Usually in retirement, or the next chapter, there is an IDENTITY SHIFT -from a career/working individual to the new status of “retiree”. There are many obvious and addressed issues of the difficulty many have when upon retirement, they “lose their identity”. It’s the source of many a troubled transition, and something that retirement coaches try to address well in advance of the D-date (Done!) – so that minimum harm or impact will be felt.
But a lesser known source of unhappiness and maybe even depression can be found even when someone is happy to face the next chapter. This type of issue is more of an IDENTITY RIFT, not a shift. Identity rift occurs when a person who has worked professionally for many years adapts herself to fit into each new role the job or career required, even though that identity isn’t truly a part of who she fundamentally is. It can be in the case where career progression means leaving behind friends who are subordinates as one is promoted up the chain. Or it can be a factor inherent in the demands of an accelerated career climb–learning to be and molding one’s self to fit in with the hierarchy they move into.
A lot of this conforming is expected, desired, and rewarded, intrinsically and extrinsically–accolades and raises also make the need to conform palatable. But there is a point, in some of this working identity, at which an individual sacrifices or subordinates his own psychological and/or social makeup, to be a part of or to fit into the role the increased position is perceived to require. Some would say during that time in a career, one might lose a piece of themselves, or lose some essential part of their true identity.
So upon retirement, what happens? The need for the role-playing at the job ceases to exist and the new retiree can now truly be him or her real self. Except it isn’t that easy. The inherent problem in the shape-shifting, rewarded by some as being adaptable, means you now have gotten further away from who you fundamentally were, as a human, not just in a role. This even occurs within a family’s dynamic, where one spouse adapts to make it easier for the other’s new responsibilities, and at the same time is depleting their own essence, or at least watering down who they really are.
An example of this identity rift was when my father-in-law retired. After an exceptional career as a fighter pilot, squadron and group commander, he was truly looking forward to the day when he could be himself. His career’s demands, much of what he referred to as “game-playing”, as well as face-time appearances and important inspections and events, took his time away from what his true passion was, collecting and restoring Corvair automobiles. Make no mistake, when he retired he was thrilled that he could spend 12 hours a day doing what he loved. And he plunged into it. But such an abrupt change, truly leaving behind friends, acquaintances, and the nuances of work that required so much but was often fulfilling, is very hard on the soul. Some folks cope by putting physical distance between them and their employee-related friends and events. Others do not ever look back and calls for reunions or lunches go unheeded.
But the most difficult and challenging phenomenon of identity rift is when one reflects on the changes they made to fit in or conform to their work-related requirements, and harbor deep regret that they lost much time and truth to who they really are. One of my clients told me, poignantly, after retiring from a long airline career, “Now I feel like who I was truly meant to be, attending church regularly, volunteering, and creating a strong social connection in my community. Isn’t that a sad thing to say?” Of course, it is a gift to be yourself or find what makes you passionate and purposeful in retirement. The key to those who have necessarily changed in their careers is BEFORE RETIREMENT, try to rediscover the essence of you–what makes you tick, what makes your heart sing, and what the real you will look forward to when finding new time and opportunity in the next chapter.