Your Transition to Retirement is Supposed to Be Difficult

Your transition to retirement is supposed to hurt. If you are doing it right, there will be a lengthy period of chaos and loss occurring sometime in the first few years of retirement.

My fingers itch to backspace through that phrase, “If you are doing it right.” I mean no disrespect to those who will tell me that they slid into retirement like a duck into water. Rather, I am writing this post for Profound Journey tribe members like Donna, who is asking herself eighteen months post-retirement, “Am I still transitioning?” And for three tribe members who will be retiring soon and wonder how it will feel. And for another who has recently retired and is finding the experience quite difficult.

I am also writing this post for myself. I don’t know if I am retired, as in permanently finished working, but I’m sure in a heck of a major life transition after burning out and retiring from my big career in education. To all of us, I say that if we are doing it right, the transition to retirement is a rough ride.

Defining Transition

Transitions begin with a loss or an ending of some kind.  The passage from childhood to adolescence is a classic example of a developmental transition. So, for some, is a significant midlife birthday.

There are also life transitions that are not based on age. Losing your job, changing your career path, and retiring can all be times of transition.

Notice I’ve said that these events can mark the start of a transition. That’s because transition is a choice. When you get fired, stop practicing law so you can write novels, or hand in your keys to the office, you have made a change, not a transition. A change is an event. A transition is a transformation. When you make a transition, YOU are different, not just your situation.

The Three Processes of Transition

There are three parts to a transition. Think of them as phases or processes, not stages, because they overlap rather than occur sequentially. All three processes are necessary to a successful transition.

You will know a successful transition when you experience it. As Marcia Perkins-Reed, author of Thriving in Transition, writes,  a successful transition’s “lessons are clear, and the external events–as well as the inner turmoil–have calmed down, resulting in a new level of comfort with the person who is emerging….A sense of peace and internal happiness is common.” (p.93)

But before the comfort, peace and internal happiness, you need to be willing to endure the riptide of transition, starting with loss and grief.macro of caterpillar on branch


Many of us look forward to the end of irritating aspects of our job: the daily commute, mind-numbing routines, or soul-sucking office politics. We get caught up in imagining our future freedom, forgetting that our work gave us purpose, status and, often, a large part of our identity. A transition to retirement requires letting go not just of what you used to do, but of who you used to be.

It is human nature to resist endings. In fact, some people are so opposed to endings that they refuse to make them. People who retire from their jobs and then return to them on a contract basis are one example. So are those who immediately replace their work life with a crammed schedule of travel, volunteerism, or social obligations. While any of these actions may be undertaken for good reason–the need for money, the pleasures of travel, the joy of giving back to your community–check your motivations. If you look deep and find that you are running hard to fill the silences or to hang on to who you have always been, you are refusing an ending and unable to make a transition.

Refusal to make a transition to retirement means that you miss out on the disorientation, anxiety, sadness, and anger that accompanies any major loss. It also means you miss out on a prime opportunity for growth and renewal.

Neutral Zone

This phase, for me, is the crux of transition. It is, in Dickens’ immortal words, “the best of times and the worst of times.” Let’s start with the worst.macro of chrysalis

In the neutral zone, you wait and you feel awful. It is a time of internal chaos and fluidity. Author Marilyn Ferguson describes it beautifully when she writes, “It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.” 

In my transition to retirement, the neutral zone has included wild fluctuations 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. There are times when I can clearly visualize the book I’m going to write that will help thousands of people. In the next moment, I am totally incapable of stringing two sentences together and in despair that my life is without purpose and will remain so forever.  Sometimes I think I’m in good shape financially. But then again, maybe I’m on the edge of financial ruin and I should be applying for a minimum wage job at the local convenience store. The neutral zone is truly an exhausting place to be.

But the neutral zone, if you will allow it, is also the best of times. It is a time of redefinition, of creative awakening. For me, the blessings of the neutral zone come in the opportunity to read widely and see what captures my interest;  have new experiences; play with art supplies and engage in self-care activities; reflect and write in my journal and on this website. The best of the neutral zone is those moments when I am calm enough and centered enough to wait patiently and see what happens. When I do that, patterns and synchronicities reveal themselves and the neutral zone becomes a magical place of possibility.


Financial planners talk of our need for money in retirement as fitting into one of three stages:composite of five views of monarch emerging from its chyrsalis

    • Go-Go: the active years of retirement when you may be working, travelling, pursuing hobbies and interests (usually in your 50s and 60s)
    • Slow-Go: the stable years of retirement when your body is telling you to slow down a little; characterized by predictable routines (usually 70-84)
    • No-Go: the limited years of retirement; you may need support from family and government agencies (hopefully 85+)

As long as you aren’t delaying retirement until age 70, your transition to retirement will take place in the Go-Go years. Your new beginning might, therefore, take any number of different forms. You may decide to: start your own business; return to work; take on new work; volunteer; travel; pursue hobbies; check things off your bucket list, or pursue a long-deferred dream.

You might be doing exactly the things I talked about in ‘Ending’ when I suggested they were an avoidance of transition. The difference is that when beginnings come after a definite ending and time in the neutral zone, those beginnings, according to transitions expert, William Bridges, are “marked by a release of new energy in a new direction–they are the expression of a new identity.”

Although there is new energy in a beginning, this can still be a tricky time. A new beginning confirms that the ending was real, reactivating a sense of the original loss. And anxieties surface as we worry that maybe this new beginning isn’t the right path, or that we might fail.

How to Thrive, Not Just Survive, in Your Transition to Retirement

Even though your transition to retirement cannot be planned, there are actions you can take and helpful attitudes you can foster.

Know That You Are Ready to Retire (ending)

In my experience, this has very little to do with your bank account and everything to do with your gut. Sure you will need money, especially in the Go-Go years, but don’t allow yourself to chase the ever-moving goalpost of “just another year and then I will feel safe.” Instead, watch your reactions. Are you so stressed that your shoulders are always around your ears? Do you feel a deep weariness at the thought of yet another project, meeting, or trip out of town? Only you can know if these feelings are temporary or permanent, but if you pay attention, you will know. Many people, myself included, play with the idea of retirement for ages and then wake up one day with absolute clarity that the time is right.

Make a Good Ending

Do you want a party and speeches when you retire, or a quiet dinner with a few co-workers? Would you like to go on a trip right away, or spend a month in your pyjamas? Decide what a good ending looks like for you and do that. This is also the perfect time for gestures of appreciation to people who have made a positive difference to your work life. A successful transition to retirement includes an ending that puts a bow on your years of work and allows you to leave without regret.

In life it is more necessary to lose than to gain. A seed will only germinate if it dies.

Boris Pasternak

Change Your Environment (ending)

I’m a big believer in the impact of environment on thought and behaviour. For example, I had an impressive  professional library to support my research and writing. When I retired, I wasn’t sure what to do with more than 2000 books on every aspect of K-12 and adult education. Friends suggested that I keep them “just in case” but, as we know, successful transition requires an ending. I donated my entire library to the Faculty of Education of a local university. Those books were part of my identity as the “expert with the answers” so giving them away was painful. It was also necessary. My home library is now filled with books on all sorts of topics, supporting my new identity as the “curious learner.”

What needs to change in your environment? Do you need to repurpose a room as I did? To put your work clothes in storage? How might you tweak your environment to support new thoughts and behaviours, perhaps even a new identity?

Be Open to What Comes. Don’t Plan! (neutral zone)

Much of William Bridges’ seminal work dealt with managing transitions in organizations but his last book, in 2001, was a very personal account of transition during and after his wife’s battle with and eventual death from breast cancer. This lengthy quotation from The Way of Transition does a nice job of both explaining why we shouldn’t try to plan and offering reassurance that we haven’t really lost our minds while in the neutral zone.

… the chaos [of the neutral zone], that state of pure energy that is experienced either as a jumble or as a time of empty nothingness, makes us feel out of control and a little crazy. We fail to see that real new beginnings, the kind that revitalize and inaugurate a new order of things, come out of that chaotic neutral zone. Instead, we try to make a fresh start by an act of will, putting together a plan that lays out a whole sequence of actions that we will take to transform ourselves or our worlds. When the plans don’t work as we expect them to, we shake our heads sadly and conclude that either the plans themselves were defective or there was a problem with how the plans were implemented. The idea that we failed because we tried to make a change do the work of a transition doesn’t occur to us. (p.184-185)

Instead of making plans, be open to new experiences and aware of meaningful coincidences. If you feel an inexplicable desire to see a movie that normally wouldn’t appeal, go see the movie. That’s your new experience.  If you think you might be interested in a new career as a medical transcriptionist, and you strike up a conversation with a woman at the movie who happens to be a medical transcriptionist, that’s meaningful coincidence or synchronicity at work for you.

The neutral zone is the winter during which the spring’s new growth is taking shape under the earth.

William Bridges

Live the Question (neutral zone)

Medical transcription may indeed be your new calling, but be cautious. Live your questions about life purpose for a while without settling on any answer, especially not your first one. Imagine lots of possibilities, researching each one and mentally rehearsing them through creative visualization.

Develop Your Self-Awareness and Self-Understanding (neutral zone)

Access your creativity in whatever form works for you. Plant a garden, paint a picture, play the mandolin, or write a poem. Pay attention to your dreams. Journal, meditate, work with a therapist, attend a seminar, subscribe to this site! Anything and everything you do to develop your self-awareness and self-understanding will facilitate your growth.

Test Drive New Possibilities (beginning)

I began my transition to retirement at the end of March, 2015. Almost two years later I am still in the neutral butterfly on green leaf Fortunately, there are little hints that I might be emerging into a new beginning.

I love to write. For almost two years, I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for a book about something other than education. Zip, nada, nothing. Since starting this website, I’ve had three book ideas. Honestly, I did not expect that. I’m a “make elaborate plans, jump in the deep end, go big or go home” kind of woman. Test driving possibilities is not my style.

But, while feeling desperate in the neutral zone, I decided to start this Profound Journey site. I wasn’t test driving anything. I simply wanted a place where I could talk about all of the aspects of transition. Now it turns out that by exploring new ideas and writing a few posts each week, book ideas are percolating. I am feeling a burst of new energy, a whole lot of excitement and, inevitably, some major anxiety. If a new beginning really is just around the corner, count on me updating this post with more suggestions for beginning.

What questions do you have about transitions in general or the transition to retirement in particular?  Your questions will help me plan future posts. Thoughts, opinions, and your experiences with life transitions are also, as always, most welcome and much appreciated. 






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  1. I am not sure how much I can add to the topic of transitioning to retirement since I have been on disability for many years and have nothing to really retire from. This was a really interesting article to read and I have learned a lot, once again, so thank you for that Karen.

    I remember when Dad “retired” and he would just open up another company or take up a hobby and turn that into a business. There simply was no slowing that man down. I think he would be classified as someone who refused endings. He was a textbook workaholic that knew no other way of being. I loved him so how he handled retirement or rather didn’t handle it didn’t really matter.

    1. Hi Susan,
      I wonder if, as this topic percolates in your brain, you might think of a life transition where you spent some time in the neutral zone before making a new beginning. My experience is that transition applies to many aspects of our lives. That said, I know what you mean about people who go from one thing to the next. Those people would probably say that they aren’t interested in endings. They have so many ideas that they just want to keep on keeping on, with nary a pause. I’m quite fascinated with transitions theory and would love to learn more about the role that personality, or even gender, plays in whether or not we make transitions.
      Thanks for your comment.

      1. Hi Karen,
        I am trying to think of a time when I was in the neutral zone I feel like I have been experiencing life going from one thing to another without ever being in a neutral zone where I was unsure of what to do next. I will have to do some more thinking on the subject. Thanks for writing about this interesting subject and in the midst of your neutral zone starting this fabulous website! 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed this post Karen. So often I find myself in the neutral zone, I haven’t worked for ten years. It can apply to any transition. I am someone who based my self on what others thought and told me. In the last couple of years life took me on a journey of finding out who I am, I spend much time in the neutral zone, I know it is a good place to be. But, I struggle with it. My husband retired a year ago, he went back on contract. The time he was off threw me into a big panic, another transition for myself as well as trying to cope with his.
    I appreciate your honesty and your sense of humour.

    1. I completely agree, Donna. There are many transitions in life, and every one of them can put us into that uncomfortable soupy mess called the neutral zone. There are so many things I wonder about the neutral zone. Is the time and struggle spent in the zone worthwhile at the end? I’m banking on that! And is the neutral zone perhaps worse for women who, more than men, are in a caregiving role and therefore have to deal with their spouse’s transition as well as their own?
      I’m really keen to learn more about all of this. Your experiences help. Thanks for sharing.

      1. I wonder too whether the time spent in this neutral zone is worthwhile at the end. Then I have moments of such clarity in my process that I know it is. Haha, I said moments!! I will look forward to more posts.

  3. Great post Karen. I retired almost eight years ago from a very busy and interesting job. I knew it was time when I woke up one morning, put my feet on the floor and thought “enough”. I handed in my papers that day. At first, as you pointed out, everything was rather odd; I felt as if I was playing hooky from my job. But time makes a difference. It took me a while, but I finally got rid of all those business suits and high heel shoes and started looking around for something fulfilling to do. Even now, all these years later, I’m not sure I’ve discovered where or what I’m supposed to be, but the sense of liberation is wonderful. If I wake in the morning and the weather is nasty, I don’t have to go out if I don’t want to, and if I want to get in my car and drive for hours, I do it – simply because I can. Someone told me that retirees go through the seven stages of grief with self fulfillment being the final stage – no matter what that is. As always, you’ve given me something to think about and I do appreciate it!

    1. I’ve read about the seven stages of grief for retirees. I need to read more because I’m not so sure I buy that theory. I think self-fulfillment is elusive and hard won. I think there are lots of people, perhaps even a majority of people, who never get there. A sad comment, I know. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. I shall research and find out!
      I love your comment about putting your feet on the floor and thinking ‘enough.’ It’s a perfect description of how many of us just KNOW when it’s time. What matters, I think, is that we don’t try to talk ourselves out of what we know and try to hang on for more money. I’ve heard burnout described as what happens when you get to the end of a road, know it, but keep going. That’s what I did and, believe me, no one would want what comes of hanging on too long!
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Anna.

  4. I love your strategies for thriving during retirement transition and believe that they are all very valid. For anyone considering retirement, or in the process of transitioning, I believe that these strategies are essential reading.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Hi Karen
    I love this article! I have enjoyed your site, and I’m sorry to just be ‘showing up’ by responding now. Having read William Bridges book a couple of years ago, as I transitioned through cancer, I found his ideas transformational! I love how you have articulated both the unknowing and the possibilities of this time. We have been in transition since returning to Ontario about 6 months ago – learning how to ‘be’ at home, when home and everything around it has shifted! It is a fascinating time – a great time to be curious, and at times overwhelmed… We have settled in, as of yesterday, to Phoenix for a month – more exploration and trial in this phase of transition! As I work coaching leaders in organizations, I am also struck by the amount of transformation required within our work places due to the pace that exists in our world today.

    Thanks for your ongoing work to help the rest of us to see more deeply and understand more fully, the journey which is ours.

    PS – not surprised that ideas for books are emerging for you – excited by those possibilities too 🙂

    1. Hi Heather,
      It’s so good to see you here, my friend! No worries at all about timing. One of the many things I’m learning right now is that things happen when and as they are supposed to.

      Enjoy your time in Phoenix. Another member of the Profound Journey tribe is heading to Sedona soon. Apparently it is a magical place, a place of great beauty and energy. Hopefully you will have the opportunity to explore many places in Arizona…more fodder for this time where, I imagine, you have pieces of all three processes of transition happening all at once.

      Thanks so much for your comment, Heather.

  6. Karen, your description of the transition process really speaks to me. I have been tip-toeing toward retirement for a couple of years. First I reached the point of burnout in my administrator position (and thank-you for your burnout video — I watched it with tears of recognition). Then I broke a bone and was on crutches for four months, but still working twelve hour days. It was only when the doctor told me that the bone was failing to heal that I realized I needed to make a big change in my life. So in January 2016, I gave notice that I would be stepping down from my leadership position. (The foot did eventually heal.)

    Since July 2016, I have been on leave. I have looked at the leave as a “trial retirement.” I also have been researching every aspect of retirement. Then, suddenly, in mid-January, one day I knew it was time. I spoke with my supervisor the next day, and submitted my retirement letter two weeks ago.

    Despite knowing in my gut that it is time, and being able to come up with a long list of reasons as to why this is a good decision, I am still having moments of grieving the identity that I will lose. I spend most of my time in the neutral zone — that is, kind of disoriented and confused!

    I am so glad that I found your blog via Donna’s blog, Retirement Reflections:
    and I look forward to reading through your posts.


    1. Jude, thanks so much for writing. I have heard of you from Donna and look forward to following your posts. I’ll subscribe as soon as I finish this message.

      Our experiences are so similar in terms of how we handled our work, the eventual burnout and, of course, the neutral zone. Expect your neutral zone to last a long time, Jude. Dealing with it is a big part of what Profound Journey is all about, but I also highly recommend William Bridges’ book The Way of Transition for additional reassurance and inspiration to stay the course.

      I look forward to future conversations, Jude.

  7. Maybe I did something wrong, but I was one of those “ducks to water” retirees. I do miss a few things (the social network that work provides is probably what I miss most), but the good has outweighed the bad in so many ways. I was out with my husband today, enjoying a warm, sunny day not crowded by tourists or kids out of school, and I thought how much I relish the freedom that we have.

    I am glad I found your blog, Karen (I popped over from Dr. Socks, who I connect with from Donna’s blog). It’s great to discover others who are on the same journey.

    1. Hi Janis, I’m so delighted that you’re here! Thank you.
      I’d love to talk with you more about your ‘duck to water’ transition to retirement. I’d love to figure out what makes the experience so different for different people.
      I’ll check out your site. It’s so terrific to find so many connections through Donna and Jude (Dr. Sock).

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