March 13, 2014

Planning for Retirement

I can hear you now–you’re probably saying, “Plan for it? With the economy the way it is, I’ll NEVER be able to retire!” But read on: there may be something here for you in any case. And, no, this is not a blog about financial preparations for leaving the workplace. You’ll need to find another kind of expert for that.

For men especially, work is what life is about. We learn from an early age that we are meant to be the breadwinner, the provider, the go-to-guy on matters of “get ‘er done”. I often talk to men about the way, when we were boys, were socialized to “shake it off” and to “take one for the team” even though we were hurting, or disappointed. Those are lessons we are taught, in both subtle and overt ways to boys from the day they are born. We are good at fulfilling the demands of roles that involve physical strength, emotional restriction, mental toughness, even indifference to pain and damage to health. We can take it! But it seems that sometimes, often in our middle years–somewhere between 40 and 60– we begin to wonder whether all of that was worth it. Often our work is not as satisfying as in earlier years, and we’ve devoted so much energy to the workplace, it’s hard to see anywhere else that satisfaction might come from. Even family life may have become less interesting, as children become surly teenagers or leave the nest altogether. Maybe we neglected partner relationships because the role of provider was such a prominent one for us. In any case, we come to a place in life where–with actual retirement still perhaps a number of years away–we recognize that work is about all we have.

Just while I’m thinking about it, let me put a word in for the women reading this: everything I’m saying here may well be true for you as well. Women have worked hard to obtain places in the world of cultural rewards (money, status, diplomas, etc.) beyond the home, and society has now changed expectations for you, too. Not only are you expected to be the heart of the home, and the source of gentle comfort for your family, you’re also expected to be the hard-bodied lover, to create the social fabric of our communities, and the clear-minded career woman as well. Is it any wonder, considering all the real-life demands, not to mention the internal pressures, that most of us feel stressed out? Who imagines that retirement will be anything more than a long weekend, with permission to sleep late, after all!

But, back to that topic for a moment–retirement is where we’re headed, right? In important and very functional ways, men and women today have been very good at performing the tasks set before them. They have carved out careers, taken on matrimony, built family units, and taken out mortgages of astounding size. Society needs all that. But they have often NOT invested nearly enough in the one thing necessary to be successful: PEOPLE.

They have not budgeted time to slow down and develop an identity that will exist away from the important roles they are fulfilling. Some will say, ” A parent. I will always be a parent, so I’m not neglecting that as I fulfill my role of associate vice president in charge of marketing” And that’s technically true. A parent is a parent is a parent, after all. But children leave home and create families and careers of their own, needing less and less parenting over the years, and what then?

The retirement planning I would like to suggest is this:

Find a variety of meaningful activities (hobbies, travel, volunteering, teaching, physical fitness, classes for personal enrichment, etc.) that you’d like to engage in, and make it part of your identity. We are all involved in the development of a personal identity but generally it is restricted to a) the work I do for a paycheck, and b) the family members I relate to. Infrequently do I hear someone begin his or her self-description (or end it for that matter) with the hobby, or the non-work organization, or the circle of friendships they created. There are millions of sources of meaningful activity, and you must find the ones that provide pleasure, gratification, and meaning for you. The importance of having numerous activities is that when one isn’t available, there are others to fall back on. I often give my patients a list of 250 things they might do for personal pleasure and renewal; community activity; hobbies and creative outlets; sports or leisure; learning or reading’ socializing, family activities, and helping others; health and fitness; spiritual, inspirational, or religious activities; satisfying or enjoyable chores; and couples activities. It’s a place for them to start, but anyone can begin to compile such a list on their own, or with the help of people they know.

Retirement from the workplace is a moment of reckoning; either you’ve done the work of developing a life, or you haven’t. There isn’t much in between. Successful retirement planning will include purposeful activity that brings you satisfaction, puts you in a state of “flow” (other blogs will guide you) and challenges you to set goals for the future. Beyond these activities, successful retirement planning will require that you build enough relationships outside your current workplace so that you have a wide network of engagements to keep you active and learning something new.

Think about the people you know over the age of 60. Which ones are the most interesting? Which ones seem the happiest? Which of them are the healthiest or most enthusiastic? Finding meaning in life requires that we look beyond our work roles–while we are still actively employed–so that there will be meaning in life beyond that time, too.

April 18, 2011

Command Performances

I’m fortunate to have so many friends and relatives to use as examples of bad behavior in my blogs, but of course my favorite example is my wife, I wouldn’t say that behind her back, or if she didn’t already know it. And I also wouldn’t say it if my wife couldn’t cite just as many examples of my own bad behavior as soon as she reads this blog!

Kidding aside, each of us is pretty good at spotting the bad behavior perpetrated by the other—as is true in most marriages and other experiences in life—and when it comes right down to it, that bad behavior can often be summed up by the word “demanding-ness”. In terms of her demands, it’s not as if my wife must have diamonds or other luxuries, and my demands on her are not anything you’d call a superhuman feat, either. And yet, we want what we want, when we want it. (more…)

January 31, 2011

Half Full or Half Empty?

Most of us know someone who seems to be perennially pessimistic about things—a spouse, co-worker or friend. And it’s also true that most of us have an acquaintance or two who is rarely discouraged by anything that comes along. To an observer it looks as if they are on two ends of a continuum, and in some ways that is accurate.

From those who do research into this kind of thing, we’ve learned that such dispositional differences are influenced profoundly by heredity, some say as much 50-80%! Whether on the positive end of the continuum or the negative end (or more likely near the middle), each of us seem to have a dispositional range where we operate. As individuals, we’ve had the experience of trying hard to appear happier and more optimistic (or maybe even more pessimistic) than we really feel, just to get through a situation or event. Or we are up or down for a period of time depending on circumstances. It changes for a little while, but over the long term, we all have a dispositional style that we generally return to. In other words, those with a half-empty perspective can work toward the middle, but they’re probably never going to see the world in the same way as those born with more rose-colored glasses. And those who are higher in optimism may drift lower, but are never going to become a Chicken Little (The sky is falling! The sky is falling!). (more…)

Dirty Lenses

I’ve worn glasses since the third grade. At this point in my life, putting them on is the first thing I do in the morning, and taking them off is the last thing I do at night. My vision is so poor that my glasses are probably the most valuable items I will ever own. Believe me, I’ve gone through enough lens cleaning cloths to blanket a football field. Or so it seems.

People who wear corrective lenses will tell you how lost they’d be without them, and yet all of us—the clear-sighted and the vision-impaired—walk around every day with the dirty lenses of our biases, childhood experience, powerful advertising influences, and a vast assortment of other impediments to clarity. (more…)

December 12, 2010

Another Look at Taking Action

“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.” – Mark Twain

In a recent blog (July 6th, 2010), I focused my writing on “tips for taking action.” Because any lasting change requires some kind of action, I’m returning to this topic with more ideas.   “I’ve had the symptoms of depression (or anxiety, or problems in marriage, or whatever) for a long time now—I’m in a total rut and I don’t know how to get out of it.  How can I make changes when things have been going badly for so long?”

It’s true that the longer a problem has been in place, the more creative you have to be in dislodging it, but that’s only because humans are creatures of habit, and often don’t notice the potential benefits for changing.  For those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, a good example can be seen in winter driving.  When the roads are icy, and a car gets stuck, it can become entrenched unless the driver uses a few skills to generate even small movements.  Snowbound on ice, a driver will need to get the vehicle to move forward, or backward, even inches at a time—the direction is not so important as the momentum built by simply generating movement.  Back and forth, back and forth, just a bit of motion overcomes the rut and the slippage that may occur in this kind of circumstance.  In just the same way, small movement, even in directions that seem unproductive at first, can build the momentum needed to get on track and moving in the right direction. (more…)

Being and Belonging

Some of you may know that I took some time off this summer.  I had a great time in a wonderful setting on a lake, with my wife and a group of friends.  It was a time of sharing lots of activities and really good food, as well as just having some time together when we didn’t have to do the things from our everyday lives.  I enjoyed it tremendously.

And some of you may also know that I took a trip to Austin, Texas this fall, and I went by myself.  It was the trip of a lifetime for me.  I got to see great music played by people I’d admired for years, and great music played by people I’d never heard of before!  And I enjoyed that trip tremendously.

I talk about this with patients, and even my students in classes, because the idea of being independent and doing things apart from one’s partner or spouse is sometimes looked at as a negative.  And for some, the idea of only doing things with one’s spouse or the family, or close grouping, is also thought of as a negative.  In general, boys are brought up to stand apart and assert their independence, while girls are encouraged to blend in, and associate more closely with friends and the family; what researcher Shelley Taylor calls the “tend and befriend” response. As we grow up, these values and skills are continued, and if we aren’t careful to learn how to do both, our lives are less full, perhaps less rich and rewarding.


November 9, 2010

Self-Help Books

Every so often a patient comes into my office carrying “the book” that has all the answers they need for a wonderful experience in life.  Whether it is a metaphysical book or the latest pop-psych bestseller, I listen patiently while they describe how everything is going to work out smoothly now because they know the secrets to success!

But, they come back the next week, with a different book—or they come back disappointed in the last one—because they only “knew ABOUT something” they didn’t really “know”.  This thought is not original to me, of course—not many thoughts are—but rather comes from years before I began my psychology training.  Someone made the remark to me that “knowing about something is not the same as knowing”.  The remark puzzled me—aren’t these two the same things? (more…)

Apologies: Thawing the Ice that Grips Relationships

Apologies are interesting.  There are people who offer apologies in order to smooth things out for the moment so that a conflict can be avoided—maybe even a conflict that would do their relationship some good.  There are those who offer an apology, in hopes that next time the misdeed will be forgiven without any notice or further apology.  And, I hope, there are apologies that come from those who take responsibility for poor behavior, regret their actions, and have a desire to refrain from (or limit) inconvenience or harm to another in the future.

When I look at dictionary definitions, as I often do in thinking about a topic, I notice that “apology” comes with some contradiction that seems to be borne out in the way people offer their “regrets” about things they’ve done: (more…)

September 26, 2010

To Be, or To Do? That Is The Question

Over the years I’ve met with many dozens of patients who say that they’ve reached a point (and some are quite young when they say this, while others are past middle age) where they just don’t like who they’ve become.  In one way or another, they feel as if they’ve hit a point of stagnation in work, love or another important aspect of life.  Sometimes they are struck with the sense that time is passing by and the high hopes they had for what might be accomplished, achieved, obtained or experienced in life—have not become realities.

In our culture, it seems we are urged toward “bigger and better,” toward “progress” and “having it all.”  A friend of my wife says she is quoting the Duchess of Windsor when she states, “A woman can never be too thin or too rich.”  To that, she adds, “or have too many silk blouses.”  But I’m not so sure.  Beyond the basics necessary for life, I’m not sure that we benefit from all that striving, all that wanting more.  In the final analysis, it probably comes down to a couple of questions that one can answer only for oneself—and the answers might change as life offers opportunities to address these things. (more…)

Vacations: Two Weeks or Two Minutes

Okay, I’m breaking my own rule right now, but I’m thinking about this so it’s time to take action—that’s another rule that I try to live by—so here are my thoughts about vacations.

I’m spending a week away from my therapy practice, away from my life as an educator at The Evergreen State College, and I’m enjoying the company of friends and family in a setting that almost demands relaxation and reverie.  What occurred to me is that this is such a rare experience for most people—rare for me, too—and that without a plan and practice, slowing down is tough to do.  I know that I’ve written and talked about how our brains grow tired in much the same way that muscles wear down from overuse and strain.  We take on greater and greater responsibilities, almost without recognizing that we’ve added one more thing to our plate of obligations, and we tend to fulfill our commitments at work, and at home, but gradually as we take on these additional tasks, concerns and cares, the ability to manage competing demands is diminished.   (more…)

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