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Retirement: Will You Lose Your Identity or Expand It?

By Karen Spencer March 01, 2023 Mindset

The day when I retired and gave back my office keys, downloaded all my course documents, and met with Human Resources had me questioning my decision.

Was I Really Ready to Retire?

My last week of teaching in college was a roller coaster of emotions. It was filled with lots of well-wishers, lovely gifts, sweet cards, get-togethers, balloons and a few tears.

I clearly remember a young professor giving me a big hug. “Karen,” she smiled, “I’m so happy for you. You have done such great things for this college, and you worked so hard all these years. Now you deserve to just make time for yourself; take a break, rest, relax and enjoy.”

Did that young woman mean take a break, as in rest on the bench for a bit, or did she mean take a break, as in head to the locker room and turn in my uniform?

So… Was I done? Did my retirement signify I had reached my full potential and was now headed for the downhill slope? What a sobering thought, and quite frankly, a depressing one.

It seemed that with each conversation I had regarding my retirement I was asked the same question.

What Will You Do Now?

My response was pretty much the same. “My plan is to spend more time with my children and grand babies, write, take walks… and my husband thinks I need to raise chickens.”

I vividly remember setting in my hard metal folding chair out on the football field on my final attendance for graduation night. I thought about my students taking their next step toward an exciting career and gaining a new identity. Here I was retiring, and I felt like I was losing mine.

So, is this as good as it gets, I wondered. Is my life as fulfilling as it’s going to be? Should I just appreciate that it had been a good ride, and be grateful and satisfied for my experience in a career I loved? Why was I even thinking about this now? I had retired.

I Was Struggling with Being Branded with That Awful Word – Retired

I don’t know about you, but I hate the word ‘retired’. It sounds so old… and tired. Not only tired… but re-tired. And, depending on your accent, it can sound like you’re saying ‘retard’ or ‘retreat’.

Let me ask you: do these synonyms for the word ‘retirement’ sound like something that helps us embrace this transition? ‘Withdrawal, retreat, surrender, pullout, disengagement, recoil, shrinking, disentanglement…?’

Seriously, who wants that? It sounds like we are abandoning the ship!

I think my husband saw the signs of my tsunami coming, so he bought me a book to try and stem the tide, How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free by Ernie Zelenski. In the first chapter, there is a little cartoon character lounging in his rocking chair, reading a book about retirement, and the caption says, “The only major problem with retirement is that it gives you more time to read about the problem of retirement. If you can avoid this trap, you have it made.”

I did not feel I had it made! And I soon learned I was not alone. I found there were others experiencing some negativity with this ‘retirement’ business.

Ernest Hemingway Wrote, “Retirement Is the Ugliest Word in the Language”

And Rama. Sami Natarajan, an essayist, described the day he announced his retirement, “All my ‘strengths’ were stripped off me by some unknown force. I became a wimp in the eyes of the world.”

Spanish cellist Pablo Casals was quite clear on his disdain for the term as well, “To retire is the beginning of death.”

And although I admit Casals sounds a bit overly dramatic, there is actually some research that backs up his statement. Yep… you are more likely to die when you retire. I know… that’s scary!

I began searching for someone who might offer some sage advice on this new seismic shift in my life. I asked my newly retired cousin about his thoughts on retirement. He said, “I don’t tell anyone I am retired.”

“Really,” I responded. “Why don’t you tell people?”

“Because,” he said, “I found out pretty quickly that when I mention I am retired, it is like I become invisible… I just don’t get the same respect I once did.”

Holy cow! Is that true?

A good friend of mine suggested I read a book by Jane Pauley, Your Life Calling; Reimagining the Rest of Your Life. Pauley shares how she spent the first year of retirement lying on her couch. She filled her days by making up a list of all the things she could do now that she was retired. As the lonely days slowly and painfully passed, she recalled, her list of possibilities grew.

Then one day her son called her up and told her, “Mom, you know that list of ideas you keep working on? Well, I think you have collected enough good ideas. Now it’s time for you to pick one and do something with it!”

I could so relate to Pauley’s experience. I too was spending way too much time lying on the couch, reading about retirement and jotting down ideas. I recalled the professor’s encouragement for me to just rest.

Then one day, while mindlessly perusing the internet, this headline piqued my interest:

“Want a Happier, More Fulfilling Retirement? Try This Japanese Concept”

Did you know the Japanese culture doesn’t even have a word for retirement? I loved hearing about that. Instead, they have a term called ikigai. Ikigai (ee-key-guy): iki, means “alive” or “life,” and gai, means “benefit” or “worth.”

When combined, it means “that which gives your life worth, meaning, or purpose…. why you get up in the morning.”

Other synonyms for this Japanese term are worthiness, fruitfulness, effectiveness. Now, that is quite a big difference from the West’s retirement synonym words: withdrawal, retreat, pull out, surrender.

I learned that, in regards to the kai portion of the term, it is important to note that there is a strong connotation with “challenge.” Therefore, if one is seeking their ikigai, it requires a certain amount of effort.

Oh… so no more lounging? No more just resting and relaxing? It was necessary to put effort into finding my next path?

It was time for me to get up and off my couch, change my mindset and raise my standards.

Rather than focusing on my fear of losing my identity, I would instead need to put my energy into expanding it.

In Other Words: It Was Time to Get to Work!

Are you, or someone you know, struggling with retirement? It is not always an easy transition.

The following precepts and questions helped me to find my new path.

  1. Don’t let others define me.
  2. Do not buy into the notion that retirement is synonymous with retreating, withdrawing, shrinking and/or disappearing.
  3. I get to choose my conviction and dreams.
  4. New opportunities come along at any age, be ready for them.
  5. When I stop learning and growing, I start dying.
  6. Make ‘gratitude’ my lens in life. Each day is a gift filled with blessings and opportunities.
  1. Bringing more value to others, brings more purpose to my life.
  2. Serving not only benefits others, but bring benefits to me as well. Benefits like happiness, health and longevity.

Here Are Some Questions to Journal About:

  • What is my vision for the next year of my life?
  • Will I choose to live an intentional life?
  • What matters to me?
  • What are my convictions? What are my non-negotiables?
  • How will I continue to grow?
  • What was something I was passionate about when I was younger?
  • What are my strengths and my gifts?
  • What new areas would I like to pursue?
  • What will I regret not having tried or done? (Think about my ‘what ifs’ or ‘one day I wills’)
  • What do I love?
  • What gives me joy? How can I share that joy?
  • What can I do to support and encourage others?
  • What new opportunities do I see in front of me?

I am pleased to report that it wasn’t long before I found my next calling. And I hope to motivate others who feel they have lost their identity, or feel invisible, to step up and step out. You are never too old to make a difference. And who knows… as my granddaughter once reminded me… we might change the world.

Oh, and by the way… I still hate the word ‘retirement.”

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What does retirement mean to you? How do you define it? What list of things have you created that have put meaning to your life after retirement?

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I call my “retiring” resetting. I also hate the word “ retirement”. I have been resetting now for almost two years. Although very busy with babysitting grandson and carrying for two parents in their 90’s, there are days I feel I would like to take on more. I am still looking for an at home part time job.


I like the term ‘resetting’. I have several friends that are in your position with babysitting and/or parental care. I think sometimes our ‘well-laid plans’ get sidelined by our daily assignments. Good luck with your part-time position.


This is the problem I have with the whole concept of retirement. It’s moving FROM something. In every other transition, we’re warned not to move FROM without knowing where the TO will be.


That is so true! Sounds like someone needs to get in the business of offering counseling for those who are moving ‘from’ and don’t know where they are moving ‘to.’


That will come to you. Keep an open mind.

Alison Shackell

Thank you Karen, I really relate to what you are saying. I love the different descriptors for this next phase of life. I am still doing paid work…but one day I want to make space for other things, I’m just not sure what….yet


I like how you phrase that…’making space’. It feels like more of an organic and natural transition. All the best as you take your next step.

Patricia Matheson

What was/is your next calling? I’m struggling to find mine.


I found my next calling by just following what kept appearing right in front of me. You can read more about it here. About Karen – SMALL STEPS FOR HEALTHY LIVING ( I don’t know what stage you are at with your journey, but I think that choosing to say ‘yes’ to what is laid before you is a great way to begin. I have found that it’s o.k. to just try things out at this stage. We don’t have to be ‘all in’…maybe just stick our toes in and feel the water. Good luck to you.


I think there’s a phrase that says the teacher finds you when you’re ready? My name is also Karen and I’m “retiring “ from my corporate job this summer and it thrills and terrifies me. I am getting my coaching certification at the age of 65 and plan to coach women which is exciting. I love love your blog and this piece is so timely .


Thank you so much for your kind words. Once you get your coaching certification perhaps you can coach women like me who struggled with their transition into retirement??? I feel so fortunate to have discovered a new area of passion for myself when I came across a health coaching certification through IIN (Integrated Nutrition School). It was just what I needed. I love it! I have since expanded into brain health with a certification through the Amen Clinics…The opportunities in coaching are limitless! I would love to hear about your transition and experience as a coach!


My name is also Karen and I have always wanted to coach women too. I have about 2 years left to work full time, would like to hear about coaching certifications that are affordable. Thanks.


Hi Karen, I received my training through IIN (Institute for Integrative Nutrition | Health Education & Certification. About a 6 month program. I learned an enormous amount of information from them and received great support.
More recently I received an additional health coaching certification. Brain Health coaching certification from Amen Clinics….also through IIN. Amen University – a healthier brain and happier life.
Initially I was seriously considering the Functional Medicine Coach certification training ( I believe it to be excellent as well. (At the time I was searching I found it to be a bit too pricey for me and time spent in the program was longer. That may have changed by now.) But as you know you often get what you pay for, and I know it to be a highly credible program.
There are many new programs out there for all sorts of coaching certifications. So, keep looking for the one that suits you best. I hope this information helps you. Good luck.

The Author

Karen is a retired college professor, a Certified Health Coach, a Brain Health Coach, a writer, a speaker and a teacher. Her mission is to educate, inspire and influence women 55 and older to step up, dream big and become healthier, happier, and more fulfilled.

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