I wrote in a recent blog that I intended to start writing blogs, about one a month, about the kind of problems (call them challenges or even opportunities if you so wish) we retirees might typically experience. So this is the first of what I hope will be a series and the idea is that, by writing this type of blog, it will address for me that missing aspect of my retirement that analysis of my career provided, i.e. being helpful. It’s quite possible that this won’t happen but at least I am trying to fill the gap in my retirement life. In this first blog of, what might be called, retirement advice, I’ve decided to tackle the topic of having no tribe to which one belongs. It is about that feeling that some retired people have that they don’t belong to a group. A quick search of the internet and you get an idea of how important belonging is and the image above is a good example of this. For many of us work, as well as meeting a number of other needs, gave us a sense of identity based on belonging to a group and then, at a stroke, when we retire, we are on our own. We have no tribe.
I have written about this aspect of retirement before and I was prompted to start with this particular topic when I came across this passage in the excellent Deep South by Paul Theroux. He’s writing about the University of Alabama football team, the As and particularly about the tribal loyalty of their fans and how this sense of belonging to the group bolstered their self-esteem. Again, self-esteem in retirement is an area I have written about (and will no doubt write again) before, so relating self-esteem to a sense of belonging is an important connection in terms of this blog. Theroux refers to the work of British psychologist Henri Tajfel who proposed the concept of ‘social identity theory’. Tajfel wrote that the groups to which people belonged were ‘an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.’ For the retired person you might even say a sense of belonging to the world, full stop.
Even though, in my particular work, it was quite rare latterly to meet with colleagues on a regular basis, for many of us each day as we enter the office we, subconsciously or otherwise, see before us our group, our tribe, the people who are like us (in some way), through whom we develop our sense of identity. Of course this isn’t always a positive experience. It may be that some of us hated our work colleagues but, like them or not, like family they were there and we were a part of them and, whether we wanted it or not, this was our group. Again like it nor not when they were no longer there, it left a gap in our lives. A vacuum and, as we know, nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum but the question is what rushes in to fill the vacuum when we retire?
If we are not thoughtful about our retirements, about what we find fulfilling, it is possible that what fills the void are a number of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. We feel lost, we wonder what we are supposed to be doing, we miss the company, even of those people we didn’t, at the time, much care for. We feel worthless and our self-esteem takes a nose dive. All the things, perhaps that we really didn’t have as much time to think about when we were working. Our job was simply to get on with it, do the job, so less time for reflection, particularly negative reflections.
So then the question is, what to do about this specific aspect of retirement? How do we deal with the potential loss of self-esteem associated with not belonging to a group? The first, most important action is to recognise the dangers for you in this loss of group identity. It may be if we are unaware of this little pitfall of retirement that we have this vague sense of unease and dissatisfaction, we feel negative about our retirement without fully understanding why. This free-floating anxiety as it is sometimes known, can be quite pernicious, undermining of our retirement happiness. So, point one, take some time to consider whether you are the kind of retiree who needs that sense of belonging to a group. It is nothing to be ashamed of as needs met by work go, but we need to be accepting of it.
Step two seems obvious, if you have this need then join a group of some kind. You have to be a little cautious when taking this, what seems like an common sense, step. Desperation might lead to the wrong choice, not a big problem because you can always walk away if the group ‘doesn’t suit’, as happened to me when I first retired and joined a group that I saw advertised in the local magazine. They were all considerably older than me and their needs and interests were not mine as a newly retired person. And there is another ‘catch’ with this joining process and I have found it with my jazz group. It was a group but my lack of skill in playing jazz guitar, reduced my self-esteem rather than increased it.
For some retired people, the reduction in self-esteem can lead to a degree of neediness and, in joining a group, you place unreasonable or unsustainable expectations on what you can get from the group as a group and the individuals within it. So by all means join the group, but take it slow. Nobody likes a new member who’s too needy / demanding / insecure. Sounds dramatic I agree but I’ve had a little of this experience and I’ve had to have a rethink about what joining a group when you have retired, actually means. It’s a question, as most of life is, of gives and gets. So, yes, look for a group that suits you interest, age, values-wise, etc but don’t put a weight on that membership that the group and the people within cannot reasonably bear.
The final possibility is to generate a, call it replacement ( for not having a group) environment, one that meets your self-esteem needs but doesn’t actually involve being a part of a group within which you feel uncomfortable. So, in this strategy, ask yourself how else do you / could you retain your self-esteem without joining a group? Can you be happy without this group identity and if so how? What do you need in your life to replace the group? If the group offers a structure in the week, an opportunity to develop a new skill and the sense of belonging, then how else could these needs be met? This does take a little bit of doing but it isn’t impossible as I will demonstrate in a later blog.
I’m not going to write in detail about how self-esteem can be maintained in this blog, again, I will save that for a later offering. All I will say, at this point, is that there are many different ways in which we humans get our self-esteem and they don’t have to include being a member of a particular group or tribe.