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:
- 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.
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.”