The Man in the Mirror

02/16/2012 06:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2012
  • Robert Levithan Psychotherapist, Writer and Expert on vital aging and living with illness

"Who is that old person in the mirror? I'm 17!" My mother said it years ago. Now, it's my turn...

Our age is how long we have been on the planet. However, our sense of self is -- at least in part -- ageless. In this ageist culture, we are informed tacitly -- and directly via advertising and the media -- that younger is better.

Whom other than a 16 year old doesn't want to be told "You look much younger than your age." For example, my date the other night was "carded" when he ordered a mojito. At 31, he was pleased. He also mildly dreads the day when it no longer happens. I can't deny that I, too, am attached to an expected "You don't look 60." I love to do my variation on the Gloria Steinem retort: "This is what 60 looks like!" And I won't always have the opportunity.

Lying about our age perpetuates the issue. Trying to pass as younger is a sign of internalized ageism. Internalized prejudice is when we buy into the idea that we are less than because of something we are. If I say I am 50, I am buying into the idea that 60 is less good. I invite the reader to join me in simply telling the truth about our age. It is a fact, not a judgment. Let the lie stop here!

Looking in the mirror doesn't offer much clarity either. At intervals in the same day I can look completely different, haggard or handsome. I doubt my face changes as much as the mental lens that I am looking through.

One of the ironies of being human is that we can never directly see our own face. Most of us have a harsh relationship with the person in the mirror. We only look at ourselves to see what is wrong -- to arrange, fix or "make up." Not only do we lack objectivity, we lack perspective and, most significantly, compassion.

Looking through old photos, recently, I was struck by one of me on the cusp of 40. I remember not liking the way I looked when I first saw it. Now, I see a man who looks so young -- and great. Similarly, today, in the instant gratification digital age, I didn't like a shot just taken. I am willing to bet that in 20 years (or even 10) I will look at this pic and think: Wow, I looked good at 60! It might be nice to enjoy my visage not only in retrospect but in the present -- which would require letting go of the habitual inner critic. We are taught that self appreciation is vain -- of course it is when out of proportion -- but being under appreciative is equally distorted and potentially damaging.

What about developing a truer relationship with the man or woman in the mirror? Yes, look into your eyes, the proverbial windows to the soul. Get curious. Leave judgment behind. Take a breath. Don't listen to the harsh voices that might show up. Hang out. Make peace with your face (and body if you like) in the moment. Check in. Open your heart to whomever is there and whatever you feel, and stay with it for at least five full minutes doing absolutely nothing other than observing. Be with yourself. See what happens. It might be a lot, or a little. It might be familiar or staggeringly new. Try it once a day for a week and something is bound to shift. I dare you!

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