Stop Granting Ageism the Power to Define Your Value and Significance – Kim Kelly
Reading L.A. Strucke’s well-written and intriguing piece on aging, which you can read here, prompted me to reflect on how we measure our value. This is a critical question at any age but is especially significant to the elderly and retirees. If you spend time on Twitter, you will see ageism at its worst. And one doesn’t have to look far into a Google search to see examples of brash 30-somethings telling older people they are irrelevant, useless, and annoying.
Recently, we spent some time in Yosemite, and I had an interesting conversation with a 70-ish man working behind the counter in the village store. It took him a little while to ring up the person in front of me, and I noticed he was sitting on a stool rather than standing. He apologized to me for the wait, and I responded cheerfully that I wasn’t in a hurry. After I paid for my protein bar, he motioned me to come in a little closer so he could tell me a story. He shared that the week prior, a guy in his 30s was frustrated things weren’t moving more quickly and loudly told the cashier that he needed to hurry up and die because he was wasting space. Indeed, youth is wasted on the young.
The man was disheartened and said he felt marginalized, and I wondered how he viewed himself in light of being disrespected. How do we determine our value as an older person? Who drives us to believe we are valuable, relevant, and needed? Are you someone who needs the confirmation of another person or a job to feel valued? Or do you inherently believe you have value?
I spent years looking for validation outside of myself. Whether being a good wife, a loving mother, or a talented employee, I felt I needed external stroking. In my late 40s, I began to understand that searching for approval from others was both meaningless and, to some degree, dangerous.
Rooted in each of us is a deep desire for belonging, and our quest to belong impacts our choices and behavior in both subtle and obvious ways. Our sense of belonging develops as babies and is further shaped throughout our lives as a result of our experiences. It is directly tied to our self-worth and our perception of value. Trauma also impacts our sense of worth. It alters us physiologically and emotionally, and the impact of trauma gets stored in our brain, body, and emotions.
When we fail to develop a healthy sense of value, we tend to look outside ourselves for validation. The problem with this is that if we don’t inherently believe we are valuable, we will likely refuse to believe the words others are speaking to us. We’ve all known someone talented, successful, or pretty who can’t accept a compliment and seems to have poor self-esteem.
Those who seek approval from someone or something outside of themselves will likely never be satisfied. Or, they may be satisfied for a time, but once the external stroke vanishes, so does their self-worth. Investing in outside sources for our value is like purchasing a ticket to sail on the Titanic: the ship is going down at some point.
For the elderly or those who are retired, it is crucial to grapple with the issue of value because if we listen to society, we will likely believe we are irrelevant and worthless. Letting others dictate our worth is essentially giving up our power. We wouldn’t allow our financial planner to steal our money, and we wouldn’t willingly give up our home to a stranger, and yet we will allow ourselves to feel worthless because a 30-something asshole tells us we are irrelevant and breathing air meant for them.
Many who retire after successful careers struggle to feel relevant. When the executive boardroom is vacated for time on the golf course, what is the litmus test for importance? Who will appreciate our hard work when a stethoscope is exchanged for a garden tool? How do we gauge our value when an elementary school classroom is traded for the reading room at the local bookstore?
Navigating our later years is made imminently more complicated when we’ve repeatedly devoted our time and energy to being concerned with what others think of us. There is no quick fix for our misguided perceptions except to convince ourselves of the truth. I had a palpable reaction to L.A.’s article because my beliefs are rooted in thinking I am valuable and relevant no matter what our nation’s youth think. But it took me several years of hard work and more than one therapist to arrive at this belief.
If you are a younger person reading this, I implore you to learn this lesson now. If you are retired or elderly, I encourage you to train yourself to look inward for your value. I’m grateful to have grappled with this challenging lesson 20 years ago, but even now, I sometimes catch myself looking outward for validation. I only need to hear my grandson happily shrieking my name when he sees me to believe I am relevant to him. I only need to look into my wife’s eyes to know I am valued. I am very fortunate to have people in my life who validate the truth I already believe in my soul.
Thank you for taking the time to read this story. Please consider giving me a few claps (or 50!) if you enjoyed it.
Written By – Kim Kelly