In our previous Retirement Voices blog post, we shared the story of Margo Withy, an independent PR professional who was forced to retire before she was ready when a major client severed ties. This time around, we speak with Phyllis Diamond, LCSW, CRC, a psychotherapist and certified retirement coach, who shares her expertise on how to deal with the emotional fallout when retirement isn’t your choice.
What makes forced retirement different from “normal” retirement in terms of how it affects a woman’s sense of self?
When it’s your choice to retire, it’s something you plan for; it feels within your control and you’re ready when it happens. And when it does, you often go through a honeymoon phase when you can travel, clean out closets, do all those things you put on hold while working.
But when you’re forced into retirement—whether due to downsizing, a health issue, or to be a caregiver for a loved one—you likely haven’t made any plans and your self-esteem can take a hit. For most of us, our identity comes from our work and suddenly it’s gone. It can feel like you’re standing at the edge of a cliff and the slightest breeze can knock you over—that’s how much your equilibrium is affected. You’re forced into a grieving process and, instead of a honeymoon, it feels more like a funeral.
In our post about Margo, she says it felt as if she’d been fired, and it made her question her value as a person, not just as a professional. Is this normal?
It’s very normal. Work has five vital functions in our lives: it provides financial remuneration, it gives structure to our days, it confers status, it makes us feel useful, and it provides socialization. When we leave work abruptly, we lose all that. And we often feel embarrassment, even shame, wondering how others will perceive us. It takes a while to recover from these losses.
Margo also mentioned going through the five stages of grief—how does that apply to being forced to retire from your career?
When we experience a loss—whether the death of a loved one, a divorce, or giving up our career before we’re ready—we go through emotional stages. It starts with denial (“I can’t believe this is happening”), which often turns to anger at your former employer and sometimes the world at large. Then there’s bargaining, perhaps wondering if we can get our job back on a part-time basis. When we realize we can’t go back, we can start to feel depressed, overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, particularly about the future.
Finally, though, when the anger and depression subside, you move into acceptance. You begin to process the fact that life is now different, and you’re able to let go of the past, look at the present, and think about what you want for your future.
What advice would you give someone who’s experienced forced retirement—what’s the first thing someone should do?
You really have to sit with all these feelings and not rush into anything. The impulse is often to do something right away to take away the pain of loss—like grab the first job available. But these moves are rarely well thought out or work out well. As hard as it is, hang out with your feelings for a while—at least if you can afford to, financially speaking.
Next, come up with structure for your day. It’s important to have something that feels meaningful when you get up in the morning, getting your day off to a decent start. One thing I recommend is meditation—it’s a great way to settle yourself, and there are wonderful apps like Calm and Headspace to guide you.
Another good option is exercise. It helps you feel better about yourself and that’s the goal—to reclaim your sense of self, confidence, okayness. That comes with starting the day with something purposeful to you, and it makes it easier to structure the rest of your day.
To create that structure, I advise making a list of the hours of each day and write in what you’ll do, hour by hour. Put in when you’ll have meals, when you’ll exercise (perhaps joining online classes) and meditate, work on a jigsaw puzzle (they’re fabulous for keeping your mind occupied). Writing activities down like this makes it feel like your day has some order.
When you’re first starting out, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to take baby steps. If you set a goal that’s too big, you might feel a sense of failure. But with every smaller goal you achieve, you build on that success.
In a March 18, 2019, article on Next Avenue, you talk about carving out “worry time.” How does this help?
This is a helpful technique for dealing with anxiety. You’ve been thrown into a chaotic time, both emotionally due to a forced retirement, and given the world today with the pandemic and politics. You schedule a 15- to 30-minute time each day and postpone worrying about everything until then. When the time is up, you’re done until the next day.
Another technique that helps you manage stress is a simple breathing exercise. Breathe in through your nose to a count of four, then breathe out through your mouth to a count of four. By focusing on your breath, you’re not focusing on your thoughts. Use this whenever the stress of your situation feels overwhelming.
Some people also find journaling to be a helpful way to get their thoughts and feelings out and to reflect on what’s important to them.
Is there an upside to being forced into retirement?
Absolutely. And it’s that you can rediscover, even reinvent, yourself. Margo saw reinvention in terms of working, but it’s important to look at it in a broader way. Some women do pursue a second career and go back to school to be something else. But once you have the freedom that retirement offers, you can explore what else—besides work—gives your life meaning and purpose.
As Margo noted, who you are becomes important at this life stage, not your job title. Finding purpose makes you feel good about yourself and is relevant only to you; there’s no external barometer. If you want to learn a musical instrument, volunteer with a religious organization, get into politics, take up a long-deferred passion like dancing—do it! You can even travel virtually; many local guides offer walking tours that you can join online.
What’s the most important message you’d want to convey to someone who’s been forced into retirement before they’re ready?
You’re going to go through a difficult time, but it really does get better. Forced retirement is disempowering, but the purpose of this journey is to find your power and take it back—and you can. Having to leave a job involuntarily is undeniably a life lemon—but finding new opportunities in retirement can be your lemonade.
What do you think? Have you or someone you care about faced forced retirement? What coping techniques have you found effective? Please share!
A psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker and certified retirement coach, Phyllis Diamond is the founder of Strategic Retirement Coaching in New York City.