There’s a pivotal scene in the movie Avatar when the character of Jake looks at Neytiri and utters the words,
“I ...see… You...”
Only in the film these three words aren’t referring to ordinary seeing, but are expressing a deeper kind of recognition. “I see you,” means I see the essence of who you are.
The deepest part of me sees the deepest part of you, and you are so much more than what I initially saw with my physical eyes.
Sometimes movies give us moments that stay with us because they convey something meaningful about real life. Not long after we saw that film my husband said those words to me in the middle of a hectic moment, totally unexpected and most likely when I was without a stitch of make-up. Despite his lightness, he was being serious and in that brief, startled second I saw my best self reflected back to me in the twinkle of his eyes.
It was powerful.
It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about this kind of seeing and what it truly means.
But recently I read THIS thought provoking post by Jennifer, where she shares some honest thoughts about aging and how invisible she’s felt in certain situations.
And I thought it was an important topic that needs to be talked about.
a certain kind of seeing
When I hear stories about feeling invisible it makes me think of Heinz Kohut, an American psychoanalyst who developed the concept of mirroring.
Kohut believed the need to have one’s unique specialness “mirrored” back was as vital to one’s development as food or water. And although his version of mirroring is a complex dynamic that surfaces in therapy, it’s also a sensation we can detect when we’re with others.
You probably notice how some people leave you feeling depleted and exhausted, while there are others --similar to my experience with my husband—in whose presence you feel lighter and more confident. And wonderfully understood.
Looking in someone’s eyes and having our whole self beamed back to us with warm acceptance is a powerful experience when we’re adults, but when we’re children it’s formative.
Our experiences with early mirroring—seeing the wonder of ourselves reflected back to us in our mother’s eyes—become the seeds of our own self image.
And it’s believed that the consistency of this gaze from others –in which our whole self is seen and responded to and not just the parts that others need us to be-- forms the basis of our authentic true self. (Winnicott)
I tell you this because there’s a difference between being looked at and being seen.
Peeling back the layers
Growing older in a youth-worshipping culture, one that bombards us at every turn with digitally altered images of perfect looking women that don’t actually exist, is the opposite of having our best selves mirrored back.
In fact, it’s the kind distorted feedback that can be wounding no matter what our age.
Coming from a background in the eating disorder field means I’ve known a whole lot of young, attractive women over the years-- and I’m here to tell you that physical beauty and self esteem do not come together in a package.
Having a young, wrinkle-free face does not guarantee a depth of self confidence or a strong sense of self. And believe me, women with tight abs and a toned neck still struggle painfully with not feeling good enough.
As a twenty-nine year old bulimic once told me when she was asking my help in pleading her case to the insurance company.
“Leslie you have to tell them. I’ve weighed 96 pounds and I’ve weighed 130 pounds and it never changes how I feel inside. This isn’t about how I look. Tell them this. Please.”
I still remember hearing her sum it up like that. The number on the scale part, the finally getting there and realizing there is no automatic flip switch for our deep-seated self esteem. Sigh. And I wish I could say that her insight led her to immediate wellness, but intellectual knowledge does not mean emotional learning and that’s what’s needed for real changes to happen inside us.
I guess I’m telling you this because it’s easy for a 40 or 50 or 60 plus year old woman who is struggling with the lines on her face, to assume that the remedy for these feelings is simply to have her young, pretty face back.
beneath the surface
But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize from my own experience as a woman--- that whatever your age is, feeling beautiful and relevant ultimately happens beneath the surface.
I’m learning that aging can be a process of peeling away the layers to our deeper self; it takes us along a path that is a continual lesson on letting go.
Aging is the wise teacher that keeps reminding us that everything is always changing. Our kids leave home. Our parents become frail. Our family dog dies. Our jobs change and neighbors move away.
And yes, what we see in the mirror keeps changing.
Growing older shines a light on where we get our feelings of worth and value and particularly for women, aging exposes how much our identity has been silently invested in looking a certain way.
Any of these can be experienced as little ruptures in our lives, transitions that can jolt us. Suddenly we find ourselves re-examining the parts of our lives that once felt rock solid. Roles that gave us our sense of identity have changed, maybe they’re gone. Leaving us with questions we haven’t had to answer in a long time.
Who are we when we aren’t being someone’s wife or daughter or mother?
Graceful aging requires honesty. Grieve whatever feels like loss. If something was once there and now it’s not, that’s loss. And it’s natural to feel many things, sadness, vulnerability, even anger. Allowing ourselves to know our shadowy feelings is the way that we grow beyond them.
The Buddha tells us that it’s not the letting go that brings us suffering, but the clinging. The trying to hold on, the clutching and denying of life’s truth which is that, nothing stays the same.
This is the path of graceful aging and the way we remain beautiful and relevant; this how we take ownership of our lives and discover our next adventure.
We let go. We deal with the feelings. And then we look forward.
We understand that there’s a certain wisdom and perspective that can only come with age. And we own it.
Sharon Stone on deciding how she wanted to age
Rosamund Pike on how it felt to be an older woman
Can you relate to this post?
I always tell everyone I have the best readers. So damn smart and insightful. And I always love to hear your thoughts.
If you agree this is a topic that matters, please share this post so we can keep the conversation going.
I’ll be back with Part 2 when I talk about three choices that matter.
aka Gwen Moss