Over the last decade, I’ve clocked a significant amount of time in a therapy office with people on the precipice of retirement. As it turns out, this life milestone is about a lot more than cashing in a 401K, playing golf all day, and eating dinner at 5:00 pm. Retirement is existential. The things people process in therapy as they get ready to make this life transition vary, but many discussions revolve around similar themes— broken expectations, identity, grief, regret, fear, and legacy.
In our culture, we view retirement as a grand punctuation. Retirement is the culmination of decades of pushing hard. For some, retirement is the reward. For others, it turns out to be more like a booby prize or punishment. Many people spend a lifetime going hard and fast so they can finally slow down, but the closer they get to the finish, reality can start to look different than it appeared far in the distance.
Broken Expectations. As some individuals approach retirement, they realize that their expectations about ending on a high note are a pipe dream. There will be no ticker-tape parade for their final out. Instead, the day after they clock out for the last time, the machine they were a cog in will continue to grind on without them. It can come as an insult to realize how replaceable we are. Businesses aren’t as personal or personable as we like to make them out to be. They are not family.
When it’s time to part ways with work, some individuals are incensed that after a lifetime of giving heart and soul to an institution, they are left with broken bodies and unsettled minds. For some, work becomes an irresistible mistress. The price of poor boundaries can be multiple marriages or fractured relationships with children. I’ve shared an office with many a highly-decorated military official who, in their decades of service, had burned through multiple wives and alienated their kids. They entered treatment struggling physically and hurting psychologically. Facing “what’s next” they’d look at me perplexed, “Now what?” Heartache and isolation weren’t part of the pension plan they signed up for.
Regret. In the later stages of life people collect the natural consequences of a lifetime of choices—relational, financial, and physical. It’s impossible to go back and change things, but many people get stuck in playing a devil’s fool “what if” game. It’s a sport no one wins.
Individuals who have been myopically focused on their professional priorities to the detriment of their personal development often struggle and are scared to some degree as they contemplate stepping back from the structure of their 9-5. In some cases, spouses become strangers. If they haven’t been intentional about nurturing relationships outside of the office, their social outlook may be bleak. When someone hasn’t left time or energy to devote to hobbies and interests outside the office, they may worry about the blank space on their calendar.
Grief & Identity. Retirement can be a season of grief. Loss of partners. Friends. But the grief of retirement goes beyond the painful loss of love and life. There are intangible losses, too. There is profound purpose and identity wrapped up in what we do. Often people not only wonder, “What will I do without my work?” but “Who will I be without my work?”
For some individuals, the prospect of retirement poses such overwhelming loss of purpose and identity they spiral into a dangerous pit of denial. They dig their heels in and refuse to stop working. Their profession has provided a sense of competence, accomplishment, and has garnered them respect. It can be a significant threat to one’s ego to think about having these things stripped away.
Sometimes, an individual whose identity is inextricably tied to their work are unwilling to think or talk about succession. Come hell or high water, they refuse to quit. Often, in cases like these, their bodies start to scream and finally go on strike. Sadly, in the space between where they should have stopped and actually stepped down families and people involved in their businesses often suffer and pay the price.
Fear. Lots of people struggle to stop and have difficulty slowing down. Why? It’s not because they couldn’t use a rest. Often, on some level, they’re scared. Throughout our adult lives, busyness can become a powerful defense to distance us from anxiety about a whole host of things. It’s convenient, then, that our culture enables and rewards pushing further, farther, faster. “More” remains the illustrious prize. Unfortunately, it’s almost always a disappointing mirage.
When we’re rushed, exhausted, distracted, we don’t have time or energy to sit, listen to our thoughts, and feel. Being alone with one’s self for an extended period is a terrifying proposition for many people. When you have grown accustomed to living in a frenetic overdrive, a slower pace is disconcerting and difficult to tolerate. Part of someone may crave calm in theory, but in practice, it’s challenging to embrace. Because it is so unfamiliar, people often resist it.
In our culture, we have a carefully scripted life map that is laid out for us: play, learn, date, marry, procreate, work, retire. While this map is not always the territory, the transition to retirement usually happens toward the end of the line. It’s emotionally evocative for people to confront that they have more life behind them than days left to live. Accepting our finite existence can unearth regret. It can also spark fear and spur big questions about afterlife. “What do I believe?” “Is what I’ve spent a lifetime believing really real?” “What is really going to happen when I die?"
Legacy. The questions that loom large at the end of our careers are also about legacy. People wonder if they’ve had an impact. They think about what will live beyond them. “Did I do enough?” “Did what I do really matter?” These are weighty matters and can feel heavier still when someone realizes that they can’t turn back and change a single thing they’ve done in the past.
Retirement can be an amazing stage—a time to celebrate and savor newfound space and freedom. As with all things, it’s important to hold a balanced view: there are things that will be hard and things that will be beautiful. The more we thoughtfully plan, psychologically prepare, and temper expectations, the better off we will be when we come home from work for the last time.
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. - Semisonic
It matters little how many years away retirement is for you, if work is an escape or your only identity – there’s something to step back and carefully examine. What do you fear about potentially moving through life at a different clip? Wherever you are on your journey, you can start to choose to live with more intention.
Sigmund Freud said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” It’s a gift to love our work. We should—we spend a lot of our life doing it. But let us not work in a way that crowds out love. Because in the end, love is what we’ve got.
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