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Outside the Box

Dec. 5, 2020, 7:07 p.m. EST

Retirement can be traumatic — even when it’s happy

Bruce Feiler

Among the transitions people face in their lives, retirement often feels like the most definitive. The fact that this life change is often expected and joyful does little to reduce the emotional upheaval and lifestyle adjustment required.

Almost overnight, retirees find themselves with reduced social circles, loss of identity from work, fresh challenges in managing time, and often a relocation brought on by new and evolving needs. The pandemic has brought even more dimensions to this challenge, as today’s retirees have added stresses from being limited in their daily activities and being restricted from visiting loved ones.

But while the practical parts of this transition—those involving insurance, finances, and health—have been deeply studied by academics and often discussed in the media, the emotional and psychological aspects of this transition have been woefully ignored by researchers and reduced to little more than a punchline in popular culture.

Fortunately, there is know-how about how to manage this deeply critical aspect of entering this all-important phase of life.

I spent the last five years performing one of the biggest studies of life transitions in decades. Spurred by a string of personal crises, or “lifequakes,” as I call them, I crisscrossed the country, collecting hundreds of life stories of Americans in all 50 states who had been through wrenching life changes. These changes include losing loved ones, losing jobs, changing careers, changing religions, getting sober, getting out marriages, and, yes, reinventing yourself in retirement. With a team of 12, I then spent a year combing through these stories looking for patterns and takeaways that can help all of us survive and thrive in times of change.

What I learned is that the pace of change in contemporary life is quickening. We face three to five lifequakes in the course of our lives, and, contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t limited to birthdays that end in zero or clumped in midlife. Instead, they’re spread out in our own idiosyncratic fingerprint from birth to retirement.

Also, they take longer than we think: three to five years on average. That means we spend half our adult lives we spend in transition. You, or someone you know, is going through one now.

Here, based on my research, are four tips to make your transition to retirement a process that’s not just life-disrupting, but life-affirming, too.

People tend to have one of two reactions to entering a life transition: Either they make a 212-item to do list and try to get through it in a weekend, or they tend to feel stuck in place and collapse in a fetal position under the covers. But look at enough of these times and certain patterns begin to appear.

For starters, transitions have three phases. I call them “the long goodbye,” in which you mourn the old you; “the messy middle,” in which you shed habits and create new ones; and “the new beginning,” in which you unveil your fresh self. These phases need not happen in order. Each person tends to gravitate to the phase they’re best at (their transition superpower) and get bogged down in the one they’re weakest at (their transition kryptonite).

My advice: Start with a census of your skills. Are you excited to turn the page on your old life or struggling to adapt to the loss of status and structure? Are you looking forward to selling the old homestead and experimenting with new commitments or dreading making all these changes? Are you daydreaming about your new identity and lifestyle or fearing it? Once you identify your strengths, start there. Beginning with what you do best will allow you to gain confidence for the harder parts to come.

Retirement, like all transitions, is an emotional process. I asked everyone I interviewed the greatest emotion they struggled with during their transition. At 27 percent, fear was the most popular reaction, followed by sadness and shame.

Some people cope with these emotions by writing down their feelings; others plunge into new tasks. But nearly eight in 10 said they turned to rituals. They sang, danced, hugged, purged, tattooed, sky-dived, schvitzed. They changed their names, went to sweat lodges, got tattoos.

Following a brutal year in which she lost her job in Hollywood, had a blowup with her mother, and went on 52 first dates, Lisa Rae Rosenberg jumped out of an airplane. “I had a terrible fear of heights, and I thought, If I can figure this out, I can figure anything out.” A year later she was married with a child. Michael Mitchell, who wore sweats every day during his long career as a doctor, started wearing them to sleep once he retired as a sign that his days were now focused on his family, not his work.

Ritualistic gestures like these are especially effective during the long goodbye as they’re statements—to ourselves and to others—that we’ve gone through a change and are ready for what comes next.

One reason that saying goodbye to your old life and shedding habits you associate with that time are so important is that they make room for one of the more exciting parts of any transition: experimenting with new ways of living. In a pattern I didn’t see coming, a remarkable number of people at the bottom of their life shift turn to creativity. They start to dance, cook, paint; they write poems, thank-you notes, diary entries.

Helen Kim, who retired from teaching college biology in Alabama in the wake of her stomach cancer, fulfilled a girlhood dream by taking classes in adult ballet. Hal Eastman, whose 30-year career included stints at Boeing (NYS:BA) and Ford (NYS:F) , helming two public companies, and starting two companies of his own, abruptly stopped worked at age 55. Seeking a change, he spotted a dancer one day near his home in Idaho and asked if he could photograph her in nature. He went on to publish five books of fine art photography.

What people seem to crave from these acts is what creation has represented since the dawn of time: a fresh start.

The final phase of a life transition is the “new beginning,” and it involves the essence of getting through a time of change: Updating your personal story.

A life transition is fundamentally a narrative event, in which we revisit and revise our life story to accommodate a critical change. In this case, beginning a new time of life in which work is not at the heart. A central blessing of being alive today is that such reinventions are possible. The point of view that prevailed for centuries—that life peaks in middle age and unavoidably goes downhill from there—no longer holds true.

 Today, we not only accept such transitions, we embrace them. William James said it best a century ago, “Life is in the transitions.” Instead of viewing these periods as ones we have to grit and grind our way through, we should see them for what they are: healing periods that take the frightened parts of our lives and begin to repair them.

Don’t shield your eyes when the scary parts start; that’s when the heroes are made.

Bruce Feiler is the author of seven New York Times bestsellers, including his most recent book, Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age , from which this piece is adapted. For more information, please visit brucefeiler.com. 

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