This is the third in my series of what I’m calling typical retirement problems or challenges if you prefer. This blog is about feeling that you lack an identity when you retire and the process of developing a new one – if you wish. On one hand it’s simple, for many of us our identity as a person was for many years, sometimes over 40 years, largely tied to our profession. In some ways it’s a quite shocking confession that our job should define us more than our family or other ‘interests’ but for many of us, myself included, that’s the way it was. It’s the classic first question at a party – so what do you do? You were probably judged right there depending on your answer.
On a positive note, I was lucky in that my marriage and family went along relatively smoothly, relatively! The knock-on effect being that the challenges and, to some extent, the achievements came through my career. It was my career that led to us living in three different countries, the achievement of various qualifications, enough money (with help from Mrs Summerhouse) to have a reasonably comfortable life and so on. My career was where my self-esteem largely, not entirely but mostly, came from. Then I retired and that side of my identity is all gone and my self-esteem took a dive. Quite a shock even though, at one level, I knew it was coming.
At its most basic, your identity is the answer to that oldest of chestnuts – who am I? So it’s quite important to our well-being and not surprising that we spend a fair amount of time thinking about the answer to – what kind of person am I? We tend to cherish any form of feedback from others about our strengths, weaknesses, capabilities and skills. Sometimes we probably over-value the thoughts of other about the kind of person we are. Either way, the question and any possible answers, are important to us. Hence, when our identity radically changes, as it can do when we retire, thinking again about the kind of person we are now or would wish to be, can be both engaging and frustrating, even debilitating.
So as these ‘problem blogs’ are about both the nature of the problem and the possible solutions, the latter being predictably more difficult to write about, I will now turn to those possible solutions. First, to state the obvious, a person may need to develop a new identity to replace the one s/he left behind. This will avoid the answer to the party question, what do you do? being, Oh, nothing much, I’m retired. Irritatingly people will often then say, so what did you used to do? (when you were a real person and not the one I am unfortunately stuck with at this party). In the absence of a new and well-considered definition it is all too easy to be saddled, by default, with a negative view of yourself, leading to the description – nothing much. In my view this is very bad.
OK, so a new identity. Sounds simple but how to do it? My plan was to look at those areas I intended to engage in when I retired (or intended to carry on with) and choose from that modest list the one activity that I thought would be most important to me. Or, to put it another way, if I had to choose one aspect of my retirement that I hoped would be successful, which one would it be?* I’m sure there are lots of books out there with suggestions for possible new roles. In my case I decided I would ‘become’ a writer. In my last blog I confessed that I hadn’t been as successful as I had hoped with this plan. I am writing things, this blog, for example, but, as I wrote, rather than setting aside times of the week to write I have been squeezing my writing of this blog in spaces between other activities. I’m starting to write this blog in the half an hour I have before going out to the doctors for a blood test. It will probably get finished in a similarly small window of opportunity. It was a way of working that suited my job, spending 15 minutes working on a report before having to set off to a school. All very well but it definitely (for me at least)undermines the idea of this being my new identity. So, in the spirit of do as I say not as I do, there’s a first bit of advice, if you are serious about developing a new identity make sure you give it resources, time being the obvious one, but also perhaps finances, a working space appropriate to the activity. In other words give your new role some legitimacy. And that applies to how you describe your new role to yourself and to others but mostly to yourself.
It is possible to choose less ‘substantive roles’ / identities – a cake maker, a warm and supportive friend to people, an ideas person, a homemaker – but though they are easier to assume they are more difficult to give credibility or legitimacy to. Legitimacy is an interesting word in this context. If you are going to sustain your self-esteem your new identity needs this. But, here’s the rub, you are probably not going to get a lot of reinforcement for your new role from other people and you probably won’t get legitimacy through being paid for your ‘work’ either, so you’ve got to make your own. You need to be careful about what you say to yourself about this new role. Convince yourself the role matters.
It’s sometimes helpful to feel you need to learn the skills associated with your new identity. In my own case I found it helpful to my self-esteem, to my sense of identity as a blog writer, to do some courses about the skills required. These qualifications, and I use this word in its broadest sense, help give a sense of legitimacy rather in the same way that you used to build your expertise when you engaged in additional training in your professional role. Learning is good for the soul generally and perhaps more so to the retired person. Keeps the dementia at bay. In this case your new certificates or equivalent provide constant reminders that you are still a person of substance.
So there we are, I’m suggesting that one more ‘typical’ retirement problem is losing your sense of identity when you retire, who or what am I now? There must be more to my life than simply ‘being’ retired. In the second half of the blog I have made some suggestions about how a retired person might combat a certain feeling of being a bit worthless. These are my ideas no doubt people out there will have additional views.
*In past blogs I’ve written about a method for assessing the likelihood of an idea being successful in solving a particular problem. It’s called the NAF rating from a problem-solving approach called Synectics. It goes like this:
N = Novelty / A = Appeal / F = Feasibility
In other words if your new identity, in this case, has something new about it, you like the ‘feel’ of it and it’s feasible or practical to set up, then its likely to work for you.