03/06/2012 03:23 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Aging: The Effect of Adolescence on How We Age in Midlife

Did you get asked to your senior prom? Were you a cheerleader or one of those jocks they cheered for? Or were you home hiding behind books and eyeglasses, hoping one day your time would come?

Ask anyone about their teenage years, and they have a unique story to tell. Some emerge from adolescence with nostalgia and longing -- those wild parties, first kisses, experimentation and freedom. Some recall painful angst, moodiness, awkwardness and deep loneliness -- a time they would rather forget. But, as we move into adulthood and beyond, we find ourselves confronting a challenge that faces us all: aging. And as we do, the playing field levels.

When midlife realities first strike, our initial reactions to them vary. Some minimize the impact of first wrinkles and gray hair -- "who me, old?" Others panic and become paralyzed --"I can't be getting old!" Some begin radical efforts to defy it all, erasing any signs of aging -- "I will not let this happen!" While others talk of embracing it -- "Gee, it's a great time for renewal and reinvention!" Regardless of our initial reactions to the 'uh oh' moment, we ultimately pass through it saying farewell to our youth, shifting our expectations and moving on. That is where it gets interesting.

Based on experiences of different groups as they age, it appears that those who grew up with fond adolescent memories -- the queen bees, quarterbacks and class presidents -- often report greater struggle with the aging process. For some of these men and women, attempts to maintain a youthful self-image, or difficulties in letting it go, make them feel less confident as they move forward. Having invested their self-esteem in youth, beauty and strength, results in a harder time as they try to hold on. They know on some level that 'anti-aging' is not possible, yet they they feel compelled to keep at it. It leads to more anxiety, self-preoccupation and discomfort. This group more often becomes depressed, suffers eating disorders and abuses alcohol and prescription drugs by middle age.

Likewise, the opposite is also true. People whose self-esteem was never based on these youth-oriented traits seem to fare better. Having developed identities rooted in a wider, more varied set of characteristics -- some of which may even improve with age -- they view getting older as less frightening.

The other day, a 55-year-old female patient said to me:

"It's strange that I had to get to my 50s, when everyone is looking older, to realize that in some ways I was lucky that I never relied on my looks for much. I have less to lose and possibly more to gain."

A similar sentiment came from a man who responded to a blog post I wrote about midlife:

"My wife and I, both kind of nerdy growing up, recently went to our 40th high school reunion. Our quarterback had lost his swagger. A couple of the cheerleaders had aged poorly -- one had a weird facelift, another had become obese. In a funny way, we left feeling relieved, maybe even a bit gratified."

Sounds a bit like "Revenge of the Nerds," but a reality worth understanding. The point is, entering and passing through midlife has clear benefits for some people and disadvantages for others. Viewed from this perspective, we may all learn to enjoy the former and help those struggling with the latter.

In a previous post, I described 8 ways that life can improve with age. The last was one related to leveling the playing field. I wrote:

"8) Looking Our Best, Not Our Youngest: Facing loss is part of healthy aging. As we pass through midlife, many of us realize we can gradually let go of the pressures to 'anti-age.' These efforts begin to feel futile, even a bit foolish, and shift toward looking our best, rather than looking younger. While we still care about our appearance, we learn to place more emphasis on other aspects of our identities to fuel our self-esteem. We realize that true beauty -- the kind that is ageless, dynamic and always evolving -- can be enjoyed more if we rely in our own internal standards rather than those 'ideal' ones set by others. If we gradually accept that nature will takes it course, bringing changes that are inescapable, many of us begin to adjust expectations."

This advantage as we age is more easily enjoyed by those whose youth-oriented traits played a smaller role in their lives. The awkward adolescent is forced to develop internal standards, since those set by our culture are just not available to them. As fewer external reinforcements come to us all over time, their adjustment is more organic and less painful. The result? Distinctions that once separated the "in" from the "out" crowd become less important, and the latter group benefits.

Have you been to a 30th high school, college or camp reunion yet? Sure, we all check each other out, but notice how almost everyone is now focused more on life style issues -- like health, family, careers, children and grandchildren - regardless of who was popular in the past. The old playing fields where we once competed are long gone.

While I was recently delivering a speech on this topic, one audience member raised her hand to say:

"I used to envy the girls with huge breasts, but as they got older, these were the very women whose breasts sagged. And the ones with thick long hair, well now it just doesn't look all that different from mine. Even those girls with long lashes, well they are now gray, so now without mascara or Latisse or whatever, we're all in the same boat. There's something comforting about the idea that they finally have to work at looking good like I did all my life."

Another audience member chimed in, this time a guy, who said:

"I am not tall, never have been, so I worked to look muscular to make up for that. Now, at 65, I'm used to working out and I look at some of my buddies who took it all for granted. They are having a tough time being out of shape. They are the ones getting hurt trying to go out to play softball, as if they're in the 20s. They're the ones in rehab and I'm feeling great."

The most reliable source of well being for aging men and women is self-confidence. As we move through midlife and beyond, that confidence is continually challenged by the inevitable changes that come with age, regardless of our past or current circumstances. With each new challenge, we tend to end up on that same field -- letting go of what once was, learning acceptance of what is to come and making the best of the time that is left.

Do you feel the playing field levels as we age?


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.