As a part of my mental health category I intend to write a number of blogs about self-esteem in retirement. As a psychologist in education, strangely perhaps, I was never a big fan of the area. I wasn’t sure it helped but, in a retirement context, I think it offers some helpful ideas for improving the quality of that retirement. I may even turn the series into an Ebook if I think they are interesting enough. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I don’t believe that much has been written about this topic so I will try and put this right. As part of the research for this blog I have been reading a number of books and articles on self-esteem not specific to retirement.
A broad view of self-esteem is that it is a measure of how good we feel about ourselves. Often it is taken to be the relationship between ambition or aspiration and achievement. If you don’t want much and you achieve it your self-esteem will be high. This is an overly simplistic view of this area but it will do for now and is a neat warning to those of us with possibly unrealistic ambitions in retirement. Simply put it means we will be dissatisfied and our self-esteem will, consequently, be low because we do not achieve our unrealistic goals. More of this in later blogs. In this blog I’m going to consider what we might call the background to this ‘interesting’ area.
A book I want to reference in this blog is called, appropriately enough, Self Esteem by Gail Lindenfield. I’m starting here because I think her writing sets an interesting context for a view of self-esteem in retirement.
Early in her book she describes those factors that she believes contribute to low self-esteem in children. She cites 17 areas of childhood experiences that lower a child’s self-esteem. I am going to refer to 13 of them (maybe a surprisingly high percentage)and suggest that they are relevant to what we call retirement. The titles are Gail’s and the notes after are my view of how each of the 13 areas relate to retirement. I’ll leave you to decide whether you agree with my comparisons and whether you think it is comforting or depressing that the similarity, according to my view, exists given a gap of perhaps 50 years.
Gail’s indicators are:
Basic needs not met. It might be a little early to suggest that all the terrible aspects of later life – absence or, worse, withholding of food, drink, hygiene, warmth etc that we hear so much about in the news – apply to the retired person in the early stages of their third age but when Gail talks about basic needs in terms of love, care, sustenance, I don’t think it is stretching the comparison too far to suggest that this third age can be blighted, for some of us, by loneliness, separation, divorce, death, estrangement from family members and so on.
Feelings persistently ignored. You can get the feeling that your feelings are being ignored, that you don’t matter much, I mean who wants to listen to a retired person droning on about their feelings, for God’s sake.
Being put down, ridiculed or humiliated. It can be the case that we feel unimportant, even somewhat worthless. With experience we are smart enough to ‘get our retaliation in first’, we might say things like ‘I’m a grumpy old git’ before somebody else says it. We’ve developed protective strategies but that doesn’t mean we aren’t hurt by other people’s jibes.
Being required to assume a fake self in order to impress others or get our needs met. Maybe like trying to be more interesting than you think you are or more vibrant or jolly than you feel.
Being forced to engage in unsuitable activities especially if you don’t do them well. Like playing golf or joining a dancing class for companionship, to reduce boredom, even though we are rubbish at the activity in question. We are willing to take the damage to our esteem in order to get company, any kind of company.
Being compared unfavourably to others. Being compared to younger people, for example, you may even compare yourself to your younger version or to the more successfully retired. These unfavourable comparisons can be made by others or, worse still, by ourselves.
Being given the impression that their views or opinions are insignificant. See my blog on feeling validated in retirement. Retired people often feel marginalised in what can be a very ageist world .
Being given a label which devalues their individuality. You’re a retiree, an OAP, a senior citizen, a grumpy old git, labels that stereotype and reduce us to a pale shadow of our former self.
Being over-protected. Maybe this is a version of people saying things to us like don’t you think you’re a bit old to be snow-boarding. It may be well meant (or not) but it can be very devaluing.
Being given too few rules and guidelines which may lead to making mistakes because we didn’t have the information we needed. This may seem a strange comparison – children, yes, but mature people? However, I think it is relevant if only because the sudden lack of structure (after many years of daily structure), that retirement often brings, can be very scary and quite disempowering. Almost too much choice.
Being on the end of inconsistent behaviour. Again easy to see the problem with children but for us does this apply? I think it can. We often get very mixed messages from other people (and ourselves) about being ‘mature’. People will say ‘I think you’re great, how you carry on and not let age get in the way’. Alternatively, you can get the message, often politically, ‘you’re a drain on the country’s resources, why don’t you hurry up and die’. Too strong, yes, probably.
Being threatened with or receiving physical punishment. Well, probably not but it can be the case that we feel physically weaker, more wary of society or just going out, less able to protect ourselves, generally more vulnerable.
Being fed a diet of unachievable ideals by the media. Ha, how true, the silver foxes (rich ones) on their cruises round the Med, all bran cereals, keep us healthy and active, face lifts, creams, look younger every day, you know the sort of thing. Apparently we have spare ‘income’ and so we are targeted by the media generally and advertising specifically.
So there we have it. Self-esteem in a nutshell. It has to be said, however, that research in the area of self-esteem can be flimsy. The nut shell can be fragile. Almost all measures of self-esteem are based on self-report / self-assessment and, as we know, how we feel about ourselves varies from day to day, even minute to minute. Children’s self-report can be notoriously unreliable so, in reading this and what will follow, you have to ask yourself, do I find the above ‘research’ from Gail convincing and, probably more important, is it credible that the same factors apply to us. Is self-esteem in retirement a factor in our well-being, our mental health, and if it is, do we need to do anything about it? Right now I’m suggesting we do, so read on for the next blog on self-esteem in the retirement years. But be warned, looking at self-esteem is a funny business.