To Retire or Not to Retire?
A retired therapist on using your conflicting voices to guide you to a decision
Crossing the threshold into retirement can feel like a high-wire act without a net. As a retired therapist, I can tell you that during this transition, whether we are retiring or rewiring, feeling disoriented or purposeful, most of us have moments of fear, confusion and conflicting inner voices.
You might hear voices like these:
“I wonder what else I could do with my time?/I wonder what I need to stop doing?”
“I want to continue to be productive./I want to slow down.”
“I think I should do more./I think should do less.”
“I need to earn more money./I can downsize and live on less.”
“I want to keep working to feel relevant./I want to stop working to try something new.”
Sources of Inner Conflict on Whether to Retire
Which voices do we validate? Which voices do we ignore?
I suggest that the sources of our inner conflict around retirement reside in a blind spot, outside of awareness. (In psychology, we call this the unconscious mind, or Shadow.) When we learn how to see the unconscious sources of our conflict, the call to retire can lead us to a deeper awareness and a different kind of calling.
After interviewing hundreds of people about this struggle for a book I’m now writing — The Reinvention of Age: How to Cross the Threshold from Role to Soul — I came to see that my personal story of struggling with the inner voices around retirement is a common one. (I realize many boomers can’t afford to retire. So, I acknowledge my privilege even to have this opportunity to let go of my income as my husband continues working.)
When I entered my 68th year of life experience, two years ago, I noticed a restlessness that I had felt earlier in life at the end of one cycle and at the beginning of another.
What My Inner Voices Were Saying
After decades of exploring and teaching Shadow-work, I had learned how to attune to my inner voices. So, I stopped and listened. This allowed me to detect my deeper yearnings in the hidden dimension of retirement: the call to change my life, my resistance to the call and the promises of heeding the call.
I heard inside my mind a choir of dissension.
Like many boomers, I had found meaning and even love through my work. So, one part of me wanted to continue to do what I had always done: push hard to be productive so that I could enjoy a feeling of well-being at the end of the day.
But another part wanted to leap into the unknown, letting go of old roles until a new beginning emerged.
What stopped me initially from taking the leap?
Fearing Traditional Retirement
My fears of life after work were shaped, even unconsciously, by watching my father’s forced retirement in his 50s. Rather than taking an entrepreneurial initiative, engaging in volunteer work or launching creative projects, he spent his days playing bridge and going to lunch.
My mother and grandparents provided no role models of wise elders either.
So, my internal images of late life were ageist: useless, irrelevant, dependent and unhappy. Those were my associations to retirement. They’re what stopped me from stopping.
My 'Inner Ageist'
I began to call this part of me that resisted the transition “my inner ageist.” But another part of me knew that I was a child of the 1960s and 70s . We boomers reinvented everything, from music to work to relationships to parenting to health care to spirituality. So, my retirement would not be my father’s retirement. I could reinvent that too!
These kinds of life transitions demand that we change more than our roles or activities. When we step across a threshold to become an adult, change careers, marry or have children, divorce or suffer a serious illness, we step into a new life pattern. In late life, this is not a conscious process, though; our society doesn’t offer adult rites of passage to become elders.
With retirement, this shift occurs when our roles and responsibilities fall away, the structure of our day dissolves and the people who formed our teams and work families go on without us.
At a deeper level, the ego’s lifelong identity of do-er is shattered and a primary source of meaning and purpose is lost.
Who Are We Beyond Work?
How do we explore who we are beyond work? How do we uncover the unconscious material that erupts around losing our roles? And how do we overcome the denial, resistance and distraction that arises with this change?
To answer those questions, I began to pose to myself these tough inner questions (and I suggest you ask yourself them, too, if you are struggling to decide whether to retire):
What is the role that no longer serves me? How is my identity tied to that role? Who am I if I am not that role? What has been sacrificed during my career to maintain that role? What is my fantasy of the future? Am I drawn to serve others? Am I drawn to a spiritual or contemplative practice? What stops me from engaging in service or meditation?
An Incomplete Legacy
With those questions posed, I knew that my legacy was not complete. I also knew that, if I needed to tackle these questions, others did too.
So, I decided to write The Reinvention of Age to continue guiding readers in ways I have done through my earlier books. In this one, I hope to help them orient more deeply to their inner worlds in this challenging and promising stage of life. My goal: to guide other boomers past their denial and fears, to reimagine age for themselves.
And, in this way, I reinvented my retirement.
I now hope to contribute without the internal pressure of the do-er driving me from within. It’s my intention to write and teach for as long as I can. But I will release old roles and responsibilities. And I will find a new rhythm for this stage of life.
Now, two years after I first struggled with the idea of whether to retire, I wake up each morning, breathing into the open space and looking around in wonder.