Outline: #A-Z Challenge

“It was inevitable, he now saw, that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really only the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea.”

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The above very long sentence is the best description I have ever read of the malady that besets many of us as we begin our retirement transition. 

And make no mistake about it. Retirement is not an event, it is a transition.

An event is just a change, but a transition changes you.

What is a Retirement Transition?

Transitions have three parts to them – an ending, a neutral zone, and a new beginning.

I have written before about the retirement transition and why it’s a good thing if it is difficult and chaotic and painful.

The painful part and, in my opinion the best part, is the neutral zone. It is the neutral zone that Cusk is describing in the above quotation.

The neutral zone is so fluid, so changeable, that it can exhilarate and exhaust at the very same time. I explained in my retirement transition post that it had me fluctuating between “grandiose imaginings that my best days are ahead of me, and absolute conviction that I have begun a slow decline into senility and an early death.”

I’ve been retired for three years and those feelings are mostly gone. That’s how long a transition can take.

How to Know When You’ve Completed a Transition

You will know that you are through the neutral zone and into a new beginning when you feel:

  • a sense of a new identity and you turn your energy in that direction.
  • that you have learned some important things about yourself.
  • calmer and more comfortable, not in such a state of turmoil.

We have talked about the retirement transition today, but there are actually many life transitions. Milestone birthdays can trigger transitions, as can major life events like a cancer diagnosis.

When I reflect on the blogs I read and enjoy, all of them are grappling with the big ideas of life’s transitions. It is life-changing work.

Can you identify a life transition you have successfully navigated? What did it teach you about how to work through transition? (The lengthier post I’ve been referring to has suggestions for working through transition.)



Join the tribe:


  1. I struggle with changing decades – saying goodbye to one and embracing the next always comes with a few melancholic moments. With retirement I’m working at slowly sliding into it so there’s no definite day when I suddenly realize I’m “retired” – that way I won’t have to go through the emotional wringer!

    Leanne | http://www.crestingthehill.com.au
    O for Open Your Eyes

  2. Hi Leanne,
    I understand the desire to avoid the neutral zone of the retirement transition. Truly, I do. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that. Retiring gradually, as you are doing, seems to be helping you make an ending of your work that is good for you. And a good ending is important. You want to be able to leave work with no regrets, feeling good about the contribution you have made. But that ending, the difference between working and retired is, ultimately, a change of location and activity.

    A transition changes who you are and it demands of you that you go through the messy, chaotic emotional wringer of the neutral zone. If you’re interested in that concept, please check out the two posts I link to from today’s post.

    Of course you do have the option of not going through a transition. As we talked about yesterday, we have choices!
    Have a good day.

  3. This is one of those thought-provoking posts that will leave me scratching my head for a while.

    Based on this description of coming out of the neutral zone, I question whether I have ever come out of a transition. Whenever I get any hints of a new sense of identity and understanding of myself, I’m already moving on to the next change.

    In the opening quote, the portion that really spoke to me was “the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion”. I can say I’ve only had the feeling once – in the 5 days I sat vigil with my siblings during my mother’s last days. It’s like time stands still.
    … and now that I write this, I realize that was a defining moment for me. I retired only a few weeks later in a sudden move.

    1. Hi Joanne,
      I think that for people like us who enjoy the quest, who enjoy seeking, we do feel as if we are forever in transition. But no one could survive the seasick feeling of nonstop transition so I suspect that while we have the lasting feeling of transition, there’s a large part of us that is firmly ensconced in the new beginning of this stage of life we’re in. And the other part is indeed transitioning.
      I don’t think I’m making sense. I need to research this a bit more and find out if it’s possible to be always transitioning, at least at this time of life. It feels as if it is.

      1. I think you might have hit upon something with the part about enjoying the quest. A few years ago I wrote a post describing myself as a Seeker. It’s interesting that this is the second time in as many days that I’m referencing that post.

        It is very plausible that we have this constant feeling of transitioning because of our natural tendency to ‘seek’. In other words, we are constantly pushing the outer edges which would normally define beginnings and endings.

        Food for thought …

        1. I’m glad that part of my reply worked for you Joanne. I was worrying a bit that I’d identified you as a Seeker when you might not consider yourself to be one. But as an INFJ we both know you are!

          I gave this more thought while walking the dogs and here’s the other part of my reply that I was trying to say but botched.

          Retirement is a significant transition, made even more significant by the usually accompanying developmental transition of aging. So my guess is that we have successfully navigated the retirement transition and are, for the most part, comfortable with our identities as retired women. But because we are seekers and we are in the early stages of the biggest, most significant developmental transition of our lives, we feel as if we are always in transition. And we are – a whole bunch of mini ones that have to do with aging positively, not just growing older.

          Thanks for the food for thought…

          1. I hadn’t thought of my being INFJ as linking to also being a Seeker. Come to think of it, it seems that I say “I hadn’t thought of that …” a lot in my conversations with you 🙂

            Good point on the aging aspect about retirement. I suspect that reality is a bigger adjustment than the retirement part.

          2. You all know I’m totally into “transition”! I recently came upon the insight that “Retirement Life is a series of transitions”. The first one is a biggie…the stoppage of our major career. But many others occur at this lifestage…more big ones than in other life stages, I believe. Downsizing, by choice or by need. Major health issues, yours or a significant others. Parental death, sibling death, good friend death ….the ones that shake your soul. And then there are the little ones … especially when one is a seeker. I think I am one as well. When we are constantly trying new things, exploring new possibilities. Who am I this month could be different than who I will be in a few months. Minor transitions, but still have that moments of uncertainty and questioning…is it right direction? So…. a series of transitions, some causing huge neutral zones and some quicker ones. That’s my POV!

            1. Yup, mine too once I got over all the stumbling around 🙂
              You’ve expressed it so well, Pat. Thank you.
              And yes, there’s no doubt at all that you are a seeker.

  4. Karen, this is a great post and one I see myself coming back to, again and again. I tend to go through the “sturm und drang” internally long before making any transition, such that the actual transition itself seems easy in comparison. I wonder if retirement will be the same?


    1. I wonder, Deb. A lot of that sturm und drang is about making a good ending – your spreadsheet, your deliberations about when is the right time to go, what is the right way to leave etc. It’s in the quiet after the ending that the neutral zone comes out to play.

  5. Moving was always a big transition for me; the place I lived seemed a reflection of who I was so, as a young adult, more life-changing than a change in location would be today. Divorce was a big transition in my life. I adapted quickly because I had children to consider. Empty nest syndrome, when my daughters were both gone, was most difficult. When you focus at being good at that one job, and then it is gone, it takes a lot of stumbling around to get your bearings again. I imagine that’s what retirement is for many people who’ve worked infields they love.

    1. You’ve got it, Cindy. The challenges you faced when your daughters left are a lot like the retirement transition as described in Cusk’s quote.
      I still see where I live as a reflection of who I am, and suspect I always will. So moving, when I do it, will be a big transition. I wonder if it’s less significant for you now because you are settled and where you live is already such a reflection of you that it’s something you don’t need to think about much.

    1. Jacqui, I just retired ten months ago, and for me the two years leading up to it were difficult. I didn’t want to let go of my career, and at some level I dreaded retirement. I needed to problem-solve my way through the process to make it work for myself. As it turns out, I am finding retirement to be wonderful, and I am so glad that I retired when I did.


  6. There is a great word for this “in between” state: liminality. It’s from the Latin word, limen, meaning threshold. When you are standing on the threshold of a door, you are neither in nor out. This can be incredibly difficult. We like defined spaces, defined roles. Yesterday our elderly (93 years old) neighbor came over. She was clearly confused and in great distress over what was happening in her home. The most difficult thing for her was the changing roles. Her children were now running things. They had taken over the “parental” role that she had always had. She had raised 7 children and now they were telling her what would happen next. I felt such compassion for her. She certainly needs someone to make the decisions she can’t, but it is no less painful. I am watching my oldest fall in love and talk about marriage. I am excited for her, but afraid, too. All of these changes as we stand on the threshold, ready to leap…
    Heather Erickson Author Writer Speaker

    1. You are very thoughtful, Heather, in both senses of the word. I’m sure your neighbour and your daughter appreciate your thoughtful attention to their needs. And I appreciate your thought-provoking comment about liminality. That’s it exactly.

  7. Hi Karen,
    I have discovered some new things about myself, I am no calmer now than I ever have been, I sort of have a new identity but I still refer to my previous life although less and less frequently. I guess that means I am still in the neutral zone. Still trying to figure out if I am Canadian enough to be able to brave this weather!

    1. Hi Fran,
      You haven’t been in the neutral zone for that long – still a baby in neutral zone terms – so I’m not surprised that you’re there. But you have made some great strides in developing your new identity including your role as potter!
      This weather is just plain depressing. I expect snow at the beginning of April, not in the middle. And February had gorgeous days that tormented us with possibilities that haven’t been realized. But by this weekend, fingers crossed, it will all be gone.

  8. I’ve been retired now for nine years – for the first while, I felt as if I was playing hooky from work – but that passed. Once I realized that I was free and that I could do whatever I wanted because I was no longer restricted by my previous life, I began to really enjoy myself. Retirement for me has been great – and I highly recommend it!

  9. Thanks, Anna. It’s always good for those contemplating retirement to hear from someone who has been retired for a while and is super happy about her decision.

  10. My husband and I are a couple of years away from being empty nesters, and it will be a few more years after that before retirement. Having sent the first of our two sons to college in August, I feel that I’ve just begun to wade into the neutral zone. I try to be excited about the potential for change, but I’m also anxious because of the unknowns. Thanks for another wise, thought-provoking post, Karen!

    1. There are so many transitions in midlife, Jenny. Retirement is a big one for sure, but before that come the changes you are experiencing, like your kids leaving home and the way that affects your other relationships and the look of your days.
      I hope you’ll continue to join us as we explore these topics, Jenny. I enjoy your writing style so much and, of course, your wicked sense of humour!

  11. Interesting, Karen. I so look forward to retirement that it’s easy to mistake it for what it’s not. Your description makes perfect sense, and I can totally see it being much more a transition than an event. Probably why we hear stories of people returning to some form of work a few months in.
    Biggest life transition were the big ones for me: marriage and motherhood. Nothing remotely close to motherhood — a lifelong journey with various stages and phases we try to navigate while keeping our sanity and sense of humor. 🙂 Wonderful post. I think my mother in law (not a blogger) would enjoy reading it. I’ll mention it to her.

    1. Thank you, Silvia. I’d love it if your mother in law decided to read the post or any of Profound Journey.
      I’m not a mother, but certainly understand that motherhood must be the most incredible life transition going.

  12. I haven’t retired yet, but I anticipate no problems with retirement. There are so many thing I would like to be doing and have no time for, I can’t imagine there will be any struggle. I know I will be as busy then as I am now, the only difference is I won’t be paid 🙂

    1. I hope you’ll let us know if you still feel this way when you do retire, AJ. Even the “won’t be paid” is an enormous difference. That said, a few of the Profound Journey tribe members who have retired say that they too took to it “like a duck to water.”

      1. I’ve been volunteering for 30 years and at times my volunteering load has been huge(!). So the not being paid thing I’m used to. Add to that the fact that since kids I’ve taken jobs where I have some flexibility for work hours. This meant so my kids have always had a “stay at home mum” meaning I was (literally) sleeping between 4am and 6am so I could work through the night and during school hours.

        Pretty certain I’m going to slot into the “duck to water” category, but will let you know 🙂

        1. Gosh. In these circumstances, I imagine you’re right…and I hope you’re taking care of yourself, AJ. I hope the happy fun woman in your profile photo is how you feel most of the time.
          Thanks for following up, AJ. I’m really enjoying getting to know you a bit. I think you’re amazing.

          1. Lol, thanks Karen (might have to get you to tell my kids that sometime *grin*). I’m pretty fortunate in that I have always been a glass half full kinda person. Life’s what you make it, right?!

  13. Hi, Karen – Thank you for sharing the three indicators of when we have left the ‘neutral zone’. Retirement definitely is a transition. But without knowing signs of when that transition has come to an end, we may continue to think of ourselves as still in transition and not fully embrace the new beginning. Very provocative post!

    1. Thanks, Donna. You’re so right – I imagine that feeling of being at sea can become the norm. It’s good to know when you’re actually standing on dry land and ready for the adventures of a new beginning.

  14. Karen,
    My memoir Surviving Sanctity (available on Amazon) — is all about the transition I made from the convent to entirely new existence in my early 30s. I believe I navigated it successfully. I then navigated a transition from full-time employment to self-employment after a devastating implosion of my career (I lovingly call it my five years of failure) — and have come out the other end. I can totally identify with the three stages you outline! Thanks for sharing — and giving ‘voice’ to what can be such a complex time for so many.

    1. One of the many great things about participating in the A-Z blogging challenge, is that I now have three new books to read. I’m really looking forward to reading Surviving Sanctity, Janet. I love reading the true stories of a woman’s embrace of life’s transitions and you’ve had a few fascinating ones.

      1. Karen – thanks for your interest in Surviving Sanctity. I’m just getting into the blogging and still playing catch up on the A-Z Challenge process. I manage to get a blog posted every day and read/comment on yours — that’s about all I’ve mustered so far! Looking forward to going back to review all the great books and blogs mentioned.

  15. I read this yesterday and only now getting a chance to comment. This is so validating for me, Karen. I thought there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t go through with full retirement. It was something I dreamed of and wanted for so long! And then when I announced it, and put in my resignation, I was miserable. My transition to part-time has definitely been the right move for me. Your description of your thoughts in the neutral zone is reassuring, because I’m sure when I fully retire those thoughts will come to me, too. Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Karen!

    1. Hi Molly,
      I’m glad I could confirm that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. On the contrary, there’s a lot that is right when you make a choice, listen to yourself, and realize that it isn’t quite the right choice for you at this moment in time. There are lots of people who would feel that they had to stick by their original plan. I’m glad you weren’t one of them.
      By the way, Fran (on this site in Tribe Stories) had an entire full-time 10 year career after retiring her first time. You’re not alone.

  16. I think I completed my transition to retirement fairly quickly and can honestly say i’ve never been more content. I have always disliked “Big 0” birthdays, but I finally managed to welcome one last year. In being 60, or shall I say reaching my Diamond Jubilee, I feel I have arrived in my prime!

    1. Now there’s a great attitude, Anabel. Instead of beginning your decline you have arrived at your prime. If you don’t mind, I may just borrow that sentiment as my mantra when I turn 60 in a year and a bit.

  17. I feel like my life is full of transitions, Karen. The bigger forms are my changes in lifestyle (as in doing these things full-time) – studying – working – backpacking – RVing – sailing – RVing -sailing – house sitting. But, every house sit assignment is a smaller transition, where we adjust to new circumstances and schedules. I like these transitions. They keep me on my toes and never make life boring. I think being flexible and open to change are important personality traits to make these adjustments easily.

    1. I suspect you’re right, Liesbet. You have many, many more transitions than most people. That may explain why so few people do what you do. I’m thinking of Heather’s comment above that we like defined roles and defined spaces. You feel energized and alive when you are in transition, where others just want it to be over with!

  18. Karen, when I was on the cusp of official retirement, I read your earlier blog posts on the retirement transition. It was a real “aha” moment for me. Recognizing that it was a life changing transition rather than an event or moment in time has helped me be more patient with and curious about the process.


    1. Thank you, Jude. I’m really happy if my posts about retirement transition were helpful to you. You’ve certainly had a great first ten months of retirement so you clearly made a good ending and were ready to embrace the transition.

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