When I retired at the age of 63 I thought I was well prepared for this new stage of life. I sold the company I had founded and managed for 25 years, and at long last achieved financial security.
But it came as a shock to me when I discovered that I was not really prepared for my retirement on an emotional level. It should not have come as a surprise considering that I lived my life in a very intense and structured way for 35 years and then one day all that familiar structure and mental stimulation were gone. As a result I began experiencing intense irritability and emotional stress. It seemed to get worse over time and I realized that I needed to get to the bottom of my problem, and quick.
Why didn’t anyone warn me that retirement often requires a major psychological adjustment on the same level as the death of a loved one or a bitter divorce? When I began asking friends and acquaintances if they had experienced this problem, I learned to my great surprise that many of them had suffered through a very difficult and painful period after retirement, particularly if the termination of their employment had not been of their own choosing but that of their employer.
I also learned that most were embarrassed to talk about it because, in most people’s minds, retirement is supposed to be a glorious time of freedom from stress and the normal demands of life. This can also be a very dangerous time for many people because they become susceptible to making life-altering mistakes in order to alleviate stress, such as selling their house and moving to a new location, buying a second home, making poor investments, divorce, or self medicating with alcohol or drugs.
As I continued to search for the source of my problem I began talking to more and more people about how they experienced their transition to retirement. I discovered that most of those who had encountered the greatest difficulty had very successful careers and suffered from achievement addiction. During their careers they received a great deal of positive rewards (monetary and emotional) because they were very good at their jobs. Over the years they began to need this positive feedback as an essential aspect of their existence.
In effect, a large part of their identities were job-related. They defined themselves by what they did, not who they were as people. So for them retirement represented a subconscious loss of their sense of self.
I immediately realized that this was the primary cause of my emotional distress. A very large part of my identity was being the CEO and chairman of the company I founded. I saw everything from the prism of the business and what I needed to do to ensure its success. Over time my very identity became infused with the role I played running the business. I did not see myself as a person independent from what I did for a living — it had defined me.
It is not a stretch to realize the magnitude of this challenge. It requires a redefinition of the self, but also a rediscovery of the very essence or core of one’s being. For many, retirement is a time for personal growth that becomes the path to greater personal freedom.
Here are five steps you can take to help you successfully transition into retirement:
#b#Know your personality type#/b#. The very personality characteristics that supported your career success can work against you in retirement. If you tend to be a perfectionist or a dominant personality, you are more likely to encounter emotional and marital problems when you retire. The greater your self-understanding the more you will be able to modulate self-defeating behavioral tendencies.
#b#Find activities that are an expression of your unique personality type#/b#. One size does not fit all in retirement. Your unique personality determines those things that bring positive energy into your life. If you can identify those activities that feel natural and pleasurable, you will start down a path that brings joy to yourself and others.
#b#Have someone you can talk to#/b#. In the event you encounter strong negative emotions after your retirement, you will need someone who will listen attentively while you share your feelings. There is absolutely no substitute for a spouse or close personal friend who will support you and help you through this stressful period. If no one is available, then counseling may be the best course of action.
#b#Make no major decisions during the adjustment period#/b#. People who suffer adjustment problems after their retirement often make poor decisions in an attempt to cope with their negative feelings. No major decisions should be made until a new and healthy equilibrium has been established.
#b#Make sure your personal beliefs support your happiness#/b#. Many people feel that their lives are over once they retire. As Malcolm Forbes said, “Retirement kills more people than hard work ever did.” It is essential that you possess a positive mental outlook. This may be a core set of spiritual beliefs or simply a sense that life is supportive of your inner most desires. These beliefs function as scaffolding that will support your transition.
Retirement sets in motion a psychological reconciliation and accommodation process that is natural and life supporting. Give this process time to work. It can take as long as three years to completely adjust to your retirement. Be patient and know that a new life is awakening within you.
Robert Delamontagne is founder and retired chairman of EduNeering Inc. (now Kaplan EduNeering) 202 Carnegie Center. He earned his Ph..D. in educational psychology from Georgia State University. His personal journey and struggle with retirement provided the inspiration for his recently released book “The Retiring Mind: How to Make the Psychological Transition to Retirement” (www.theretiringmind.com). He lives in New Hope, PA, with his wife, Sherrilyn.