By Dr. Connie Zweig
A child of the 60’s, I bought into the trope of never trusting anyone over 30. Then over 40. Then over 50….uh-oh….I began to realize as I aged that I was becoming one of them, a member of the group that I rejected — those old people.
I was in denial, banishing “the old woman” into my shadow, and thereby rejecting my own future self.
After all, we are aging in an anti-aging culture. And most Baby Boomers, like me, want to remain youthful, engaged, and contributing to the greater good. We want to reinvent age, just as we reinvented health, relationships, parenting, and spirituality.
But I wasn’t aware of this for a very long time. About a decade ago, a frail, elderly woman sat next to me in a restaurant, and I noticed her tattered clothes, dirty hands. She ordered free samples, and I observed that I felt uncomfortable, no, if I’m honest, I felt repulsed. My inner dialogue went like this: “She shouldn’t be here at my favorite vegan restaurant. It’s so sad, those wrinkles, that frailty, poverty and neediness. I’ll never be like that.” The sensation in the pit of my stomach was tight, nauseous. I felt uncomfortable, repulsed, and afraid.
I was meeting an unconscious shadow character in me that was projecting onto her what I was denying and rejecting in myself — my own loss of youthful vitality, my vulnerability, potential dependency, loneliness, and poverty. In fact, I was projecting onto her a dark image of my future self, if I lived long enough to be an old lady, and deeply disliking what I saw and felt.
I was shocked by this new awareness, especially because I had rallied against the other “isms” and stereotypes of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. And I had felt acutely aware of the impact of cultural messaging, media marketing, and biases against groups. Yet here, deep in the hidden recesses of my unconscious, ageism, invisible and insidious, persisted into my late life.
After decades of inner work with my own shadow, I was able to catch this one — and name it “my bag lady” shadow. That is to say, I became aware of the universal archetype of “the inner ageist” in myself through this personal image of “the bag lady.” She personifies the fear of losing everything, being unable to take care of oneself, and ending up abandoned on the streets.
I followed the steps that I’ve taught to so many others through the years and written about in Romancing the Shadow:
First, I heard my inner dialogue: “I’ll never be like that.” This gave me a cue that I was separating myself, creating an us/them.
Then I felt the feelings: disgust and fear. This gave me a cue that I was emotionally over-reactive, and a projection was involved.
Then I observed the sensations in my body: nausea in my solar plexus, tightness in my shoulders.
After I knew the inner voice, feelings, and sensations of the shadow character, it took on dimensionality for me.
Next, I saw, in my mind’s eye, the image of my projection onto the woman — the bag lady.
We often meet the shadow in an unconscious projection onto another person, attributing to him or her a rejected part of ourselves. So, if we deny our own aggression, laziness, or sexuality, we may encounter it indirectly in another and feel an exaggerated reaction to that person — he’s really a pushy bastard, she’s really a lazy couch potato, he’s such a sex addict. We shoot the arrow of projection and unconsciously attribute this quality to the other person in an effort to banish it from ourselves, to keep from seeing it within.
With ageism, we project our negative fantasies of “old” — ugly, frail, needy, senile — which lead to condescension and stereotyping: greedy geezers, old bat, over the hill, out to pasture.
And when millions of young people project what they fear about aging onto elders, the latter try to appear and to act as if they are younger. Hence the epidemic of anti-aging marketing, advertising, surgery, and hormone replacement therapy. Further, as elders buy into a stereotype that devalues them and their lifetimes of skill and wisdom, an inner ageist is forming.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the shadow character of “the bag lady” is an epidemic image of the inner ageist within women in our culture. In 2016, Allianz Life Insurance Company did a survey that found that almost half of all women respondents said they often or sometimes fear losing their money and becoming homeless, regardless of income level. The fear of becoming a bag lady was highest among single and divorced women. But it also was present among high earners. So, I was not alone in carrying this shadow figure. I would need to understand its roots in the culture.
But first, I traced it back to its roots in my personal history, exposing its origins in my childhood, which did not include so much as one observation of one person aging with dignity, vitality, and creativity. I can recall my mother’s discomfort with her own mother, my grandmother, who was a cruel and manipulative woman. I can remember my grandmother’s negative gaze at Mom, then at my sister and me, when we visited and felt that we could never please her.
In retrospect, I see that my grandmother, who was an uneducated immigrant and stood 4-foot, 10 inches high, used her power trips to protect herself from feeling inferior or weak and used her money to manipulate others to fend off feeling vulnerable or alone. But as a child I knew only, “I don’t want to be like her.”
Then I heard in the recesses of my memory a Yiddish phrase uttered by my Dad, referring to a neighbor he disliked. “He’s an alte kaker,” which translates into a “washed up old fart.” And with that memory I realized that I had heard that put-down many times, used as a critical and dismissive term for older people. How much had I internalized the patronizing tone and dismissive gesture that accompanied that comment?
When we begin to recognize a projection as I did that day in the restaurant and create a conscious relationship to a shadow character, to material that was previously unconscious, we are romancing the shadow. We are turning within to read the messages encoded in the moments of our daily lives in such a way that we gain consciousness, depth, soul.
On the other hand, when we meet the shadow and deny it, turning outward in blame, we live in projection, not reality. And we banish the shadow once more into the dark cavern of the unconscious.
I learned to observe when the bag lady erupted into my awareness and brought up feelings of fear, repulsion, and vulnerability in me. I endured the discomfort and opened to it with curiosity because I did not want to succumb to denial.
But I also learned to turn toward the homeless women and men who live on the street in shame, invisibility, and powerlessness. I had felt so ashamed when I realized that I had unknowingly succumbed to the undertow of ageism — and that shame connected me in compassion to the real-life bag ladies crouched in rags on the street corners of my city. As my heart opened to them, it opened to my internal figure as well.
In a private correspondence, Jan Carlson called this a “stereo effect” — both inner and outer bag ladies, the symbolic and the real, surround us and enhance our fear of becoming old, poor, and forgotten.
The consequences of unconsciously agreeing with this inner ageist shadow character, male or female, are devastating. It warns of a terrible fate beneath the boundary of awareness: the loss of home, love, family, and dignity. And, of course, this is just as true for men.
One 80-year-old friend has outlived his money and is forced today to drive an Uber. He told me that, when he was pushed into retirement, he thought for an instant about entering a monastery just to have shelter. A male client, 70, told me that his shadow figure is a lazy, ineffective guy who “can’t get it done” — the opposite of his “go-getter” ego ideal.
So, when we’re younger, this hidden figure drives some of us to make choices that avoid risk, to choose business over the arts, or teaching over music, or one husband over another to ensure security. As Carlson put it, “The bag lady is a slave driver; she haunts and taunts us.”
In addition, she leads us to reject whole generations of older people, thereby robbing us of valuable friendship, mentoring, and guidance, as well as robbing them of the opportunity to transmit their love, skills, and wisdom. Finally, if we obey the inner ageist, we are rejecting our own futures.
I learned slowly and gently to coax the bag lady out of the darkness, listen to her message for me, respond differently to older people, and deal with the fear and dread of my own aging. When my inner ageist erupts these days, or a homeless woman holds out her hand, my heart cracks open — and my gaze turns toward her, rather than away.
A recent lecture, Meeting Your Shadow: The Hidden Power of Gold in the Dark Side, is posted on my facebook page: