Change is really hard. Freud discovered this early in his work when he saw how difficult it was to help patients give up their symptoms. People clung to self-destructive or injurious patterns in ways that made no sense. He called this “resistance.” Some, after making progress initially, would revert to these patterns quickly. This he termed “repetition compulsion.” Soon he determined that breaking through the patient’s resistance comprised the heart of the therapy.
He also noticed that younger people tended to be more adaptable and malleable. This was not a blazing insight: It has long been accepted that older people tend to get “set in their ways” and are often very resistant to new things or ideas. This makes sense because as we age, we learn what works for us and what doesn’t, and we can avoid wasting time and energy that way.
There comes a time, though, when old habits and patterns are obsolete, or when circumstances change enough so that they don’t work the way they used to. With older people, facing declining health, retirement or the loss of a spouse through divorce or death can require re-evaluation of our lives and finding new ways to live.
At WVFC we have written about the idea of “rightsizing” your life—an alternative name to “downsizing,” which has negative implications of loss or diminishing returns. For many of us, moving from a beloved home can be a trauma-level event, even if it is clearly the right thing to do. Homes become invested with the people and events that took place there, and the memories they “contain” seem to reside there. Of course, they don’t—our memories can travel with us wherever we move, but places and objects become so tied to our reminiscences that they sometimes feel indispensable.
Hoarders are examples of people who can’t seem to let go. They save everything, often with the attitude that they might “need it” someday. The most famous case was that of the Collyer brothers, who occupied a townhouse in New York City in the early 20th century. They saved so many newspapers and so much junk that both eventually died as a result of their hoarding. One brother was smothered by a stack of newspapers that fell on him, while he was attempting to tunnel through it to bring food to his disabled brother, who subsequently died of starvation.
Though cases like this are extreme, most of us can recognize the insecurity that causes us to over invest in the status quo. A sense of adventure and a willingness to change requires courage, and that comes from the ability to believe that the unknown is not dangerous and the confidence that we can handle surprises. As we age and feel less robust, we often feel less confident about our ability to meet new challenges.