The answer is yes—and she must, says clinical psychologist Cecilia Dintino.
As a psychologist, I have been dealing with change in women’s lives for decades. Recently, I noticed that the process can be a bit more challenging for women over 50, myself included.
The other day I was sitting in a session with Lucy,* a woman in her mid-50s. She cried as she told me that her husband had recently left her. She felt alone and confused, she said, with her kids grown up and her job failing to provide meaning. “My whole life before, I knew who I was and what I was doing. I had a vision for my future self that made sense. Now I feel like I have no map. I close my eyes and all I see is a black hole.”
She wasn’t the only one. It seems I keep hearing multiple versions of this story—women who reach a point in their lives when they feel anchorless. Women over 50 experience multiple transitions: divorce, death of loved ones, illness, menopause, and job loss, to name a few. And, like my client, in the crux of these changes, they all report a crisis of vision. They can’t imagine themselves moving into the future.
As I sat in my therapist’s chair listening to Lucy talk about her black hole, I briefly took a quick scan of my own internal future-self map. I too drew a blank. There we sat, two middle-aged women, each with perhaps 40 years left to live, lost in a visionless void.
My research on women over 50 highlights invisibility as the number one complaint. It seems the disappearing act starts with the outside world. We notice that we stop feeling the gaze of others. Things that we say go unheard, or are dismissed as irrelevant. Overall, our resonant vibe has dulled. But the real trouble starts when we go invisible to ourselves. Where we were once creating identities with a pictured life trajectory, we now stare at the empty canvas of our future.
Sadly, the popular cultural narrative that tells us to cling to youth and to dread aging confirms this flawed premise. But the creation of our identities doesn’t have to end just because we have fewer decades left to live. Transformation is still possible—but only if we push ourselves to be our most experimental.
My clients felt unmoored by their absence of imagination about themselves. When they looked to me, they were greeted with more smoke and mirrors. I had to find a way to define who I was becoming and fill the hole in my own vision. How does one begin to make something from nothing?
The truth is, we are always creating something new from nothing. We are re-creators by nature.
In “Homo Prospectus,” psychologists Martin Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada suggest that everything we are, and everything we do, is birthed by the extraordinary act of envisioning future possibilities that cannot be seen, felt, or smelled. We use our minds to make them up.
As humans, we possess the unparalleled gift of visionary change. We actually create our futures by dreaming up possibilities that have never been before. Our evolution owes it all to the ongoing and multiple creative innovations of our ancestors. Without the force of imagination, we would still be wearing fur skins and chasing wild boars with a dull spear. Thankfully, someone, somewhere, somehow, envisioned it otherwise. The talent to imagine our possible prospects is our magic.
It was clear that in order to fill my own nothingness, I needed to conjure some possible women to become. Consider Enid. She walks with a springy bounce. Her energy is contagious. I decide that I have a button inside of me that can turn Enid on when I need a lift. Then consider Shawn. She is fierce and outspoken, with a strong sense of wisdom. She is not afraid to speak her truth.
My creation of Enid and Shawn started to fill the space of my becoming. Then I asked Lucy to start to materialize her visions of her future self. This proved harder for Lucy than she expected. “It’s not easy,” she said. “I feel so invisible, I disappeared almost. How do I re-imagine myself?”
“Here’s how,” I answered, “I discovered a secret potion.”
It’s called intuition.
Dr. Laura King, of the University of Missouri, describes intuition as knowing without knowing why or how one knows. The Latin root for intuition translates as “seeing within.” We have this super fast search engine inside each of us that can scan decades of experience, sift through loads of information, and simultaneously combine and recombine patterns until eventually pulling a surprise from our big black hat. Even the most rational of thoughts and most scientific of all knowing is birthed first from intuitive thought.
Intuition is the engine for the amazing trick of creating a persona within one’s mind. We intuitively know who we are, what we want, and what we need to do. This magic trick may seem challenging. It is not something we are schooled in. And it requires openness and flexibility of mind. But this craft need not be out of reach. We simply must recognize what stands in our way.
By the time we are in our 50s, there are two evil fiends to combat: implicit biases and expertise. Social psychologist Becca Levy, of Yale University, cautions us about implicit bias, most specifically ageism. Her research warns that decades of ageist lore have made their way underground into our psyches, where they eat away at our confidence and core belief systems. Without even realizing it, and without question, we start to believe the messages that tell us we are all washed up. Imagine the wizard who doesn’t believe in her own magic. One of the popular ways women attempt to combat ageism is by trying not to age. While this may seem like quite the magic act, it doesn’t work. Restricting our transformation only blocks us from letting something new emerge. Instead, we need to reveal the biases, and then get busy countering them with alternatives that inspire and pull us forward.
Then there is the expert trap. Of course we all have worked hard to earn our stripes and become who we are today. We are experts at what we do. But, if we admit it, we are also a little threatened by the youth behind us, close at our heels and breathing their hot breath of energy and innovation in our ears. So we cling to our posts, announcing our authority and claiming our thrones. All good, but dangerous if we sit there too long and don’t move.
I have so many clients who have climbed the corporate ladder only to face that proverbial ceiling. And the ceiling forms a sort of mirror reflecting back on you, sitting and waiting. One of my clients told me her neck hurts from trying to see through to something new. Only then did she began to realize: “Maybe it’s not up there; maybe it’s inside of me somewhere.”
Lucy realized she also had been sitting too long. She was coasting on the narrative that said she had achieved her goals and so was fully formed. Then, poof, the divorce shook her awake. Now, rubbing her eyes in disbelief, she realizes she has to find more lives to live. If we are expert at anything, we need to be expert at change. We all need to let go of certainty and embrace learning and discovery. If we want new jobs, new titles, and new positions, we have to get busy making them up.
Lucy started to think about a career. She imagined becoming Justine, a social activist and world traveler. She even dallied with the image of Cora, a community organizer who loved many, and gathered circles of people around her.
I muse over my creation of Benedict. She has super-powered listening receptors in her heart, and she loves to hear stories and the stories behind the stories. I started to listen to the intuitive becomings of Lucy and the others. We can’t do it alone; we never could. No single imaginative mind has ever changed the world by itself. We are social animals and we are biologically designed for the collective experience. This is the most magic of all magical truths. All of our inventions and creations are birthed from our own imaginations, but our imaginings are derived from our cultural inheritance. We create something new by dipping into the pool of centuries-old becoming. And further, all of our new input requires the cooperation of others in order to take hold and become manifest.
Enid, Benedict, Shawn, Justine, and Cora are the seeds of an ever-fluid becoming we can all grow into. They personify not only what Lucy and I want to do, but who we want to be as women moving onto a yet-to-be-defined path.
Let’s get busy, get out the scraps of material, scissors, glue, patterns, and spices and start making it up. Let’s use our minds to create new roles, new careers, and fresh visions of ourselves moving forward into our futures. Let’s create and then re-create out of our own intuitive imagination what it looks like to be a woman over 50. Let’s change the collective face of longevity as we embrace it.
As for Lucy, she has started to talk to other women about forming an organization to serve refugees. She has travel plans ahead and an idea for a book. Our sessions no longer take place in a void. There are many of us in the room now.
*All names have been changed
Anita Yan Wong is an American Chinese Impressionist painter best known for her distinct dynamic brush works and unique style of Contemporary Traditional paintings that defies tradition and modernity. To learn more about the art of Chinese brush painting, take a look at the artist’s YouTube channel Joy Brush or follow her on Instagram @anitayanwong.
About the series: “Blue” is a Contemporary Traditional photography series in form of a collection of sun prints from Wong’s original paintings. Sun prints, or blue photographs, are photographs without the use of a camera. The series title reflects the emotions the artist faces as less and less young viewers appreciate and practice traditional painting in the digital age. The project is a performance act of the artist creating photo negatives of her traditional paintings (darkness) and bringing sunlight into the art form (hope).