The Poisonous Impact of Losing Your Sense of Control After 50… and the Surprising Antidote
We all need to feel like we are in control of our lives. We want to believe that our actions matter… that if we do “the right things,” we will be rewarded. Psychologists call this belief – that our actions control our outcomes – our “internal locus of control.”
For most of our lives, we have good reasons to believe in our ability to influence the world around us.
We believe that, if we work hard, we will be rewarded. We know that our health is at least, in part, dependent on how often we work out and the food that we put in our body. We feel like we can shape our kids into functional, independent adults. Ok, maybe this last believe is an illusion!
But, the point here is that, during our 20s, 30s and 40s, we feel like we are in control. Even if we would never admit it to ourselves, on some deeper level, we realize that our lives are mostly the result of the decisions that we have made.
Then, Gradually, Our Sense of Control is Shattered
In our 50s and 60s, our internal locus of control is challenged from multiple directions. No matter how hard we work out, we struggle to lose weight. Our joints start to ache. Our hair thins and greys. After hundreds of dollars invested in “anti-aging” creams, we finally realize that our wrinkles are here to stay.
On the work front, even if we don’t plan on retiring any time soon, in our 50s, our career progress slows to a glacial pace. Or worse, we are forced out of our jobs and into an early retirement, far before we are financially ready.
Perhaps most profoundly, our social lives are completely upended in our 50s and 60s. As parents, our social lives revolved around our children. Now that they have flown the nest, many of us feel disconnected, lost and even a little lonely.
To be clear, not everyone feels all of these physical, financial and social symptoms in the same way. You may be one of those people who feels liberated to have your life back now that your kids are doing their own thing. But, chances are, in one way or another, your sense of self-efficacy has been challenged in recent years.
The Danger of Self-Doubt Before and During Retirement
If our internal locus of control is challenged in our 50s and 60s, it faces an all-out nuclear assault in the years following our retirement.
After we leave our jobs, we find ourselves completely reliant on Social Security and our investments. Our bodies continue to challenge us in weird and wonderful ways. And, socially, we may even begin to lose friends and loved ones a few years our senior.
But, here’s the thing… while the challenges that we face in our late 60s are real, it is our loss of belief in ourselves that has the most dramatic impact on our lives.
When we lose our sense of self-efficacy, not only do we fail to take practical steps to build a better future, but, we also increase our chances of becoming depressed, anxious or lonely in the “best years of our lives.”
In short, if we fail to believe in ourselves and our ability to change our circumstances, we risk falling into a negative spiral of negative thoughts, bad decisions, negative consequences and regret.
We Can’t Change Our Lives Until We Change Our Minds
Life after 50 is challenging. It’s not all “in our heads.” But, what so many of us tend to miss is that “harder does not mean impossible.”
The tough medicine that we need to give ourselves is a dose of reality, mixed with a spoonful of absolute determination.
Let me give you a few examples…
Staying in shape gets harder the older we get, but, does that mean that we are powerless to shape our bodies after 50? Of course not! We just have to work harder! Most of us won’t… but, this doesn’t mean we can’t.
For a little inspiration, here’s a video of Ernestine Shepherd, who, in her 80s, is a professional bodybuilder.
Let’s talk about money. Society has trained us to think about retirement as a time for living off our savings. As a result, most of us ignore the simple ways that we could boost our incomes dramatically in retirement.
From becoming an Airbnb host or renting our parking spot to doing a little freelancing or starting our own passion business, there are limitless ways to boost our income at any age.
Speaking from personal experience, it isn’t harder to start a business after 60… it is simply harder to get in the right frame of mind for financial success once you have convinced yourself that “retirement” is all about watching TV, traveling and going on the occasional cruise.
Even if you are in your 50s and are still working, you may feel like you have passed the point that you can make a meaningful impact on your retirement savings. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even a small incremental monthly increase in your retirement savings rate, compounded over 17 years could have a huge impact on your future. And, if you really want to make a massive impact, why not consider moving to a smaller home and investing the difference?
What about staying social? Once again, when it comes to making friends as an older adult, “it’s harder” doesn’t mean “it’s impossible.” We just need to try a bit harder than our younger counterparts.
Here’s a short video that I recorded for Sixty and Me that gives some helpful advice for staying social at any age.
Nothing is More Important Than Feeling Like You Are in Control of Your Life
When you reach your 50s, it is easy to start feeling like you are in a very small boat battered by very big waves. When you reach your 60s, it sometimes feels like you have lost the boat entirely!
But, what I can tell you, based on my 7 years working with 100s of older adults is that life after 50 is a choice. You can choose to blame the world, yourself, your partner, your colleagues, your dog, your ex, God or anyone else. Or, you can accept the fact that life gets harder as we age… but, that doesn’t mean that it can’t get better.
So, take control. Feel the strength of your wisdom pushing you forward and ignore the weight of your age pulling you down. You can do this. You are stronger than you imagine.
Do you feel like you feel more or less in control of your life now that you are a little older? Why do you think that this is?