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Unlabeling Ourselves

By Contributing Editor for Health & Wellness Kathy Whelan

We talk a lot about stereotypes these days, the oversimplified notions we form about people and things to help us organize a complex world. Stereotyping comes naturally – it was a species survival tool – but applied thoughtlessly, stereotypes can hurt and harm, as we’ve seen again and again.

Chronological age evokes deeply rooted stereotypes. Ageism starts with toddlers, who are “terrible twos” regardless of their differences. Teenagers are stereotyped as moody and irresponsible. And then we have “older” adults, often thought of as frail, dependent and diminished. 

Nothing summarizes this view of older adults more clearly than the pithy expression “over the hill.” The phrase is clearly absurd in representing life as a trip up and down a single peak. Despite its absurdity, these words effectively convey the same notion communicated by freshness labels on food: After a certain time, this thing is not at its best.

It’s bad enough when older adults are treated like lettuce that has passed its expiration date. What’s worse is when this view is internalized. Then it’s disheartening, even disabling to the older adult who adopts it.

My guess is that most of us have felt this way about ourselves at times, at least in certain circumstances: when we have difficulty with something we used to do easily, when we face a health issue or another new challenge, or when we simply seem invisible to others. This feeling erodes our self-image and quality of life and can lead to physical and mental health issues.

Luckily, we can do something about it by becoming aware of, then changing, our mindset. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck developed the concept of “growth mindset,” the subject of her 2007 and 2017 books. A mindset, Dweck explains, is a belief about yourself, about your basic qualities and capabilities. To paraphrase her, in a “fixed mindset” we believe we are what we are, and there is little we can do to change it, while in a “growth mindset” we can always acquire new skills if we embrace challenge and effort and value the learning process. Dweck’s concept has been used successfully in business, education and athletics as well as in personal lives.
To change mindsets, we first need to observe our current mindset, which can be different from time to time and in different areas of life. Here are a few tips for developing a growth mindset:
  • Are you acting as your own saboteur with  negative messages about your capabilities? If so, practice positive self-messaging.Unhook from other people’s opinions, both positive and negative.
  • Connect your challenge with your life purpose so it becomes an opportunity, not a threat.
  • Learn from failure and try again. Turn “I can’t” into “I can’t yet.”
  • Slow down and be patient: growth mindsets don’t happen overnight.

Above all, strip off the “best before” label you’ve been wearing and enjoy your journey up and over hill after hill to where you want to be.

Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach. She is now, in addition, a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises. It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including Thrive Global and The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com

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