The Retirement Paradox

This former federal employee found that adjusting to retirement was a bigger adjustment than expected. She writes that a retiree goes through stages and most do not recognize the impact that leaving a lifetime career will have on your life.

On January 3, 2004, I closed the door on my life as the Deputy Director of the Office for Civil Rights and the job that had structured my 50+ hour work weeks for two and half decades.

Two short weeks later, I stared down at Chicago from a plane headed for Palm Springs.  The journey across country and into the vast wilderness of my new life had begun.

The desert seemed the perfect place to begin living my dreams. My new routine emerged easily. Sipping my coffee leisurely, I gazed out across the balcony of a rented condo and watched the foothills gradually turn from a dark formless mass into shades of black, brown, and green as the sun moved over the chocolate mountains. Hummingbirds buzzed in the palm trees a few feet away.  At night, the desert sky was black, lit only by the moon and brilliant stars. The early morning air was brisk, but by 10 a.m. it was too warm for a jacket.  Not bad for February. My pale winter face freckled and turned coppery. I slowed down.

Less than two months later on a bone-chilling Chicago day in the cruelest month, I met my former boss for lunch.  “You look relaxed,” she observed.  “Do you miss work?”  “No,” I blurted out too quickly.  Something had shifted since I’d returned from the desert.  But I couldn’t name it.

Before I retired, I’d thought I would have world enough and time to do everything I had dreamed about doing once I was no longer confined by a job. But after my retirement honeymoon in Palm Springs, suddenly time seemed to slip through my fingers.  I’d be at my desk by 8 a.m., checking e-mail and reviewing my “to do” list, which kept getting longer. Just like other retirees, I’d brag to anyone who would listen:  “It’s hard to believe.  I’m busier now than when I was working.” But this busy schedule only heightened the hollow feeling inside.

Looking back, I now see that the Type A trait that had made me a successful manager wasn’t suited to my new life. I didn’t have to get up early any more. I didn’t even have to get dressed if I didn’t want to. Of course, that was part of the problem. Now I had to structure my day and nameless anxiety drove me to keep busy.

Between my dream about retirement and the reality of the first six months of my freedom lay a vast wilderness.  I missed the anchor of my old position. I’d spent over two decades perfecting my answer to “What do you do?” Now I no longer knew how to answer that question when I met someone new. I grieved even though I didn’t understand what I was mourning.

Nine months after my retirement, I was still not willing to admit I missed work. I had spent the better part of 25 years with my former boss and the five team leaders who had reported to me. They were conscientious and clever. I counted only a few of them as friends, but we had lived through the passages of life together:  weddings, births, deaths. I had watched Rhonda flower after her second marriage to Obie. I had listened to Madonna’s stories about Teresa who it seemed grew from a cuddly baby into a young woman overnight. I had hugged Algis as we mourned the death of his wife Rima after her two-year battle with ovarian cancer. We were family; I missed them.

I also missed a room of my own. I resented sharing the computer with my partner. “Damm it, when will you be done?” I yelled. “Don’t you know I have to get my e-mail.” It was my office after all, I thought.  I was confused by these angry outbursts and my exhaustion. I’d drag myself to bed at night only to wake up in less than an hour, my mind racing.  My neck muscles got tighter and tighter.

Heading toward the holidays and eleven months into retirement, I felt I was coming unglued. Then I gave a speech at the Department’s Toastmasters Club entitled “The Truth about Retirement.” It was a reflection on how difficult the first year of my retirement had been.  Giving voice to my confusion opened the flood gates. Talking was therapeutic.

One of my former colleagues cornered me after my speech and suggested the new round of pre-retirement seminars ought to include a focus on the emotional adjustments I had just talked about. Listening to Tom, I saw a new beginning. My bumpy ride in the first year of my retirement would serve as a road map of the transition terrain for those who would follow me.

I recalled an article about retirement coaching I’d read a few months earlier. One of the books the author recommended was William Bridges’ Managing Transitions:  Making the Most of Change.  Bridges’ message struck a chord. The last year I’d simply been going through the transition that has, according to Bridges, three phases:  first is the ending, letting go, loss; next the neutral zone; and finally, the new beginning.

In Phase One, I’d ended my career. I signed the retirement papers and walked out the door of my office on January 3, 2004.  Walking out the door was the change. Like the driver I had been at work, I wanted to get immediately to my new beginning.  But that’s not how transition works. It’s a paradox that most of us don’t grasp until after we’ve found our way out of the maze. I had to let go and mourn my losses before I could begin anew. In retrospect, I realize I didn’t have an inkling that work filled so many human needs—identity, meaning, and community. I was too focused on the open door and all the exciting things I would do once I crossed the threshold.

In Phase Two, I’d experienced sleepless nights, angry outbursts, silent sobbing:  the emotional tumult that Bridges calls the “neutral zone.”  His metaphor for phase two—”the emotional wilderness”—captures more fully its juicy texture.

I learned every nook and cranny of its terrain. Luckily, I kept putting one foot in front of the other. Good thing because I learned from Bridges that any quick fix to ease the pain we experience in this dark wood short circuits the psychological adjustment, preventing us from making it across the chasm to Phase Three, the new beginning.

In Phase Three, I settled down and regained my voice. I forged a new identity and found a new purpose. I’m as happy as I’d envisioned yet know that aging will present new challenges in my future.

So now you know what I learned the hard way: retirement is a profound transition. It’s natural to want to jump right into your new beginning, but remember that any major change presents a paradox. You must let go before you can move forward. Your emotional adjustment will be as individual as your thumb print. Your retirement transition may even feel like a second adolescence, and, if you reflect for a moment, you’ll remember how messy that was. It’s normal to feel extravagantly happy and then unexpectedly disoriented.

But if you surrender to the process and allow yourself to experience fully all three stages of transition, a path will emerge and you will walk confidently into your new life.

A Trained Retirement Coach and former employee of the U.S. Department of Education, Karen H. Vierneisel is an entertaining storyteller and speaker.  She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and her retirement coaching credentials from Retirement Options.