Recently, I celebrated the second anniversary of the day I left my law firm job. And while it’s been tremendous, and I have no regrets about leaving, it hasn’t been complete smooth sailing because of certain psychological problems with early retirement.
Most people question the FIRE (Financial Independence Retirement Early) movement in terms of how to get there. How does one earn enough money, how do you save enough, and will it be enough to last a lifetime? But the most difficult questions are the psychological ones on this journey.
It’s been an emotional journey and these are the six psychological problem areas/the six questions I’ve had to wrestle with in these two years of early retirement.
1. Identity: Who am I?
When you have committed a minimum of three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of working in a certain profession, yeah, I’d guess you start to associate yourself with that profession. Saying you’re a lawyer commands a certain level of respect and that can be addictive.
In the DC metro area, it’s only a matter of time before someone asks what you do for a living. Even after I quit, I still identified as a lawyer, even if I wasn’t working as a lawyer to “make my living.” (God, lawyers, we have to parse out every question). But what am I supposed to do – tell people I’m a tennis coach?
Your whole life, your identity may have been set for you. Your parents set your priorities until you left the house. Then your employer told you who you were. After you leave work, you learn that you have to create your own identity and take control of your own time. When you start living your own life, there’s a sense of freedom that can be new and overwhelming. It’s important to plan for your identity reckoning is coming when you retire early – and it’s a roller coaster.
2. Fatigue: Why am I so tired?
I remember a “regular” retiree telling me that her first few years of retirement were spent sleeping. And she said this unabashedly. As well she should.
There’s a poster I love that says “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” It’s funny because it’s sad. I know a lot of people who are too anxious to take time off, take time for themselves, or sleep. So many of us are sleep-deprived, in addition to all the pent-up exhaustion and stress we have from work. We also are holding onto unresolved emotions, so when you go on retirement, your body may feel like it’s hit a wall. And at first it’s scary and unsettling that you’ve finally taken time off and you’re not fully rested after a few days. It’s not that you’re lazy – but your body is weaning itself off the adrenaline it’s been running on for decades.
Everyone else is at work, and I didn’t have much to do. I felt a little bit stupid that I had the luxury to sleep in. And because now I was sleeping and taking care of myself, I also felt guilty taking a nap. I felt stupid for being so tired still. But it’s totally ok not to fix all your fatigue problems instantaneously. It takes some time. And now you have the time. Now that you have the time for yourself, you can still feel guilty for sleeping – but push through and do it.
3. Direction: What am I Going to Do with My Life?
Some people may think a major downside of retiring early is not knowing what to do with your life. And it’s true that you have to ask yourself those big questions about meaning and purpose. But honestly that’s a feature and not a bug of early retirement. It’s like saying, the problem with going to the doctor is knowing why you’re sick. Getting care is necessary to identify and then remedy the problem. Avoidance is not a solution.
I knew that I had to get out of my job so I could work on myself and my mental health. But it’s a lot of work to undertake. Some people never stop to take a time out to evaluate their lives.
Knowing the lack of direction is one of the psychological problems of early retirement, I’m reevaluating the young ideals I had before becoming a lawyer. Wanting to do something in prison reform, I was successful in a compassionate release motion a few months ago. Desiring to work on my political ideals, I’ve networked and gotten more involved with a few leadership organizations I admire. And I’m looking at careers in law that will further my ideals. I’m still working on it but I’m excited about the possibilities.
4. Disenchantment: Can I Keep Living This Life?
I know some early retirees are living it up on the islands. I’m not really an island person. My dream retirement lifestyle goals were really very boring – stay in town near my family, travel more. So some days are boring. And though I don’t at all envy any of my working friends, not only do I wonder about my purpose, but I wonder about the day-to-day. It’s a mix of trying to remember to be grateful, trying to hold onto this moment, and sometimes yearning for more.
It’s surprisingly easy to be disenchanted with your life. For instance, I used to follow an Instagram account that posted fantastically beautiful travel images. And then I realized that I was watching the fall leaves, and it wasn’t as beautiful as those pictures. Because real life can’t compete with an amazing photographer getting the perfect shot at the perfect time at the perfect place.
I had to stop following this account because it was ultimately making me unhappy. I can’t look at images and stories that will warp my enjoyment of what’s real. In this age of filters and Photoshop, it’s good to remember how to enjoy real life again.
5. Vulnerability: What Excuses Do I Have Now?
It’s amazing how often we use lack of time as an excuse. If we’re not in shape, we stress that we didn’t have time to eat right or workout. If we don’t write that novel, it’s lack of time. Not enough time with family/friends, not having the job/life we wanted – it’s all time. What happens if you take away that excuse?
One of the psychological problems with early retirement is acknowledging that you have no more excuses. You have to go and get what you want. It’s especially easy to get disconnected from society in retirement, and if you want more time with your family/friends, you have to reach out to them. If you want to start a business, start it. This is the time when you run out of excuses and need to start doing what you purport to want to do.
6. Reorientation: Finding Adventure
I COULD NOT cook last week. The meal prepping part of my brain fell out. And so I ate out a few times last week. I gorged on a short rib stroganoff (why is beef stroganoff such a great comfort food?) and a gigantic strawberry milkshake. There was pizza and ramen and wine. Lots of wine. And I didn’t really understand what was going on with me. I think, though, that it was a certain loss of adventure.
Usually around this time of year, I schedule a trip. Last year in February, I booked an ill-fated trip to San Francisco to visit friends – then the epicenter of the coronavirus. I just get wanderlust at this time of year. And I hadn’t gone anywhere in awhile, and I felt like I had to eat my feelings just to have that novelty and, ironically, normalcy, back in my life.
You have to create your plan, your schedules, your goals in early retirement because there is no job taking up your schedule. It can be a little scary knowing you have total control over your schedule and unlimited options. It might be a little bit of “fear of success.” It’s like when I went to the culinary capital of China and then ate at Ikea because I was just so overwhelmed.
Early retirement is nothing if you’re not planning your days. The beautiful thing about early retirement is that you can reinvent yourself and your life every day. It gets stagnant if you’re not inviting newness into your life. But a few days of boredom are expected and necessary. Not every day is a day at the beach (but some of us get bored at the beach).
Psychological Problems with Early Retirement
When my dad retired, I had latent anxiety. I heard that many people lost their sense of purpose after retiring. Well that was over a decade ago, and my dad has not had a dull moment since. He’s served as a good beacon of hope regarding retirement. You can figure out what to do in your early retirement too. The psychological problems of early retirement aren’t dead-ends, but jumping-off points. The best part of doing it early is you don’t feel at the end of your life, why didn’t I do this sooner?