Simply Human Retirement Transition Series: Loss of Identity

Simply Human Retirement Transition Series: Loss of Identity

February 01, 2024

Grief attached to the loss of identity is rarely discussed. Let's dive in!


Have you ever read the stories of athletes following their retirement? Take a moment and read through this study of Olympic athletes from all over the globe. I edited a quote, replacing the word career/work for athlete/athletic, and it works seamlessly.


"The high level of focus and dedication that you devote to your (career) often means you have fewer opportunities to explore other activities or discover different aspects of your personality and identity. This is known as (career) identity and can be defined as 'the degree to which an individual identifies with the (work) role,' and can lead to identity foreclosure – where one aspect of a person’s personality or identity takes over without allowing other identities to be developed and explored."


Please tell me you have seen this before. How many 60-70-year-old men pass away within a few years of leaving work? A less extreme version would be a more rapid deterioration in the first few years of retirement than in the previous decade. Is this just old age? Given how many vibrant 80-year-old men we see who still have passion in life, this should not be attributed to old age. Besides, 80 is the new 40.


Loss of identity is a significant source of grief following a divorce and sometimes following a death, which we generally acknowledge. However, our society does not give enough attention to grief following retirement, another major life transition for most people. More commonly, the person retiring rarely grasps the coming emotional roller-coaster. One of my favorite sources covers the many reasons for grief due to loss of identity


Focusing on the professional identity, they write:


"Phrases like 'I am a teacher' or 'I am a carpenter' or 'I am a doctor' make clear that we often consider our profession as a huge part of who we are. We have knowledge, skills, and expertise related to our jobs. Much of our time is defined by our jobs. We often have a community through our jobs. When we retire, lose or leave a job, even if it is by choice, there is often a loss of our professional identity that can have a profound impact on our sense of self. If I have been a teacher for 40 years, it is an adjustment to conceptualize who I am and what gives my days structure and purpose if I am no longer a teacher."


I am a fan of attaching some of our identity to our job. However, we must intentionally and diligently redefine who we are in this next phase of life. Habits do happen whether we intend for them or not. 


Quoting James Clear from his book Atomic Habits:


"When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, ‘disciplined' people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control."


Unfortunately, even building structure take willpower...at first. It takes motivation and inspiration to get up and do something different. I love what he says about being lazy (which is natural to being human, by the way):


"Conventional wisdom holds that motivation is the key to habit change. Maybe if you really wanted it, you’d actually do it. But the truth is, our real motivation is to be lazy and to do what is convenient. And despite what the latest productivity best seller will tell you, this is a smart strategy, not a dumb one."


Do not let this confuse you. Please read the book; it is excellent. If you read further, he concludes the following:


"Over the long run, however, the real reason you fail to stick with habits is that your self-image gets in the way. This is why you can’t get too attached to one version of your identity. Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity."


And one more:


"It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are."


BOOM! This is our sense of identity getting in the way. We used to be an athlete, a teacher, a carpenter, or a doctor. Who are we now?


Until we can feel our identity shift, our underlying motivations will not change, and we will not shift our actions into better habits. 


Next, I will discuss a practical application in retirement. One of the best ways is to find someone to talk this through. I could be that someone for you. If you want to have a real conversation about retirement, let's talk. Book a time here. We will get to the nuts and bolts eventually.