Happy to Be Lost. Searching for a New Identity in Retirement

The last time I wrote about retirement, I was feeling pretty smug. Oh sure, I acknowledged that I was still in the neutral zone of transition–that chaotic, fluid time of possibilities. But I had ideas for three books I might write so I ended the post suggesting that I was on the verge of a new beginning and maybe coming out of the neutral zone. That post was just four months ago. Today, I’m feeling as lost as I ever was. I’m back to the drawing board, searching for a new identity in retirement.

What Do You Do?

There are two aspects to identity–how others see you, and how you see yourself. When it’s other people who are doing the looking, they tend to use what you do to determine who you are.

“What do you do?” is the standard opening gambit when meeting someone new, and a source of considerable angst for many retirees. After all, if you are working you can label and perhaps describe your job. But if you are retired, then what? Many newly retired, myself included, default to saying what we used to do because that feels more important, more valuable. The alternative just isn’t that great. Retiree Sydney Lagier explains:

“Just like when you had a job, what you ‘do’ in retirement is your new identity to the outside world. And since you actually get to pick what it is you do all day, it would seem that the answer should convey even more accurately who you truly are. So when I answer, “I blog, read, bike, garden, and knit,” I am keenly aware that this is supposed to say something about who I AM. And it just doesn’t seem good enough.”

I am still in the neutral zone because I have been focusing on what I might do (write a book) instead of who I want to be. It has taken me quite a while to realize that doing and being aren’t the same thing.

Who Are You?

‘Being’ is who you are without the work. Tara Brach offers a free guided meditation that brought this home for me. In a seven minute meditation, Tara has you visualizing yourself at some time down the road, perhaps ten years. You are to imagine where you are living, what you look like and, most importantly, what your presence, your fully evolved self is like.

I enjoyed visualizing myself as a calm, vital and wise older woman, someone who possesses what may be somewhat contradictory qualities of deep stillness and consuming passions. But I ran into difficulty imagining just what this future self would be doing all day that would allow her to demonstrate those qualities.

Getting caught up in doing is a particular problem for people like me whose identity has been wrapped exclusively in work. I’m a writer, speaker, teacher. I have never been a wife, mother, athlete, hobbyist or volunteer. If it is true that identity is like a stock portfolio where diversity offers the greatest protection, I’m in trouble.

Fortunately, I don’t see it as trouble. Instead I relish the opportunity to find out who I am without work and to forge a new identity; to be exactly who I want to be. Unfortunately…

It’s Not Easy

There are a few things that complicate the development of a new identity in retirement.

To begin with, retirement is an enormous life transition. Two years and two months into it, I’m realizing just how significant and how lengthy this transition can be. Because it is a major transition, the full gamut of emotions apply: excitement, joy, freedom, accomplishment, peace of mind, optimism, ambivalence, anxiety, boredom, restlessness, uselessness, loss, and sadness. This range of emotions can be especially difficult to deal with because many of us are feeling exhausted and worn out when we retire.

We are also feeling our age. The retirement transition is, for the majority, accompanied by a major developmental transition. Aging is still a stage of life that is neither well understood nor much appreciated.

And even if you see the post-retirement years as potentially the best, most vital years of your life (and I do!), there is the awareness of a ticking clock. It is daunting to realize that the being and doing decisions you make now may affect your sense of well-being for the rest of your life.

My Achilles Heel

My favourite songwriter, Kris Kristofferson, used to endorse the idea of the tortured artist. Kris said that his idea of a brilliant artist was someone who lived hard, died young, and left a beautiful corpse. He also ruefully acknowledged that this belief had caused him no end of grief for most of his adult life, and that he was happy to be free of it.

I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again….

Philip Roth

I have a romantic view of the writer’s life. In my mind, it is a life of complete immersion in a consuming passion; of spending days and nights absorbed in the challenge of “turning sentences around.”

The problem I have with my idealized writer’s life is twofold. First, I lived a version of this life with my first six books and it came close to killing me. Now that I no longer have the complications of frequent speaking engagements and the associated travel, I could immerse even more completely in a new book. This possibility is simultaneously alluring and chilling.

Second, I can’t reconcile consuming passion with calmness, deep stillness, wisdom, balance or any of the other wonderful qualities I’d love to develop as part of my new identity in retirement.

My desire is to learn to be passionate without becoming obsessed; to immerse without disappearing, and to forge new qualities that I have long admired. The million dollar question is, How?

How to Develop a New Identity in Retirement

Much of what I said in this post about the transition to retirement still holds true. Be as kind and compassionate toward yourself as you are toward others. Get better at stillness by spending time meditating. Allow the transition to take as long as it takes. Engage in new experiences and revisit old interests.

It is all good advice but given the difficulty I’ve been having, I decided to dig a little deeper. Here’s what else I found:

Being

  • Look into your past to help you understand your journey to this point and gain clarity for the next stage. Writing memoir is a first-class way to examine your life’s themes.
  • Realize that you have the opportunity to decide. It’s not silly to be talking about a new identity in retirement. Understand that you don’t need anyone else’s permission to make any changes you choose.
  • Friendships contribute to well-being. Seek out the company of women who are having similar experiences. I know of at least five Profound Journey tribe members who are retiring in the next couple of months, and many others who are trying to define a new way of working and being. Use this site to reduce the loneliness and isolation that comes with any significant change.
  • Stop planning and pushing. Detach from the need to control every move, and instead see where life takes you. It may be too woo woo for some, but I have been benefiting enormously from the book Outrageous Openness: Letting the Divine Take the Lead by Tosha Silver. 

Doing

Work probably gave you a sense of accomplishment, of feeling needed and valued. In retirement, it’s important to find activities that will make you feel just as good about yourself.

  • Spend time on old or new hobbies and interests. The more you immerse in activities, the more they become part of your identity. For example, spending an hour a day running on a treadmill probably won’t result in you self-identifying as a runner. However, if you join a running group, train, race and compete with them, you’re likely to see yourself as a runner.
  • Some retirees choose to work, full or part time. See the tribe story, Fran K’s Second Ending. A return to work tends to be most successful when done for the purpose of meaningful engagement, not just to stay busy. While financial concerns are often cited as a reason for returning to work, many of us just need time to adjust to a lower income (and commensurately lower expenses).
  • Volunteerism works only if it’s something you want to do. Committed volunteers experience greater psychological wellbeing than non-volunteers. However, people who are minimally to moderately engaged in volunteer work have significantly poorer psychological wellbeing than people who don’t volunteer at all. The take-away message is to delete ‘should’ from your vocabulary.

My Next Steps

I have been living my ideal day, including writing,reading, meditation and physical activity, since April 1st. It’s helping. So is writing this post. Challenging myself to put swirling thoughts and feelings into words has led to some insights that I didn’t have before I wrote.

Another book is hopefully in the stars, but not until I take more time to wait watchfully and see what emerges.

This poem by Wendell Berry summarizes the uncertainties and the pleasures of transition.

The Real Work

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

23 comments

  1. I agree. I have been retired for twenty years, but only in the last couple of years have I been able to let go of the urgency to get everything done in a predetermined time frame or to please everyone else. It is a very calming feeling when you can just say “there is always tomorrow” (we hope). Another thing I have been told many times since I retired is “it will still be there after you’re gone”. I find now these facts have led to a calmer way of living. I can still garden, go for long walks, or do what I feel like with no timeline.

    1. I am so glad you have been able to let go of that urgency and the drive to please everyone else, Gerri. To me, that is what retirement should absolutely be about…finally being able to do exactly what you want to do, and feel like doing, at any given time. After a long working life with its demands and deadlines and responsibilities, it is YOUR turn…finally. 🙂

    2. Thanks for your thoughts, Gerri. It’s always helpful to hear a perspective of retirement from someone who has been retired for a while. A calm way of living is exactly perfect in my books!

  2. This post is an encouraging and exciting one, Karen. What an enviable spot you are in now…I know this neutral zone stuff and not knowing what to say when someone asks what you do can be uncomfortable, but to be able to re-invent yourself whatever way you want to is something those with 9-5 jobs and family commitments are not able to do.
    I think your best years are most definitely still before you…look at what Grandma Moses was able to accomplish in later life and you are not that old yet! I have a sense there is a book in the stars for you – judging by how you write here on your blog you have a lot to give the literary world that does not involve educational texts. I really like your “voice”.
    I look forward to following your journey through this maze as you figure out where to go from here, it has the hanging on to the edge of your seat during an engrossing movie feels to it and I for one can’t wait to see what the next scene brings.

    1. Susan, your comment is so incredibly kind and supportive. Thank you!
      I do agree that I am in an enviable position right now. I really want to make the best possible use of this time. I’ll definitely keep you posted as the next scene begins to shape up.

  3. Many of us retired bloggers have struggled with, and written about, the best way to answer the question “What do you do?” I’ve answered – slightly tongue-in-cheek – “whatever I want,” but that’s not always a satisfying answer. In the almost three years that I’ve been retired, I can’t say that I’ve been bored. But, I’m one of those people who is perfectly comfortable just being. My husband and I are travelling a lot right now, but I know that won’t last forever – in fact, both of us have talked about the “hassles” of travel (where is the transporter machine they promised us on Star Trek?). I’m intrigued with your question “who am I?” I think I’ll put some energy towards trying to answer that question for myself.

    1. I know what you mean about never being bored, Janis. Before retiring, I remember hearing retirees saying that they don’t know how they ever had time to work. I thought that was so ridiculous…but now understand it completely.
      I like your answer to “What do you do?” I wish you an equally satisfactory answer to “Who are you?”

  4. I think the best thing about retirement for me is the fact that if I get up in the morning and don’t feel like doing anything – I don’t have to. If I want to sit around in my pajamas eating potato chips – well that’s OK too. In other words, my retirement has been liberating. But there can be an ugly side to retirement also; people who don’t have enough money to pay for food, heat, medicine, or the little joys that retirement should bring; I think that for them, retirement must become a daily struggle just to survive. I’ve been blessed, but you’re right, Karen, getting to know my retired self and building a new identity really is important. So I’ll start searching, and I’ll let you know what I find in 60 or 70 years………..

    1. Contemplating your identity while sitting around in your pajamas eating chips sounds heavenly, Anna. I just bought a bag of my favourite Ruffles BBQ chips and it’s warm enough to take Shylah outside while wearing my pajamas. The evening is getting better already!

  5. Janis stole my comment! (Or perhaps, I originally stole it from her)! The more that I experience retirement, discuss this topic with others and read about it, the more that I realize retirement truly is a unique experience for every individual. There is no rule book. No step-by-step guide.
    My husband (who everyone believed would transition most easily into retirement) has struggled with his post-work life. When people ask what he does, he says that he still works part-time (he doesn’t).
    I (who everyone believed would struggle with retirement) took to it quite naturally. I loved my job, and I had assumed that my identity was there, But, I truly haven’t looked back. Like Janis, when people ask what I ‘do”, I smile and say, ‘Whatever I like’!

    1. If you don’t mind me asking, any idea why you took to retirement so naturally, Donna? Was there some mindset you had in advance or activities you did in the earliest days of retirement that just made this transition easier for you?

      1. Hi, Karen – This really is the million dollar question! I believe that there are multiple factors in play regarding how we individually transition into retirement. I know that many people have been genuinely stunned that I have been transitioning so seamlessly into retirement. (All bets were against this!)
        My hunch is that two key factors have been at play here.
        1) I didn’t have any preplanned goals or ambitions for my retirement. When people asked me what I would do in retirement, I repeatedly answered, ‘Nothing, Glorious Nothing!’ As you follow my blog, you probably know that I don’t exactly do nothing. But having no predetermined goals has taken the pressure off and given me incredible freedom.
        2) My core personality is “all in” or “all out.” In my work life, I was definitely “all in.” In our first year of retirement, I kept any regular obligations or commitments to a minimum. As much as possible, I still keep them to a minimum. Having a loose, flexible and varied schedule has been a welcomed change after years of being ‘agenda-driven.’
        I am sure that there are other factors at play, but my best guess is that the above two ‘hunches’ have been significant factors in my retirement transition.

        1. I really appreciate your perspective, Donna. I can certainly see how having no predetermined goals could be helpful. As for the other factor, we are very similar in having “all in or all out” personalities. Most days I am loving my flexible and varied life, but sometimes I miss the “all in” that comes with big projects. I will keep reading your blog and continuing to learn from you!

  6. I am here savouring the last few weeks of my work life and eagerly anticipating retiring with the idea of doing all those things I never had time to do before. Now I read this posting with its comments, and find there might be some struggle with identity that I will have to deal with in the coming months and years. Awwww!
    Having said this I do remember the day after I retired the first time. It was a Monday and I didn’t have to go to work. I remember walking to the car thinking ok so I am no longer a principal so what am I? For me the answer at that time was that I was an educator even though I no longer went to school. I still perform that role in many ways only in different places. It could be with grandchildren, children, friends or relatives. From where I sit right now that is my viewpoint. Anyway that’s my story and sticking to it…… for now!

    1. Keep on savouring, Fran. Retirement, even with its occasional identity issues, is still heaven on earth.
      Good point that you are, and always will be, an educator. You remind me that a big part of my identity is that of learner. I’m loving learning new and different things.
      I’m so excited for you that you are retiring soon. It’s going to be awesome!

  7. Very interesting and insightful post. I am trying to recognize my mom in your transition, since she retired a couple of years ago as well. I don’t see her often, but when we talk on the phone, she always seems extremely busy! I have not noticed a new identity, per se, but she does have more time now to read, bike and walk. Her biggest contentment comes from being with her grandchildren, and my parents go on weekend trips often, which is easy and cheap in/from Belgium.

    I haven’t had a real job in fourteen years, so I don’t really identify anymore with my being a teacher. Instead, I often feel a bit lost when it comes to identity, since all I seem to be doing is move around, pet sit and write (mostly for myself). If I ever retire, I would like to read and travel more.

    1. It seems to me that you have the best of all worlds right now, Liesbet. You have a retirement lifestyle in terms of time to write and have experiences that matter to you, and you also earn some money. I understand, though, feeling a bit lost when you are moving around a lot. I’ve never done that but I have an aunt and uncle who spent many years on a boat. They absolutely loved it…until one day they just didn’t anymore. But I guess that’s one of the advantages of life – we get to make new decisions and choices anytime we feel the need.

  8. Hmm, I don’t think that I will have trouble answering the question, “What do you do?” I will just say, “I am a retired [insert name of profession].” Or I might say, “I am a writer, painter, and grandma.” Or if the person is annoying, I might say, “Just about everything under the sun. Currently I am designing a fruit and berry garden (or whatever project I happen to be doing). What do you do?” I don’t think the question will seem awkward to me.

    As for the distinction between Being and Doing, I don’t think it’s all that clear cut. I think that one gets to Being by Doing. Doing does not have to be highly productive nor remunerated (ie., worklike). The Doing can include contemplative acts like meditating, going for walks, or observing sunsets. The amount of time spent on various acts of Doing (quantitative) along with the intensity of the acts of Doing (qualitative), in combination, shape one’s Being.

    I also think that you can’t really achieve Being directly. And each of us tends to be fairly blind to our own “beingness”, although often other people who know us well can describe it.

    My final thought for tonight is that I don’t think that I will be trying to find a new identity in retirement. I will just be growing and developing identity elements that I have always had, but that maybe are a little stunted and neglected right now because work and family have taken all of my attention.

    A very thought-provoking post, Karen!

    Jude

    1. Your response is very thought-provoking too, Jude. I will be pondering it as I continue this week’s ‘Doing’ tasks which include cutting the grass, walking the dog, going on a studio tour on Saturday, writing in my journal, and sorting through the hundreds of books I have in my library and stored in Rubbermaid bins in the workshop.
      There’s no question that these Doing tasks are pleasurable at this time in my life. I’ll have to think about their connections to Being and to identity. I like your little equation – Amount of time on various acts of Doing + intensity of those acts = (or perhaps an arrow here?) Being. Lots of food for thought.
      Karen

  9. Hi. I just discovered you from your guest post over on Donna’s blog… and am so glad I did. I am still in my transition…three years into retirement. I’m still in my neutral zone and still figuring out my new identity and working on the being aspects (and not just always doing). I’m actually OK with this transition timing…I’ve always been a late bloomer, had no plan at all for retirement, and am enjoying the neutral zone (most days). I call myself a recovering work-aholic that is learning how to live! And I blog about the transition state as well (it’s the name of my blog!). I’ll be following your thinking now as well!

    1. Hi Patricia,
      Thanks so much for being here, and welcome to the tribe!
      You’re a few months ahead of me in your retirement transition. I’m hugely relieved to know that we are in a similar place and really look forward to following your journey through your blog and your comments on mine.
      It’s funny that you mentioned that you enjoy the neutral zone most days. I too have usually enjoyed it; strangely enough, in the last few weeks I find that I’m absolutely LOVING it. There’s such a great freedom to this transition time.
      Karen

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