Mental age

I was thinking recently about the fact that I'm nearly 40, which makes it pretty hard to pretend I'm not a grownup these days. (I have a bunch of thoughts about being a grownup, what it means to me, and what I don't like about it, but that'll have to wait for another entry.) And it occurred to me that in my head, I'm not 39; I think of myself as being in my late 20s, about a 10-year gap. This is just a gut feeling, with no logic or rationale behind it; it's not based on the stage I'm at in my life, or who my peer group is, or what my responsibilities are. It's just the age I think of myself as being.

And my internal mental age has lagged behind my chronological age for a long time. If I'm remembering right, when I was in my late 20s I felt more like I was in my early 20s, maybe a 5- to 7-year gap. I guess another way of putting that is that my mental age started increasing more slowly than my chronological age sometime in my early 20s, and has continued to slow down even though out here in the real world time continues on at its usual relentless pace.

I thought this might be just me, but it came up in conversation early in my Boston visit and I was surprised to discover that most (but not all) of my friends who are in their late 30s and early 40s also think of themselves as being in their late 20s, or at least as being somewhat younger than their chronological ages would indicate. A couple of them initially said things like "Well, judging by my exhaustion levels, I'm probably in my 60s" or "Since I have a house and two kids, it's pretty clear to me how old I am." But when I clarified that I was talking about gut-feeling age-identification rather than logical derivation based on observed facts, most of them said they internally thought of themselves as 5 to 10 years younger than their chronological ages.

But my sample space was small. So I'm curious: how old do you think of yourself as being, and how different is that (if at all) from what the calendar tells you?

As always, anonymous comments are fine.

22 Responses to “Mental age”

  1. Vardibidian

    I find it totally plausible that you are in your late twenties. That picture in your attic looks like hell, though.

    As for me, no, I feel my age, and sometimes older.


  2. Wayman

    When I was about twenty-one, I felt depressingly several years older than I was. When I shaved my beard a couple years later, my mental and physical ages flipped, and I felt about five years younger than my physical age. Now my drivers license says I’m 30, but I say I’m about 22. I’m very comforted to know I’m not alone–F has been giving me a lot of grief over my views on this recently.

    I guess I should have suspected I had friends who felt this way, but somehow I always thought it was just me and Jonathan Larson:

    Why can’t you stay 29, hell,
    You still feel like you’re 22!

    –tick, tick… BOOM!

    I feel less alone, and far fewer doubts about the legitimacy of my feelings, now.

  3. Megan

    I’d say mid-twenties. I feel old enough to be resigned to the fact that I’ll never be any sort of prodigy, but not old enough that I have to assume I’m not the youngest person in the room or that I’ll have chronological seniority over co-workers.

  4. sallytuppence

    When I turned 40 this year I got seriously ill, and then this summer got sick again, which was a good sign that my body thinks it’s 40, no matter what my mind thinks, which is that I’m around 30. I interact with college students in my day job, which keeps my outlook younger, I think.

  5. David D. Levine

    My theory is that you think of people being the average of all the ages you’ve known them at. For example, suppose you met someone when he was 20 and it’s now 10 years later (he’s now 30). You think of him as being about 25. If you moved away from home at age 20, your parents (who knew you from ages 0-20) still think of you as being about 10. And you think about yourself, whom you’ve known all your life, as being about half your present age. It might be slightly weighted toward your current age, which explains why people in their late 40s think of themselves as being in their late 20s rather than mid-20s.

    That’s my theory, and it belongs to me, and I posess the ownership of it.

  6. Matthew

    Chronologically I’m 42, but I used to think of myself as being 30 for the longest time, even after having children. Then I went to my oldest nephew’s bar mitzvah. There is nothing like being an Uncle at a bar mitzvah to truly slap you upside the head and scream “Wake Up! You’re Old!” I went from being “no longer thirty” to “almost forty” overnight.

  7. Debbie N.

    At 56 (how did that happen), I have crossed some kind of threshhold for how strangers treat me, but that’s not what you’re asking. How old do I feel? I think I’m right about with you: ten (to maybe 15) years younger than I actually am.

  8. Haddayr Copley-Woods

    I have always felt like a woman in her mid-60s or early 70s. I feel horribly immature and embarrassed by myself most of the time, because I am so young and inexperienced and idiotic and it feels wrong, somehow.

    My MIL has always felt like a college kid, no matter how old she is.

  9. koshkalet

    I’m *so* glad to know I’m not the only one who is well past their late 20’s, but is “stuck” in terms of mind-time in that age.

    I keep waiting for the sensation to go away, but when I think about myself, I still generally have that “I’m in my late 20’s” reaction, and then I have to kind of wake myself up to the fact that I’m almost 10 years older than that.

    Does make me wonder, tho, why it would be that way? I don’t remember having my mind-time be warped at any previous stage.

    There are studies about body image and how long it takes your mind to catch up with where your body actually is physically, mostly in terms of size – I wonder if this is a similar kind of brain reaction…

  10. Peter Hollo

    I’ve been feeling exactly this way for some time. I’m mid-30s (passed 33 1/3 a couple of months ago) and I’d say I feel mid-to-late-20s…

  11. paulskemp

    Definitely feel in my mid-twenties, though I’m late 30’s, with two toddlers.

  12. Suzanne Bellerive

    I’m 48, and feel like I should only be, oh, about 28. Surprises me when 28-year-olds treat me with deference because of my age.

  13. Twig

    With my recent birthday, this has been on my mind.

    Part of it is that the mirror is starting to give me information that I don’t necessarily like – grey hair, the changes in skin as it gets older, the way my face sits differently on its bones. I want 10 or 15 years of physical age back, but I’ll take 5, if that’s all I can get. I didn’t appreciate what I had when I had it.

    Mentally? As a child and an adolescent, I felt older, and was perceived as older. (Sixteen when I was 12, a teacher when I was a high school student, etc.) In my mid- & late 20s, I felt younger, and was perceived as younger. Until recently I was mentally stuck in my early to mid-20s. I think I’m up to late 20s or early 30s now, for mental age, but a lot of times I’m just confused. How can I be This Old? I had preconceptions about what Being An Adult entailed, and have failed to meet any of them. I’m trying to weed out those old notions, and come up with new concepts for what my life might look like over the next 5, 10, or 50 years.

  14. kairon_gnothi

    I’m 38; my mental body-image is still in the late 20s.

    But I frequently feel like a poseur at work; as if I were a teenager in dress-up work clothes pretending to be an adult. So

    Physically, I feel old. I’m too old for testicular cancer (supposedly) and just the age to get colon cancer. I need to work out my heart and lungs if I want to live longer. I get more overweight more easily, and I weigh 190 – 195 lbs., which is closer to my Dad’s heaviest weights than I would like.

    But every couple of weeks I also realize that when my father was 38 (half his current age), I was two years old. Instead, I have a 23, 13, and 11 year-old. So life-stage-wise, I feel pretty young. It also helps since most of my peers are still busy having babies or toddlers.

  15. jacob

    I’m 36, and that actually feels about right (actually I keep thinking I’m 37 for some reason). Feeling my correct age happened just in the past few years, I think — at 30 I definitely felt more like 25 — and I think has to do with two things: First is the kids (almost 2 and almost 4) and self-identifying as Daddy very strongly. Second is my job, which has recently started moving from low-level worker-bee type stuff to higher-level strategic thinking leadership-type stuff (I actually made a decision not to try to become the team lead last month, but it certainly would have been plausible).

    For example, when I hear about college students or other twenty-somethings having the problems of that age, while I remember my own issues of that age, I tend to find myself identifying more with the twenty-something person’s parents, and thinking about what I’ll do when my kids have those issues, etc.

    The mental shift, I think, is making it easier to deal with the physical aging (dealing with weight gain, for example) but I think isn’t triggered by the physical as much as the stuff above.

  16. Thida

    I don’t really think of my chronological age much at all. I remember my age by counting from the year I was born and truth be told I’ve been known to get it wrong if I’m tired or distracted. My sense of time is not measured particularly chronologically. Rather it’s measured in events. At some point after I bought my first house I considered myself a young adult because I felt comfortable with who I was but large swathes of my life were yet unsettled both internally and externally. And sometime after Special K was born I considered myself a mom. So if asked my age I would count from my birthday but if asked my gut feeling I’d say adult. Not even mid adult since I’m not halfway done with life yet. But then since I plan to live until 100 I’m not chronologically mid-adult yet either.

  17. Lola

    I think I’ve always pretty much felt my age, except towards the end of my marriage I remember getting a new passport, and in the picture I looked ten to fifteen years older than I really was. I was horrified: I looked like a tired, depressed, middle-aged woman, and I was what, 31? I think I felt that old, too. And then I got a divorce, and I started wearing flattering clothes again, and I started hanging out with people who were fun and thought I was fun too (yay Jed!), and I got a haircut, and I looked my age again, maybe younger. I even got carded trying to buy a bottle of wine at Long’s. So then I felt about 25 for a while, which was the age I was at the beginning of my relationship with my ex-husband, and now I think I’ve caught up to myself. I just turned 35, and I think that’s usually how I feel… sometimes I feel a few years younger. I never feel older, though I do notice getting older (having kids I taught in preschool driving cars now helps with that).

    Good question, Jed… thanks for posing it!

  18. Nalo

    Glad I’m not the only one. I love being 46, and am not the least bit interested in trying to hide my age. Yet what I think of as my dream self seems to be about 28.

  19. Anne

    I don’t know about feeling a specific chronological age. I mean, I don’t feel twenty – I remember being twenty and I’m glad I’m not her. My sort of mental image of myself is a lot like when I was twenty, though, and I was stronger in my upper body when I was twenty, so I have to watch out for that.

    In terms of age relative to other people, I’m 32 and I’m not feeling middle-aged. I feel quite young. But then again, with multiple ancestors who lived to be 100, and medicine being how it is, and what with me not smoking or drinking caffeine, etc, I have pretty much expected to live to be 115 or so since I was a teenager. So I don’t view my current age as middle age – more like first quarter. And that’s young, compared to where I hope to get.

    (people who look at me know tend to place me in the early to mid twenties, which is odd because when I was a teen everyone thought I was older than I am.)

  20. benrosenbaum

    I think I am running about 3 years off — coming up on 38, and my unreflective answer to “how old are you?” would be “35”. I definitely don’t feel 23 — that feels as foreign in some ways as 7. (Actually in some ways 7 seems much closer)

  21. Lisa

    I am 41 years old with no children of my own and I do look young for my age. In the last few years, I increasingly began to feel much younger than my chronological age. I have a job, but I always feel different from my coworkers. I often do not seem to fit in or connect, but I try to wear an adult mask to work everyday. I am friendly enough to others, but prefer to stay in my own little space at work just wanting to get through the day. I think that has hurt me in my career as I have lost jobs a time or two in recent years. It is like I am an outsider and people always seem to sense something different about me. Typically, I go to work and go home to my own world where it is okay to be the way I feel. I socialize with a hand full of people I have known for many years and even they do not know the extent of how I feel. I am not even attracted to men my own age. I am attracted to guys who are younger than 30. When I am around adults, I often feel like the younger person and sometimes that is not the case. People my age seem so old to me. Here lately, I am finding it harder and harder to be as responsible. There have been other times in my life when I was a lot better at responsibility. I just don’t know what has been coming over me the last few years. I really feel trapped to fit into a mold of society. It seems that the more responsibility I have attained career wise, the harder it has become for me to perform. I also know that I am not as young and feel stuck. In my 20’s, I had the time to change careers or travel if I wanted to. Again, I have been feeling this way for years and found ways to compensate or get by. It is just becoming more obvious now that I am older. I feel like an adolescent or young adult in my body.

  22. dee

    I am 44 going on 45 – and get mistaken for someone in her mid to late 20’s. No, I haven’t had any plastic surgery (too poor for that!) and hardly wear any makeup. In fact, I’ve started to deliberately introduce myself in and around the college where I work as “I’m so-and-so; I’m a faculty member”. Somehow, my mental age has also lagged behind to more or less align with my apparent age.

    As for looking young – it’s mainly genetic. (I’m Asian, BTW.) Plus I don’t smoke or take drugs and have no more than 2-3 drink per year. As I don’t like the taste of alcohol, this is not a problem. I also keep out of the sun. Somehow, sunscreen doesn’t work for me. As far as my attitude goes, I’m generally an optimistic person with a lot of interests and hobbies. I guess the combination of all these factors go into the big discrepancy between my chronological and mental (= apparent) ages.


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