Ageing is partly a process of finding out what our preferences are. I haven’t tasted a banana in years. Why not? Because I know that I don’t like bananas. Lately I have tried a few beers with fruit flavours added – lime and so forth. The result? The fruit mostly takes away the bitter edge – I like the bitter edge so probably won’t be trying any more. At the moment I have found a few people who are integrating marketing with a more spiritual approach and enjoying reading this stuff (I know that just the money or business will never hold my interest).
As we go through life we learn our preferences and we shape our lives accordingly to the extent that we can: where we live, who we build friendships with, the kind of work we do and much else besides.
As we age we also develop favourite ways of responding to the unexpected (whether pleasant or disappointing). Life has a way of being unexpected and we develop ways of responding to this.
These ways of responding have been studied by George Vaillant in his book Ageing Well (it is a report on three longitudinal studies of how people aged throughout their lives).
In Ageing Well George lists ways of responding that he categorises as immature and mature. (I have some problems with this kind of evaluation but I’ll get to that later.) The immature responses are:
acting out, and,
A word of explanation about what these mean. Projection is when I project what is in me onto someone else – the pot calling the kettle black. (E.g. how come when I haven’t had enough sleep everyone else is grumpy.) Passive aggression is punishing by not doing (E.g. not cleaning up instead of telling someone I live with that I am angry with them). Dissociation is standing at one remove from the situation – flipping out. (E.g. maintaining a ‘polite distance’.) Acting out is when my behaviour is motivated by my feelings and has no regard for others around me – I don’t care that others haven’t done anything bad to me, I’m in a bad mood because of what happened before. (E.g. I take out my bad day at the office on those at home – or vice versa.) Fantasy is imagining that things are other than they are as a way of getting through the normal – Walter Mitty. (E.g. I imagine being praised for my work – even though it isn’t particularly praiseworthy).
The mature responses are:
A word of explanation about what these terms mean. Sublimation is directing one kind of energy in a different direction or to a different end. E.g. I put the frustration felt after an unsatisfactory conversation into chopping wood. Altruism can be working so that some people don’t have to suffer as we suffered (someone who has experienced homelessness may work in a shelter or soup kitchen). Suppression is delaying reward instead of being impulsive – not denying the desire but being willing to put in the work to satisfy it. Humour as a way of removing the sting from an unpleasant situation.
I think the immature responses can sometimes be quite healthy and that the mature ones can sometimes be destructive. I want to investigate this a little by asking: What’s the difference? It seems to me that the difference between the two lists is that the mature stays with what is and that the immature flips out of the situation and goes somewhere else. From these lists the ‘mature’ is staying with what is. This doesn’t have a lot of place for just having fun or imagination. And it is hard to know where planning fits in (whether a plan works out isn’t always within our control – so is it constructive engagement with present potential or idle fantasy – I think that sometimes the only way to find out is to give it a go and see what happens).
I do think that the mature list is worth highlighting, because so often the focus is on ways of coping that are pathological or have the feeling of managing life rather than embracing it. Humour and altruism are rarely talked about I think in this context.
To ground these a little I have an exercise you can try.
- Make a list of some stressful times in your life.
Try to come up with a few that vary in intensity – from trivial day to day stuff up to crises.
- How did you respond? What did you specifically do?
Are there similarities? Or do you respond in different ways? (E.g. I can use humour about trivial things but find this much harder with bigger things. I can write in my journal about anything. Suppression I generally only use to achieve something big.)
- Were you happy with the outcome? Did the way you responded help you? Did it have affects on others that you were happy with?
- Would you like to try other ways of responding?
If so which one? How can you practice it in a simple and easy way today?
I’d like to hear what ways you have for coping with the unexpected that life brings us. Do you find it easy to make lemonade when life brings you lemons (I confess that I do not). What ways work for you? I look forward to hearing about your experience in the comments.
Would you like to feel less stressed?
Could you do with more joy in your life?
The answer is living authentically. Buy the book or sign up for the course now from my Living Authentically website.