Retirement can trigger a complex range of emotions, including fear and depression.
For some people, retirement planning conjures up images of languid days free from the demands of the daily grind, but for others the prospect of leaving the workforce may be a daunting or even frightening transition.
For most, this major milestone will elicit a mixture of emotions that fall somewhere between anticipation and apprehension. Retirement is, in fact, a complex experience for almost everyone, characterized by gains and losses and tremendous shifts in identity and routines.
"Unless those challenges are addressed and dealt with, the so-called 'golden years' can be tarnished," says Irene Deitch, PhD, psychologist and professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. "Even those who may have thought they were prepared can find that the transition is tougher once they're actually in the throes of it."
Understanding the common hurdles of retirement — and how to overcome them — can be essential to making your retirement happy, fulfilling, and truly one of the best times of your life.
Emotional Pitfalls of Retirement:
- Who am I? "We often identify ourselves by what we do — 'I am a professor,' 'I am a painter,' 'I work on an assembly line,' or what have you," says Nancy K. Schlossberg, EdD, author of Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life. "The loss of an identity tag can be extremely disconcerting for many people."
- Loss of the work-world routines. We get used to going to work and seeing people who are part of that world (even the annoying colleague). Not having a place to go or a workplace to check in with can also lead to a sense of loss of both a social network and of organization, and can leave one feeling somewhat "lost at sea," says Dr. Schlossberg.
- Relationship shifts at home. Retirement, like getting married or having children, can exacerbate any fissures in a relationship, notes Dr. Deitch. "When one or both partners are at work, there is a natural division of personal space. Suddenly being together 24 hours a day, seven days a week can be incredibly disruptive."
- Sense of mortality. Retirement can serve as a reminder that you're closer to the end of your life. Even if that end is realistically 20, 30, or more years away, just entering retirement can trigger feelings of "What will I lose next?"
- Shake-up of self-esteem. If the retirement was under strained circumstances — being eased out, pressured to retire, or even fired — the loss of a job can be felt much more acutely and can lead to feelings of inadequacy, diminished self-esteem, and depression.
How to Transition Into Retirement
Once you've identified the roadblocks that are preventing you from making the most of your retirement, try these tips to create a new life for yourself that's as stimulating and joyful as you want it to be.
- First, give yourself some time. Understand that this will be a process. Your transition into retirement won't happen overnight, and your emotions may shift from one day to the next.
- Assess your resources. Consider the things you turned to during other periods of change in your life, says Schlossberg. To help you identify ways to cope with your transition into retirement, ask yourself three questions: Can I change what's challenging me? If not, can I change the way I see it? And finally, can I reduce my stress level through meditation, exercise, therapy, etc.? This will help you target areas that need work.
- Build your psychological portfolio. "We ready our financial portfolios but forget about our 'psychological portfolios,' which includes our identity, our relationships, and our need for a sense of purpose," says Schlossberg. Craft a new identity by imagining what you'd put on your new business card: World traveler? Gardener? Artist? Then build a new routine, whether it's a daily trip to the local coffee shop or a walk with a friend.
- Maintain friendships. Numerous studies have shown that friendship — even if it's just with one confidant — reduces stress, says Deitch. Make it a point to connect regularly with friends, and join groups or take classes in subjects you're interested in, which will lead to new friends. Men may especially find this helpful since they tend to form alliances based on shared interests and activities rather than relationships.
- Exercise. Not only will getting active increase mood-boosting, stress-relieving chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin, it'll also increase your overall health and help ward off illnesses.
- Make a mission statement. Write down a list of things you want to do and things you regret not doing and then identify ways you can achieve those goals.
- Find your path. As you consider your options, think about whether you want to spend your free time doing something similar to what you did in your job, or if you want to try something wholly different. Exploring something you've never done before can be a great way to stimulate your mind and make new friends.
- If nothing is working, seek help. No matter what you choose to do with your time in retirement, say experts, try to get involved and stay involved. Being inactive and feeling lethargic and depressed are signs that you may need to seek advice from a mental-health professional.Keeping a positive attitude about what tomorrow may bring, even if you feel down today, can also be a big help.