The following article is an excerpt from CAMFT’s California Therapist magazine March-April 2006.
The Crossroads of Aging: The Meeting of Character by Kathleen Barry, M.A., PhD, MFT.
I can remember as an intern when my supervisor commented that it takes a minimum of ten years to become a good psychotherapist. That day seemed so far in the future at that point of my journey. This year I will reach that particular milestone when I celebrate the ten year anniversary of being licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist. I believe there is something very important about acknowledging the milestones and crossroads in our personal and professional journeys. In the honoring, we pay homage to the essential nature of life which is made of a web of interlocking milestones and crossroads.
During the 15 years since beginning as an intern, I have found the marriage and family therapy field to be rewarding and one that demands continuous education. My ongoing journey as a clinician has taken me on a variety of educational pursuits: from the study of family systems therapy, to cognitive behavioral therapy, to my current studies in depth psychology and mythology. In the ever-changing world landscape in which we live today, I believe now more than ever, we as psychotherapists are being asked to develop and deepen our understanding of the human psyche and soul. Depth psychology provides a rich and meaningful sojourn into the study and understanding of human experiences. In this article, I will discuss the work I have done from a depth psychological perspective with the phenomenon of aging and women.
The Crossroads of Aging
The implications for the aging woman are both exciting and frightening. She becomes wiser if she’s lucky enough to have kept her health and wits about her, and yet she more than likely will find herself in a Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, she has gone through so many learning experiences that she is able to look at life with a certain amount of educated subjectivity. Yet on the other hand she is no longer seeing the same image in the mirror. There is something startling and disorienting about losing the sense of the familiar when gazing at one’s aging image either in the mirror or photographs. It’s confusing because we often feel a sense of familiar within ourselves, but the exterior changes are very different and not controllable. In working with women clients who are coming upon the crossroad of aging, it is useful to ask a series of questions to explore the meaning of this particular part of the journey:
- What happens to the woman whose comprehension of self has been largely dependent on the image in the mirror: does she begin to disappear from herself or is it possible that the wheels of a bigger phenomenon begin to turn?
- Is it possible that, in the losing of her youthful image, a woman begins to encounter her life’s [soul] journey from a new perspective?
- Does this woman begin to be visible in a different way to herself?
Clients have discovered that the answer to these questions is both yes and no, that in the not knowing, the aging woman is actually doing the real work of the last half of her life. She is moving into the time of her life when she potentially is free of the physical burdens of youth and is ready to explore the inner regions of her psyche. By doing so, she deepens her sense of self and ultimately brings a newness to her life and to the world.
What does an aging face say about the life an individual has led? From one perspective it tells a story of a soul’s journey: wrinkles are, in their own way, a reflection of having been alive. Wrinkles, or character lines as I like to refer to them, are frequently etched by the laughter, tears and worries that have filled a life. From another perspective, the image of an aging face can indicate death, decline and stagnate energy. Yet from another perspective, the steady aging that occurs to our faces and bodies can build what James Hillman refers to as character:
“Aging is no accident. It is necessary to the human condition, intended by the soul. Aging human life extends long beyond fertility and outlasts muscular usefulness and sensory acuteness ….. let us entertain the idea that character requires the additional years and that the long last of life is forced upon us neither by genes nor by conservational medicine nor by societal collusion. The last years confirm and fulfill character” (p. 12).
Character is revealed through action and language, habits and presence; no longer can one solely depend on the mirror image to determine how life is going. It is perhaps this reality that makes the physical effects of aging more palatable: don’t look in the mirror for the character that has been developing through the course of life. Instead look down inside at one’s interiority and the outward display of meaningful work and commitment to the betterment of the world; it is in these domains that character is visible.
The insights afforded through a depth psychological lens can be thought-provoking and frequently expansive. I have found the blend of my earlier training with my current studies at Pacifica to be enriching and effective in working with clients. Aging is a journey that has the potential to lead to both interesting and challenging opportunities. I have found that in the meeting of character, one begins to find a place for her aging image. Kathleen A. Barry, M.A., PhD, MFT, has long enjoyed working with women at the crossroads of major life transitions: marriage, career changes, aging, divorce, grief, and death.
REFERENCES Hillman, J. (1999). The force of character. New York: Random House.