives and communities, and reject negative assumptions and stereotypes that make us feel smaller as we age. Beyond that, we’re left with imagination and common sense to protect our self-esteem. Here are a few actions that might be supportive of self-esteem in later adulthood:

Spending Time with People or Animals

If negative stereotypes of aging include loneliness, then making an effort to socialize, and/or care for an animal, could be protective of self-esteem. Both also involve conscientiousness, especially if your socializing involves playing a role in a club or community organization.

Taking Care of Your Body

For some, it’s tempting to take an all-or-nothing attitude toward health in later life: “Well, I’m old now and falling apart, and there’s no point trying to fight it.”

Self-esteem requires us to take loving, positive action on our own behalf. Good hygiene, a healthy diet, and regular physical activity are no less important when you’re 80 than they were when you were 20.

Always consult a doctor before starting any exercise regimen, but consider using all that free time in retirement to work toward improved health. A strong physical body is protective of a strong and healthy mind, and your efforts toward fitness and health can bring a sense of both purpose and pride.

Staying Curious

Staying interested in the world around you keeps you active and interesting. It’s harder to “esteem” a “self” you believe deep down to be dull and boring than it is to cherish a self who is genuinely engaged. Stay interesting by refusing to sink into mental routines.

Seek novelty and variety in daily life, even in small ways. At the grocery store, buy something you’ve never tried. Attend an event you wouldn’t normally be interested in. Listen more than you talk, and ask clarifying questions.

Self-esteem doesn’t have to diminish with advancing age. Don’t let passivity rob you of mental health. Polish up your golden years by rejecting damaging stereotypes and staying engaged.

If you struggle with self-esteem issues, contact a licensed mental health professional.

References:

  1. Carp, F. M., & Carp, A. (1981). Mental health characteristics and acceptance-rejection of old age. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 51(2), 230-241.
  2. Orth, U., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (2010). Self-esteem development from young adulthood to old age: A cohort-sequential longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(4), 645-658.
  3. Robins, R.W., Trzesniewski, K.H., Tracy, J.L., Gosling, S.D., & Potter, J. (2002). Global self-esteem across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 17, 423–434.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • An aging man

    An aging man

    February 13th, 2018 at 9:59 AM

    Yes! this is true for me every day. I just had to suck it up. I’m getting old and I won’t be getting any younger. we all have to deal with it. Enjoy life and make the most of it. My life is great because I made it that way and you can too.

  • Janice

    Janice

    February 20th, 2018 at 8:34 AM

    My family has a history of living into their 90’s. I guess part of this is about perspective. I’ve always found that people struggle with being compassionate to themselves as they exhibit signs of aging.

  • Lance V

    Lance V

    February 13th, 2018 at 12:01 PM

    You peak in your mid-60s? My family lives until their nineties…
    I hope they’re right and the numbers are just a matter of old people taking surveys differently. I don’t want to hate myself…

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