During a yoga class last week, my teacher spoke of the fall equinox and the balance of day and night that occurs with both the spring and fall equinox. She went on to speak about life balance and the necessity of creating balance in our lives especially during seasonal changes. She also spoke of the human tendency to yearn for the season that has passed without fully anticipating the benefits of a new season.
Life Transitions are similar to Seasonal Transitions
The teacher’s comments have as much relevance for life transitions as for seasonal transitions. The life transition from the world of work and career to the world of retirement is one of leaving familiar habits, of leaving many colleagues and friends, and of leaving a familiar life territory. For some this leaves a profound sense of separation and possibly, a great emptiness. There is often a longing for the past similar to the longing that one often feels for summer days when autumn is the new reality.
The loss of role, the loss of place in a known social structure, and the loss of familiar routines leaves you feeling neither like your ‘old self’ and not quite ready to adopt a ‘new self’. A normal amount of uncertainty and discomfort comes with all life changes. You are left feeling like you are living in two worlds one of the past and one of the future. Life feels out of balance.
Phases of Transitions
Transitions are a natural part of life. They allow for change and growth. In his book, Transitions, William Bridges notes that there are distinct phases to any life transition including endings, a neutral zone, and a new beginning.
Bridges discusses various types of endings and emphasizes how important it is to give closure to the past. It is normal to avoid endings. As humans we love to cling tenaciously to old habits, to familiar patterns, and to activities that have been mastered. Letting go is necessary to make space for new beginnings. Letting go is essential to creating a new lifestyle in retirement.
For the postworksavvy this is a time to think about other endings in your life and how you dealt with changes during other life transitions. As a late life parent, I reflected on the empty nest after I sent my son to university in another country and the profound feelings of loss along with yearnings to remain connected in an adult relationship. I also reflected on previous career changes and the process of leaving an organization, watching it change yet remaining in relationships with former colleagues. I reflected on the grief I experienced when faced with deaths of close family members. Each of these endings were characterized by emotional upheaval and a period of confusion which, with time, led to life adjustments and eventual equilibrium.
Bridges describes the neutral zone as a time for introspection. It is sometimes regarded as a time of retreat and possibly isolation. Some people find that leaving a familiar environment for a short time and finding a place to think and to renew oneself is the best way to deal with this time. It often involves thinking about personal values, re-confirming life goals and assessing life’s trajectory. This examination also provides opportunity to reflect on how old habits and to consider that old beliefs may no longer be sustaining or useful. This time can be messy and can feel aimless and endless as the clutter from your brain gets cleared away. This time can’t be rushed as it will create the foundation for the new reality of your life.
A famous Robert Frost quote states “the best way out is always through” and this is a great way to think about the self-examination that occurs during the time in the neutral zone. It is a time to look deeply inward — into the profound and personal longings of your heart. It is a time to asses your life. This period of self examination gradually opens new vistas for your post work life. You don’t know exactly how you will change or where this life transition will lead.
New beginnings emerge in unexpected ways and are the last phase of the transition as described by Bridges. Like a snake that has shed its useless old skin, gradually new surges of energy and glimpses of a changed reality emerge. New possibilities become apparent. A hopefulness emerges and you begin to focus on the benefits and payoffs of the life changes that have occurred. You have let go of the past and you begin to see a future based on renewed self knowledge. You realize that you no longer identify with the job/career you previously cherished, nor do you identify with the organization for which you worked. You have left behind your previous world and are building a different world.
Now it is time to take action. Many people jump to quickly from an ending into a new beginning without taking enough time to re-adjust. The discomfort of the previous stages of endings/losses and the self-assessments of the neutral zone will take time and there is a tendency to quickly jump into new beginnings. Just as bulbs planted in the fall rest in the earth over the winter season and then emerge as spring flowers, your life will bloom with possibilities after the transition — if you allow yourself to move through a difficult period slowly enough to build the energy for new beginnings. A new equilibrium also emerges as your life goes back into a balance.
Staying in Balance
Retirement is a life transition that forces letting go of the familiar. During this life change it is important to be compassionate with yourself and allow time to refashion your life. Thankfully my own transition to retirement has been a happy one that was planned. For many people, retirement is a forced and unwelcome change in life that is created by down-sizing, lay-off or dismissal. But even positive changes can be stressful.
The following are some postworksavvy measures that are worth considering as you undergo a natural life change.
- Caring for yourself. For me, focusing on the basics of taking care of my physical health, eating nutritious foods and getting lots of sleep and rest helped to deal with the normal feelings of loss and confusion. Beach walks in the sunshine, great local food, and time to take naps were important in those first weeks of retirement. Although it may sound selfish, doing something for myself every day was also important. Sometimes I visited galleries just to sit with great art. Sometimes I shopped. Sometimes I spent the whole day reading or cleaning up a small part of my garden. Regardless of your chosen self care techniques, treat your body and mind with compassion to alleviate some of the stress. Remember that your brain needs to rest as much as your body needs to rest.
- Rely on your friends. True friends will provide understanding and support during your transition. This is a time to gather your friends and to test new ideas as you re-create your life. Reconnecting with friends from the past helped me to realize that I had made many successful transitions during different phases of my life — moving from city to city for work, commuting for post graduate studies while building a professional career, raising a family later in life, and grieving the loss of a dear younger sibling. Friends helped me during other transitions and many of the same people listened patiently with my musings and aspirations for retirement.
- Maintain routines. Without the routine of going to the office, keeping some of the daily and weekly routines of home duties, going to the gym, going to the cottage and attending family functions brought comfort for there is always comfort in the familiar when undergoing life changes. Cooking regular meals for my husband — something I had not had time to do for years — brought a sense of balance and a daily routine. Although travel abroad was planned, it needed to be cancelled for health reasons. The payoff was that staying in familiar surroundings has brought a degree of comfort during my initial weeks of retirement.
- Honour your strengths. There is a natural tendency to focus on what is wrong rather than what is right during transitions. We tend to forget our strengths and minimize assets while looking at losses that are created with life changes. Fortunately, I had pictured and anticipated a positive adjustment to retirement and approached this life transition knowing that many things had worked well in my life. This provided a confidence that the transition would also be successful. Focusing on the positive changes that are possible without the encumbrance of the daily grind of work is a way to begin to identify your strengths as you embrace the changes of post work life.
- Re-discover yourself. After years of juggling work and home life, retirement offers time to play. This is the time to pursue new directions. Whether you yearn to learn to sail, to dance the merengue, or to find your spiritual self, the time to do so is now. Goofing off is allowed and is to be revered. Goof off time has helped me to balance my brain and keep me happy. This is the ideal time to stop worrying and start playing.
- Count your blessings. Researchers on managing stress advocate ‘an attitude of gratitude’ as one of the most important protective habits to form. Many years ago I learned a technique that required naming three blessings experienced during the day just before falling asleep every night. I have used this technique repeatedly and have found that I am more inclined to be grateful for both big and small pleasures not only before sleep but at various times during the day.
Considering the natural balance of day and night during the fall and spring equinox provides a metaphor for the cycle of change during an important life transition. Leaving the world of work and entering the world of retirement is a wonderful opportunity for renewal and for leaving behind habits and activities that served you well in a past life but are no longer efficient. Keeping your life in balance during the transition to retirement will ensure that you fully experience the excitement that comes with new possibilities and a new life equilibrium.
I invite your comments about strategies you have used — or plan to use — to achieve balance during your life transition to a post work lifestyle.
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