Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Losing The Scaffolding: Retirement

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 2, 2011

  Marcus, sixty-seven, was anxious to retire at sixty-five. He worked in marketing for forty years and he was tired of it; he wanted out. He started engaging in volunteer activities, mostly sitting on boards for non-profit organizations. His wife, Cecilia, also sixty-seven, wanted to keep working, so she did. Two years into retirement Marcus comes to see me, concerned that his marriage of twenty years was having trouble. “Cecilia is constantly telling me everything I am doing wrong. She complains about what I buy in the market. She says that our house is too messy, but let me tell you, it is spotless. I just don’t understand it.” Marcus and I work together twice a week for a year to slowly uncover that Cecilia does not seem to be the problem, or at least she does not seem to be  a major player in his internal turmoil. “Did you ever have problems with Cecilia before?” I asked Marcus many times, each time getting a slightly different answer. “Well, I was working and I was traveling so her behavior did not get to me so much.” Marcus would say, as if spending more time with Cecilia was the problem.

   One day, I ventured down a different path. “Maybe when you were working, your self-esteem was better, so now that you do not feel as useful, you are more sensitive to Cecilia’s comments. Maybe work gave you scaffolding for your sense of yourself, such that now you have collapsed internally.” Marcus looks at me, quiet for a few moments, then says, “well, yes, I see what you are saying, but I don’t want to go back to work.” “I notice that you jump into a solution, going back to work, and that it is hard for you to reflect on how your job gave you a better sense of yourself.” I say, hoping that Marcus and I can toss around the ingredients of work which helped him feel good, before jumping into action mode.

    “Well, sure I got validation from work,” Marcus says, somewhat trivializing my comment. “It is more than validation, it seems to me, work seems to have covered over some deep insecurities which are now being exposed,” I say, trying to move our conversation into a deeper realm. “Why do I feel so sad all of a sudden?” Marcus asks, but it seems so clear to me. “We are talking about a very dark subject, so I can certainly see why sadness has overcome you. We are exploring your sense of yourself, which at times, on a very deep level, is both uncertain and unpleasant. At those times, Cecilia’s behavior is more irritating to you and so consciously you think that she is the problem, not you. It seems that work gave you so much more than validation. It protected you from yourself. ” “This is so heavy,” Marcus says. “I am glad we are at the end for today. I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Marcus concludes, with a smile on his face, as if to say he looks forward to coming back, but for right now, he needs a rest.

4 Responses to “Losing The Scaffolding: Retirement”

  1. Jon said

    Marcus’s fundamental problem was first properly articulated as self-esteem. It then became “somewhat trivialized” as validation. However, perhaps, better phrasings are self-worth, or as you have said a sense of self.

    Is there some way that Marcus can gain a sense of self other by what he does for work? Yes, work has been important to his life, but has it been his life? I wish both you and Marcus good luck in finding a path which allows him to grow more at ease with the person he is to become.

    • Yes, Marcus can invest his time in new activities which bring him a sense of self-worth, but the problem right now is that he is unaware of how his previous employment not only gave him financial security and social stimulation, it also fed, what appears to be now, a very wounded ego. Understanding that kind of nourishment is critical before moving on to his next endeavor. Thanks for the good wishes. Marcus and I appreciate it.

  2. Shelly said

    How do most people gain their validation in life, if not through their experiences in their families, with their children, through their work, in their communities, volunteer opportunities, etc…? Isn’t it very common to become somewhat less than satisfied with life when one retires? Adjustments in routine are difficult to accept, and one needs to become reacquainted with one’s family–instead of seeing them briefly in the morning and again in the evening, suddenly seeing them 24/7 is quite a challenge. Aren’t Marcus’s reactions to be expected?

    • Yes and no. My point here is that the more Marcus loves himself, the easier this transition would be for him. How people adjust to change is very telling. For Marcus, he got mad at his wife, in ways he did not get mad at her before. In unpacking this issue, it seems that he projected on to his wife, all of his internal bad feelings which were masked at work. It was not so much that Marcus was less satisfied with life, as he was just confused and angry at his spouse. Becoming reacquainted with one’s family is one thing, but being irritated by them is another. No, I don’t think Marcus’ reactions are predictable. Many people sail into retirement happily.

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