Grumpy Old Man Syndrome
/ Author: Dave Phillips
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Grumpy Old Man Syndrome

Three key factors in life influence whether you will be happy or cheerful as you age. Here’s how to manage them

By Dave Phillips, National Health and Wellness Manager

When I was growing up, it seemed that most older men (60+) tended to be kinda grouchy most of the time. I do not mean to be sexist here—I’m sure older women can be just a grumpy as old men.

It’s just that my observations were biased heavily toward men. They seemed to me to be like that old dog in the yard that no one should wake—unless you wanted to get bit.

Now, this was not everyone. My paternal grandfather was rich with a generous and giving spirit. Not surprisingly, I loved spending time with my grandpop.

I don’t think it’s too big a stretch to say that younger people can greatly benefit from the wisdom of those who have lived much longer. Yet many of these same people are often somewhat unapproachable and more interested in telling others about all the ways that life is letting them down or spouting off a laundry list of complaints against the world.

Well, I am now an older man myself, and that 60 number is getting very close. So now I can weigh in on this issue from the other side. And my years as a mental health professional give me some credibility to look at this issue from a psychological perspective as well.

Why do we as humans, but also as men, tend to be more angry, bitter, and sour as opposed to open, generous, and happy? Why this tendency toward grumpy old man syndrome?

Three important factors stand out:

1. unresolved grief or loss over issues,

2. the loss of power and influence, and

3. the challenge of or the inability to manage and tolerate pain.

In this blog, I’ll look at grief and loss and unpack the other two factors in future posts.

Loss has piled up

The longer we live, the more loss we experience. This may be from people we love having passed away, from relationships that have ended, from dreams that have never been realized, etc.

If I had to do a robust accounting of all the important losses in my life to date, well, like most of us, the list would be very long. Yet, loss is part of life. The key issue is how well we grieve our losses, which leads to the next concern.

Men are often over-matched by grief

Grief is how we deal with loss of any kind in our life. While not enjoyable, grieving well allows us to move forward in a healthy way.

My experience as a therapist has taught me that many men are not trained well in knowing how to grieve. Rather than being metabolized and becoming a part of their life story, unresolved loss can become an emotional beast with the power to devour and destroy happiness and contentment in their lives.

Even as young children, many boys are not allowed to show their weaker, softer side when they get hurt.

I remember a baseball coach who would yell at the players if they rubbed their arms when hit by a pitch. Those boys were taught—as they had been for most of their young lives by others—not to display distress, pain, or vulnerability.

So when adult life comes calling, and these same men have to deal with the common emotional content of normal grieving, they tend to bury their feelings, drawing on their unique gender ability to compartmentalize. Instead of working itself through, the pain of the loss goes unresolved, only to come back to the present the next time a loss of any kind is experienced.

Some of the more common emotional experiences of loss include

  • depression,
  • confusion,
  • disillusionment,
  • desperation,
  • sadness, and
  • anger.

It must come as no surprise then that many men, as they approach their senior years, are simply overmatched by the experience of loss. And losses are a very common experience of aging.

So what can you do? You can still grieve the important losses in your life—and there’s no time like the present. Here are four important steps to follow:

1. Connect with a trusted helper

It’s crucial that you do not deal with losses alone. You will need the companionship of another person in this process. Speak with a therapist, religious advisor, or friend and do an audit of the key losses in your life.

2. Face your losses honestly and with courage.

Make a list of the five most important losses in your life. These can be people you have lost through death or change, important relationships that have changed or were lost, or a stage of life that you loved.

For me, moving from being a daddy to a peer with my adult children has been tough because I loved raising my boys. Yet I had to face that change and loss honestly or risk becoming bitter and withdrawn.

3. Write a letter saying goodbye.

When you write your letter about a person or role you’ve lost, write how much you miss him or her or the role and how your life has been impacted by the loss.

4. Ritualize the process.

Make this process of saying goodbye official by having some sort of ritual to mark the importance of the relationship and externally letting go. The kind of ritual should match the importance of the loss but could include a memorial, some sort of burning ritual, or a tribute published in a blog or other media. I loved putting together slideshows with music.

Following these four steps will help you grieve the important losses in your life, the first factor that influences whether you will be grumpy or cheerful in your old age. In my next two blogs, I’ll look at the other two factors that can cause you to develop grumpy old man syndrome: the loss of power and influence and the challenge of or the inability to manage and tolerate pain.

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