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Crossing the Bridge: Understanding the Retirement Transition

When you hear “retirement planning” you probably think of financial things like building an investment portfolio, talking with a financial advisor, and calculating your Social Security benefits. But far too few of us think about the other side of retirement planning—preparing yourself mentally for the next phase.

If you’ve been working full-time for decades, transitioning to a life of leisure may seem enticing. But many newly retired folks find it takes a while before they can really settle in and enjoy it. The beginning stages of retirement can invoke feelings of being lost, disconnected, and uncertain. It’s no fun to feel that way, but it’s totally natural. 

Think of Retirement as a Transition, Not a Change

Both change and transition are inevitable in life, and they are often uncomfortable. For this reason, people tend to use the words interchangeably—but there’s a clear difference. 

Change is situational, whereas transition is psychological. In other words, change is an event. Transition is a process. Transition requires an inner reorientation, which we go through in order to cope with or incorporate a change into our lives. 

Bridges’ Three Stages of Transition 

Change consultant William Bridges introduced the Transition Model in 1991, which highlights three major stages we go through when experiencing change:

  1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go
  2. The Neutral Zone
  3. The New Beginning

Phase 1 involves letting go of old ways and old identities. It can feel like grief in some ways, by bringing up feelings of fear, anger, denial, frustration, and a sense of loss. Anyone who’s ever had their heart broken knows letting go is tough, but critical to moving on. Every new beginning starts with an ending—but before you can re-launch, you have to release. Be patient with yourself during this time. 

We like to refer to phase 2 as “the messy middle”. In this seemingly unproductive time, you might feel confused, uncertain, or impatient. You may feel anxious or even resentful about your newly retired status. Or, just as likely, you may feel nothing at all. People often go through this phase without realizing it. The messy middle is where the unconscious work of the transition happens. It’s where you surrender and embrace “whatever will be, will be.”

In Phase 3, you begin to emerge as someone new. Someone who is beginning to accept a new reality and a new future. You will experience feelings of acceptance and maybe even exuberance. The new beginning may come as an “aha moment” or it may slip in by accident. Entering phase 3 doesn’t make you instantly transformed, never to experience worry or anxiety again. But you’ll be ready, willing, and open to learning through the remainder of the process. 

Understanding Your Typical Response to Change 

The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” As such, each of us has developed characteristic or typical methods for dealing with change. And transitional situations bring our natural coping mechanisms to the forefront.  

Think back on the transitions in your life to discover your own typical response to change. Do you jump in head-first or approach with caution? Do you look for the good or focus only on the rough parts? How will your way of dealing with change serve you (or hinder you) as you transition into retirement? 

Of course, some people process change faster than others. Your partner may jump right into the retirement lifestyle while you need more time, and that’s ok. There’s no right or wrong way to experience change. Don’t rush or force it. Just like love often does, new beginnings find you only when you are ready. 

Learning to Trust The Journey

Think of retirement as a journey, not a destination. If the idea of transitioning to your next phase sounds scary, remember that you’re retiring from a job, not from life. You have the power and freedom to design your journey based on some very important questions:

You don't have to have it all figured out in advance (that’s part of the journey) but doing some inner work ahead of time will help. Spend some time with the questions above. Be open to signs that might signal a new path or the dawning of the next phase of transition. And most importantly, be willing to feel your feelings, even if they are uncomfortable. 

Remember, the discomfort is only temporary, and may actually help you as you make your way through the stages in Bridges’ model. Life is not linear, and neither is retirement. Be patient with yourself and enjoy the ride!

If you’re looking for a roadmap to planning your retirement journey, get Retirement Secrets! This book will help you prepare financially, define your goals, and develop an actionable plan to achieve them. 

Retirement Secrets book


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