To Retire or Not to Retire.
(Adapted from The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul - September, 2021 - by Connie Zweig, Ph.D.) I trained as a depth psychologist and spent my career exploring and writing about the shadow, a name for the personal unconscious coined by Carl Jung.
When I approached my late sixties and began to feel disoriented about retiring from clinical practice, I discovered that there was no literature to guide me.
So, I began a long walk to become an Elder and to guide others with a new book.
Retirement is a term that is loaded with unconscious feelings and fantasies, much like a Rorschach test. We project our fears and dreads onto it. And we project our unfulfilled wishes and dreams onto it too.
If we remain in denial and keep on doing what we’ve always done, holding onto past identities, worn-out patterns, and empty meanings, we allow our fears of change to keep us from changing. And we will collude with a hyper, manic culture that values only human doing, not human being.
On the other hand, if we eagerly imagine that the end of work makes all our wishes come true -- having enough money to feel carefree, traveling the world, learning new things – we are also projecting onto retirement, and in denial of potential financial limits, health crises, family needs, and emotional loss.
As we ask ourselves whether to retire or not, perhaps over years of transition, many quiet voices will arise: “I am a CEO. I am a teacher. I am a Mom. I am a writer. I am a businessman. I am a nurse.”
“Who am I if I’m not . . . .?” “If I don’t work until I drop, I’ll be no one. Worthless, invisible.”
If we learn to meditate and quiet our minds, other whispers can be heard too: “I will have more time to follow my own flow,.” “I can return to the creative dreams that I put aside to support the family.” “I can become more engaged in that charity that I love.”
In this way, turning within and using self-observation, we can engage in shadow-work for retirement. We can start to orient toward our inner lives and notice those parts of us that are unconsciously refusing the call to retire or romanticizing the call.
“I’m afraid of the unstructured time,” we say. “I’m afraid of giving up the income. I’m afraid of feeling irrelevant and purposeless.” “I’ll sail around the world.” “I’ll read all day long."
If we listen even more closely, we may hear, “I’m afraid that retirement means the end, death around the corner.” This sudden encounter with mortality awareness often arises with thoughts of retirement.
Perhaps you can allow this awareness to lead you to a deeper question: “If I don’t stop working, will I die with regret? Retirement can feel like walking a tight wire without a net. But it’s actually a rite of passage with three stages: letting go, entering liminal space, and emerging anew. And this rite requires inner work.
The first step is letting go of our identity as a role. The ego is unconsciously identified with our roles, achievements, and self-image. But if we don’t make a shift from midlife heroic values of action and success to more reflective late-life values of inner work, self-care, service, and compassion, we will not cross the threshold of retirement to become an Elder.
My client George, now 73, continued to manage daily operations of his insurance firm. Although he was bone-tired and missing time with his grandkids, he didn’t want to slow down or retire. He told me that both his grandfather and his father became useless in retirement. “Grandpa watched TV all day and basically bossed around Grandma. My dad seemed sad and useless after he stopped working too. So, I don’t think I ever will.”
George came to see that the men in his family were not merely negative role models for retirement. He held an unconscious image of his Grandfather sitting in a rocker, watching TV, which I call a shadow character. So, he was unable to switch gears himself and move toward letting go, because he believed, unconsciously, that people in retirement were “useless” to others and to society. “When men are no longer providers, who are we?” he asked.
I told him that researchers linked subjects’ (age 70-79) health issues to their feelings of usefulness to others. Those who felt useless were more likely to become disabled or to die during the research period. So, the subjective feeling of usefulness shapes health in older adults. With that news, George understood that his shadow character was defending him against feeling useless by continuing to push him to work. By unknowingly using that strategy, he failed to let go and enter liminal space. He failed to enjoy a new rhythm, explore the dreams he had left behind, and make a shift in identity from role to soul.
Gradually, he made time to help his grandchildren learn to read, which opened a new avenue of usefulness. On a whim, he enrolled in a watercolor class and, to his surprise, became captivated. The decision to work part-time followed. When it became clear that the Vice President could replace him, he retired. And the “useless retiree” shadow receded. “I feel a sense of freedom that I didn’t know was possible,” he said. “When I’m painting, I’m doing something that I didn’t know I’ve always wanted to do.”
George let go of his role slowly and managed his liminal time, rather than allowing himself to feel lost. But he emerged renewed, with a passion as a painter.
Retirement can serve as a messenger that carries us across a threshold — or it can be denied. It can be a call that ends the hero’s journey and launches a new stage of life as an Elder — or it can go unheeded.
Connie Zweig, Ph.D., is author of “Meeting the Shadow,” “Romancing the Shadow,” “Meeting the Shadow of Spirituality,” and the new book about shadow and spirituality in later life, “The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul” (Sept. 2021), available on pre-order. You can read blog excerpts here.