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Monday, February 20, 2012

Overcoming the "I'm too old to change" Mindset

I'm continually amazed when I hear people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s (sometimes even 30s) say they feel they're "too old to change." On the other hand, I know people in their 80s and 90s, who are in good health, who look forward to learning new languages, taking classes at their local college, taking up a new hobby, or having new and interesting experiences. I had a well-respected colleague in my Somatic Experiencing training who was in her mid-80s, and she was ready to change her traditional way of thinking and working with psychotherapy clients based on her experiences in the training. So, clearly the willingness and ability to change is not dependent upon age.

The "I Can't Change" Mindset
So, why do many people say they can't change because of their age? I suspect it has more to do with a particular mindset that probably develops before someone turns a particular age. This "I can't change" mindset often starts at an early age due to fear and insecurity. Blaming this fear on age becomes an excuse not to overcome this problem.

Getting Stuck in the "I'm Too Old to Change" Mindset
For some people, it's a deep seated personality problem. For other people, they grew up in families where their parents, grandparents, and beyond were too afraid to make changes so they learned that changing was scary and something to be avoided. Sometimes, when this fear of change is really ingrained, the person might try to cover it up by trying to make it seem like it's an admirable quality rather than a problem, and they cover up their fear defensively, like a "badge of honor." Meanwhile, most people around them (outside of their family) can see through this defensive grandiosity. It's a little like "The Emperor's New Clothes."

The following fictionalized composite vignette is an example of this type of dynamic. All identifying information has been changed:

John:
John grew up in a traditional family. At a young age, he began having problems in school due to undiagnosed ADHD and learning disabilities. His parents, who were very rigid in their thinking, became angry when John's teacher suggested that he might have undiagnosed problems. Even when she tried to explain to them that he had problems focusing in class, poor impulse control, problems with anger management, and dyslexia, they refused to believe it. They refused to allow the teacher to set up any assistance for John. Instead, they tried to drill his lessons into him, which caused him to feel very ashamed.

John spent most of his life trying to hide his problems from others. He became a bully as a way to hide his deep sense of shame and insecurity. In college, rather than getting help, which would have meant changing, he would get his girlfriend to write papers for him or he'd pay someone to do it. Throughout his life, he associated change with dread and he always looked for ways to get around making changes. When he was forced to change, it was extremely hard for him.

After he got married and had children, his oldest daughter was diagnosed with ADHD. John's wife, who was a no-nonsense type of person, told John that their daughter needed help. She brought her to a therapist who specialized in ADHD and also got her help for the daughter's learning disabilities. John was faced with having to learn about ADHD and learning disabilities for the first time in his life. As he read the book about ADHD that his daughter's therapist recommended, he couldn't help seeing that he had many of the same symptoms. But, for him, it was one thing for his daughter to get help and a completely different thing for him to consider getting help.

When he was around his wife, John managed to bite his tongue whenever he felt like he was going to explode in rage. She was clearly in charge at home, and he was intimidated by her. He feared she'd leave him if he ever unleashed the full fury of his temper with her. But his attitude at work was different. By the time he was in his 50s, he supervised several employees and he would bully them and lose his temper with them. He was bored with his job and he would spend a lot of time fantasizing about retirement. But his wife told him, in no uncertain terms, that she wouldn't hear of him retiring until he was at least in his mid-60s. John fumed inwardly about this, but he didn't dare challenge her. Instead, he took it out on his staff, yelling at them and talking to them in a demeaning way.

Then, one day, one of his employees filed a complaint against him, and the human resources department did an investigation. When they interviewed John's staff, everyone backed the employee who filed the complaint. They each told how John would loose his temper and speak to them in an unprofessional and disrespectful way--even after they told him that his behavior made them uncomfortable. When the head of human resources met with John, she gave him of choice of either getting help or losing his job. John felt as humiliated then as he did in school when his teacher told his parents that he needed help. But rather than admit that he was wrong, he told her, "I'm too old to change." She responded by telling him to talk about the consequences with his wife and to get back to her the next day.

When John's wife heard the story, she became livid and told him that he'd better get help because if he lost his job, she's take their daughter and leave him. Their marriage was not ideal, and he wasn't even sure he still loved his wife, but the thought of being alone terrified him more than the possibility of getting help and trying to change how he related to his staff. So, grudgingly, he began therapy with a therapist who specialized in helping people with ADHD learn better coping skills. He also learned how his family background and his shame about his ADHD and learning disabilities contributed to his fear of change. And, if for no other reason than to keep his job and preserve his marriage, he learned to control his temper with his staff.

As we can see from this vignette, there are often underlying emotional reasons why people say, "I'm too old to change." Until someone is ready to change or they're forced to change, this becomes an excuse to stay stuck. An unwillingness to change often makes life dull and unrewarding with nothing to look forward to any more. It can also create problems in personal or work-related relationships. So, before you try to convince others (or yourself) that you're too old to change, think carefully about what this will mean for yourself and your loved ones.

Being flexible and adaptable makes for a much happier and interesting life as opposed to being rigid and stubborn.

Overcoming the "I'm Too Old to Change" Mindset
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist who provides psychotherapy services for individuals and couple, including dynamic talk therapy, EMDR, clinical hypnosis, and Somatic Experiencing.

I've helped many people to overcome their fear of changing, regardless of their age, so they could lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.

photo credit: wintersoul1 via photopin cc

photo credit: moodboardphotography via photopin cc