Why do some people thrive after retirement, while others seem to fade away?
The difference is often between those who continue to seek self-improvement with a sense of purpose and those who fall into a state of basic routine. The deciding factor in each pathway is one’s sense of self, otherwise known as self-image.
Who are You?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, self-image is the personal view — the mental picture — that you have of yourself. Self-image is your collection of your characteristics, how you describe yourself: intelligent, beautiful, ugly, talented, selfish, kind. These represent your assets (strengths) and liabilities (weaknesses) as you see them.
Self-image changes over time, affected by early childhood influences plus accumulated experiences with teachers, coaches, friends, family, coworkers and even strangers.
These relationships reinforce what you think and feel about yourself, for better or worse. Your sense of self is entangled with your sense of purpose, and both are shaken when children leave the nest, you lose a loved one or you face retirement.
A Retirement Roadmap
Dr. Dudley Tower is a human and organizational systems expert from the Dynamic Aging Institute, a nationally recognized program based in South Carolina. Tower says we live in an era of age-defying opportunities created by longer lifespans and delayed physical and mental decline.
Despite the apparent advantages of a longer, healthier life, many retired older adults are not motivated to pursue purpose in self-actualization or try to reach their full potential. Instead, some people spend retirement in a state of “mindless routine and busyness,” he says.
The problem is that retirement is unnatural, Tower says. The type of work you do should simply change, not stop. A growing population of older adults has retired around age 65 and now faces another 20 to 25 years of life expectancy. If they fail to plan with purpose, they can lose their sense of self along the way.
Most people retire with fairly high self-esteem, meaning they felt accepted, respected and valued by others in their career. They found meaning in what they did and accomplished, with a sense of contributing to the greater good.
However, several sources of prior self-esteem erode during retirement. Careers, raising a family, and certain friendships no longer bolster their self-esteem with the acceptance, respect and value that comes with those connections. Meanwhile, the physical effects of aging become more noticeable. Retirees can lose confidence in their bodies and sexuality due to pain, lack of energy, or not feel as beautiful or strong as before.
Retirees may fill their time with visiting children and grandchildren, traveling more extensively, volunteering a bit (seniors volunteer, on average, one day per week), taking up a hobby and socializing with friends. These are all good activities, but if you are no longer contributing with a focused purpose, you may lose the full sense of accomplishment and respect from others that you previously enjoyed through work.
“They feel they aren’t who they once were, and all they see is decline and death for themselves in the future,” Tower says. “The tendency is to then go into denial about their ultimate deterioration and do nothing to either offset it or develop new qualities that would help them to excel in other areas.”
He warns that unconscious fear can become the prime motivator, resulting in confusion and numbness that slips into inaction.
The solution to this loss of self-esteem at retirement is to take action and get out of your comfort zone. Create legitimate reasons to feel proud, accomplished and worthwhile through learning, personal growth, goal-setting and achievement. Engage actively in life, develop fresh skills and qualities, and find creative outlets to enjoy a higher level of self-esteem; pursue your passions with purpose.
Estelle Rodis-Brown is a freelance writer and photographer from Northeast Ohio who focuses on lifelong learning and wellness.
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