Life After FIRE: The Inner Work of Early Retirement

Last week, I described the struggle I went through when the honeymoon phase of retirement ended. I was looking for a process to guide the inner-work of my transition into early retirement. But the processes I found for traditional age retirees weren’t a good fit for those of us in the financially independent, retire early (FIRE) community. Because I couldn’t find a process for the inner-work of transitioning into early retirement, I created an imperfect but effective one for myself. And I’ll be sharing that step-by-stop process here over the next 8 weeks.

The surface-level challenge of early retirement was: what do I do with myself and all that time (now that 40+ hours per week are openly available)? But the deeper challenge was figuring out how to shift from being the kind of person whose self-worth was grounded in my professional role and achievements to a fundamentally different self-understanding. For me that meant a seismic shift from doing to being.

To be clear, that kind of shift isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey that requires:

  • self-reflection and the desire to engage in inner-work
  • a willingness to dig up unconscious beliefs
  • curiosity about where our beliefs about retirement come from
  • the courage to question whether our existing beliefs are serving us, and
  • a playful spirit of experimentation with new ideas, identities, and ways of being.

Now maybe the transition you’re in is different than mine — maybe you’re about to be an empty-nester, you’re taking a sabbatical/mini-retirement/temporary break from work, your health requires a pause in employment, or something else entirely. Let me assure you that the two challenges we will address cut across different types of transitions: 1) what will I do with time that is suddenly available and 2) who will I become in this new chapter of life.

To truly transition your self, enjoy the freedom that early retirement entails, and discover the new “work” that will be central to your next chapter, you’ll need to put a few things in place up front.

Inner Work Requires Commitment, A Container and Community

First things first, if you want to maximize this journey to finding joy in the midst of life transitions, you’re going to need three things: 1) an explicit commitment to fully engaging in the process, 2) a container where you can generate and hold your insights, and 3) a community of support and accountability.

Without an up-front commitment to rolling up your sleeves and doing the inner work, you’ll just skim the surface. So if you’re here looking for quick tips, tricks and hacks, I can tell you now, you won’t find them. That’s because transitioning into a new stage of life requires introspection, digging deep, and answering powerful questions that only you can answer. I spent on average 30 minutes per day and I invite you to commit to that amount of time for the next 8 weeks.

In addition to making a commitment, you’ll need a “container” to hold your insights as they emerge. I started two habits during the process that served as my container and formed “bookends” for each day:

  1. open the day with 15 minutes of reflective journal writing
  2. close the day by writing (at least) three things you’re grateful for in your journal.

Personally, I keep a journal and pen on my bedside table so I can begin and end the day with writing. Try using your morning writing for reflecting on the weekly challenge questions, freewriting, or dialoguing with your self. You’ll get the most out of journaling if you physically write instead of typing on a computer or pecking into your phone. When you put pen to paper, it allows you to slow down, avoid distraction, and get present to your thoughts, feelings, and inner-wisdom.

And finally, walking through this process within a supportive community will turbo-boost your transition. If you can find a buddy or accountability partner who is in the same season of life, that’s great. Or maybe you and your spouse/partner plan to retire at the same time and you can process together. If you already work with a therapist, spiritual advisor, or life coach, you can ask for their support — and draw on their expertise — as you work through this process. 

You’ll get the most out of this process if you commit to making an intentional transition, create a consistent container for self-discovery, and have some form of community to both share your insights and learn from others.

What Does “Retirement” Mean To You?

Let’s start the process by getting in touch with our beliefs about retirement. I don’t mean this in a generic way. I mean let’s get explicit and concrete about what associations, beliefs, ideas and/or biases we have with the word “retirement.”

Take a few minutes during your journaling time to answer the following questions. Since you’re trying to become aware of what’s under the surface, it’s usually best to do this quickly (don’t over-think it).

  1. When I hear the word “retirement”, what word, ideas, and associations come to mind?
  2. People who don’t work for a living are ________________________________.
  3. When I meet retired people, I assume they are ________________________.
  4. How did others react to you when you answered the “what do you do?” question before you retired? How do they react now (or how do you imagine they will react once you’ve retired)? And how does the difference make you feel?
  5. Without a job, life is ____________________________________.
  6. The difference between “paid employment” and “work” is ____________.
  7. If I imagine doing meaningful work without being paid for it, I feel __________.
  8. Leisure is _______________________________________________________.
  9. My biggest fear about retiring is ______________________________________.
  10. A good life is ______________________________________.

I hope these questions will pull up some of your unconscious beliefs about retirement. As such, there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. And it’s okay if the answer to some of these questions is “I don’t know” or “I’m drawing a blank.” We’re trying to peek under the hood and see if there’s any unarticulated ideas you have about retirement that may block you from moving forward. And if you’re working with different transition, feel free to adapt the questions to your particular situation (i.e., When I hear the word “empty nest” what words, ideas and associations come to mind).

Personally, I was surprised and disturbed by how many negative associations I had about retirement. Particularly given that we worked for 18 years to retire early! But when I answered these questions I realized that I had a long list of negative beliefs about retirement, leisure, what I deserve in life, and becoming the kind of person who “doesn’t work”.

Maybe you have some negative beliefs and maybe you don’t. The only thing that matters is that you are aware of what’s under your own hood. If your beliefs are all positive, you’re done for the week! But if you pulled up some surprises, it’s time to ask a few more questions.

Where Did The Negative Beliefs Come From?

If you’re like me and unearthed negative associations about retirement it’s time to ask: where did these beliefs come from? When I reflected on this question, I realized that many of my negative beliefs were grounded in my father’s retirement. He was a principal for many years, but retired after a parent filed a lawsuit against him. The lawsuit was settled, but it took a toll on him. So he retired to the living room couch, spent most of his time watching tv, and his health quickly deteriorated. I was in my 20’s when he retired, became ill and died. And while I never consciously thought to myself “retirement is a sad bridge to death”, my dad’s experience shaped my inner story and fears about retirement.

But observing my dad’s retirement was not the only source of my negative perceptions. My childhood socialization also shaped how I thought about work (you have to be twice as good to be seen as equal). Latent religious messages shaped how I understood leisure (idle hands are the devil’s workshop!). And living in an achievement-oriented culture led me to over-value my professional accomplishments (you’re only as good as your last success).

With this much baggage, it’s no surprise that part of me was feeling anxious, guilty, and fearful about retiring early. While another part of me (the part that had worked hard to FIRE) wanted to celebrate! My conscious foot was on the gas and my unconscious foot was on the break, so I wasn’t going anywhere. I was stuck spinning my wheels but it wasn’t until I unearthed my beliefs that I finally figure out why.

The purpose of pulling unconscious beliefs up to the surface is so you can get curious about them and get into conversation with them by asking another important question.

Are My Beliefs Serving Me?

Take a look at the beliefs you’ve pulled up and ask yourself about each one: will this belief support me in my next chapter of life? This can be tricky because some beliefs may have been highly functional in a previous chapter of your life, but no longer serve you in your current chapter.

For example, I’m grateful that my dad raised me with the belief “you have to be twice as good to be seen as equal“. As a young woman of color working as a university professor, it was a highly functional belief. I actually had to be twice as good to be seen as equal! And as a start-up founder that belief drove me to set high standards and achieve big goals. But that same belief was undermining my ability to create a meaningful life in retirement (where I am happily free from proving myself in a job setting).

You may find that functional beliefs turn into limiting beliefs at later stages in your life and/or personal development. They are limiting because they no longer fit our context and keep us from growing in a new direction. But they’re only beliefs, so they can evolve and change.

What Do Empowering Beliefs Look Like?

Once you have a list of the ideas, beliefs or assumptions that aren’t serving you, I encourage you to take one last step: imagine an empowering belief that would replace it.

While awkward, it’s critically important to create empowering alternatives to your limiting beliefs (even if they sound fake, weird, or silly to you in the moment). Just try imagining a belief that would support you in retirement. If it’s challenging, simply state the opposite of the limiting belief.

For example, I’m willing to release myself from the belief that “I have to be twice as good to be seen as equal” because it’s not serving me in retirement. What is an empowering belief that could replace it? Here again there are no right or wrong answers. I came up with: I am enough.

To be clear, you won’t snap your fingers and magically internalize new and empowering beliefs. The purpose of this exercise is to sit with the tension of opposites. In my experience, when you hold opposites in tension a new, integrated belief will organically emerge. And that new belief will feel true and supportive of your new chapter.

A Weekly Challenge

Every week, I’ll challenge you to a little “joywork”. It’s much more enjoyable than “homework” and reminds us that the whole point of this process is to step into early retirement in a spirit of joy!

This week, I challenge you to:

  • Put your journal and a pen on your bedside table.
  • Spend 15 minutes answering the questions about “retirement”.
  • If you uncover negative associations, use your journaling time to identify where they came from.
  • Once you determine the origins of your negative beliefs, spend 15 minutes journaling about whether those beliefs will support you moving forward.
  • Brainstorm a list of empowering beliefs for each one of your limiting beliefs.
  • If you’re feeling brave, share your insights with another human.
  • Go out and DO one of the 25 things you love (from last week’s challenge). Notice how you feel while you’re engaged in this activity.

This step is about unearthing the underlying beliefs that may stop you from experimenting with new behavior, empowering beliefs, and wholly different ways of being in early retirement. It sets a strong foundation on which the rest of this process will build.

I can’t wait to hear what insights you discover this week!

Kerry Ann

p.s. – if you missed any of previous parts of the series, here are the links:

  1. Life After FIRE: Now What?
  2. The Inner Work of Early Retirement
  3. Who Am I?
  4. What Are My Gifts and Talents?
  5. Finding Your Purpose
  6. Who Are Your Retirement Role Models?
  7. How to Design Early Retirement Experiments
  8. Creating A Full And Meaningful Life
  9. Mastering Transitions

13 Replies to “Life After FIRE: The Inner Work of Early Retirement”

  1. 100% agree that journaling and doing what you love are worthwhile. I keep a list of 100 Dreams and pull activities from that. These activities provide some structure but not too much — after all, the goal is to stay flexible and not fall back into the Type A lifestyle that characterizes professional work life. I’m always course-correcting to keep myself from old work-hard patterns.

    1. Caroline, I love your idea of a dream list! I have a quick clarifying question for you: by ‘dreams’ do you mean literal dreams (what you see at night when you’re sleeping), the aspirational things you hope to do (like bucket-list items), or something else entirely? I love to make lists and draw from them as a well for inspiration so your dream list is quite intriguing to me!

      1. By dreams, I mean the goal/ objective/ wishes kind, not the kind you get when you sleep (though sometimes these overlap!). Recently I have noticed that my dream list is increasingly about travel and I was able to come up with 100 Dreams that were 100% about travel.

  2. Really glad I found this series! You’ve captured a lot of the surprisingly difficult feelings and associations that surface when making the transition to retirement! Pre-retirement I gave very little thought to how that transition would take place – suddenly being accountable only to myself and my family over my time, no longer having built in sources of socialization, achievement and a sense of daily productivity.

    All things I took for granted previously, and really had to work at figuring out and stumbling my way through.

    Your list of questions is fabulous! I think all FIRE people would be well served to go through this challenge well before retirement occurs – it would definitely help facilitate a smoother “shift” of mind set!

    Looking forward to following along with the rest of the series 🙂

    1. Thank you Phia! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series and I appreciate your affirming the challenge of accountability and re-defining achievement and productivity post-retirement.
      Part of why I wanted to share my own process in this step-by-step way was because I wish I had gone through it well before FIRE’ing! Hopefully it will inspire others to start their own processing as part of pre-retirement planning 🙂

  3. So excited to dive into this work. I’m 14 months away from early retirement and starting to feel nervous because it’s so close. I’m worried being bored even though I can’t wait for time freedom.

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