July 29, 2019

Retirement and The Imposter Syndrome


Throughout my career I suffered from something that actually has a name: imposter syndrome. This exists when you worry that someone will discover that you aren't qualified for what you are doing. Sort of the like the dream where you are naked in a public setting, the imposter syndrome exposes you as a fraud in a very public way.

In my case, I made a nice living telling other people what to do with their radio stations: which announcers to hire and fire, what music to play, how to promote the station...all the bits and pieces that would translate into economic success. My actual on-the-air experience was limited to smaller cities or those in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas, so much of what I was suggesting others came from watching successful stations and picked the best ideas from them to apply to others. At that time in the broadcasting industry, what worked in one place would usually work in another.

I had the career-long feeling that someone would ask me why I suggested what I did, what experience I had in that area, and why they should listen to me and pay me for my opinions. Someone was just waiting to point out the emperor had no clothes.

Happily, I remained fully dressed and never had my fears exposed. But, the feeling of being under-qualified for what I was doing never left.

In retirement, is it likely that some of that same imposter syndrome exists for many of us? Why do we get to stop working when millions of our fellow citizens can't? How can my investments actually last as long as I will? What will the next financial mess do to my life? What if I finally run out of things to keep me busy..then what? I really don't deserve all this.

The imposter syndrome reminds me of the post from last month:The Worst Thing That Could Happen...rarely does. We imagine things going wrong, though in this case, it is because we don't deserve what we have. Somehow we have cheated, or gamed the system, to enjoy a life that shouldn't really be ours. At some point, people we know will figure out how we achieved a satisfying retirement: we cut corners, or something. 

Now that I write these words, it strikes me how far fetched the imposter syndrome for retirement sounds. How could anyone "sneak" into this life. After all, the experience we accumulate from very early on eventually becomes who we are. The retirement stage is when we get to apply a lifetime's worth of "training" in a way that mostly satisfies us. If the way we envisioned ourselves living isn't how things actually turned out, then welcome to the club.

Life is about adjustments and accommodations. Retirement is no different. We aren't working at what allowed us to retire because of a lifetime of choices and decisions. There is no reason to feel like an imposter. We are exactly where we should be based on everything that has happened to us so far. 

So, relax and enjoy. If you still dream you will be caught undressed in a public setting, I can't help you with that one. But being a retirement imposter? I don't think it is a real thing.


16 comments:

  1. Every once in a while when I wish I could find more women friends my age who are retired.. I get that feeling of — being the odd one out maybe? So many Baby Boomers still working,grinding the ax... I feel not so much an imposter, but wondering why I get to enjoy this so much while others don’t..then I remember how LONG Ken and I studied strategies, saved money regularly,lived beneath our means, and planned ahead just so we could do this. AS time goes by I sink more and more deeply into the delight that retirement brings..the freedom.. but we did make sacrifices to get here.. so, no I don’t feel like an imposter.I just wish we had more ways for more families to do it too!! I hesitate to ever give anyone money advice, but starting EARLIER In life to plan ahead for retirement is SUCH a good idea.. there are so many books out on how to manage finances and lifestyle so you CAN save some for later.. I would love to see more and more families have the ability to retire,too...

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    1. The imposter feeling in retirement really doesn't make much sense, certainly not in the same way that during a career being the beneficiary of some lucky breaks and "right place, right time" can pay off.

      As the previous post noted, there are those who get cheated out of a planned for retirement due to things out of their control. That makes me both angry and sad. Those folks might have done everything right and got the short stick anyway.

      I wonder what the future holds for retirement. The economic inequality that seems to get worse every year does not bode well for the concept of a full retirement.

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  2. I haven't had the "dream you will be caught undressed in a public setting" since I retired so I think that says something. When I was working also ground my teeth down to nubs and have a mouthful of caps to show for it. I think those two things alone show the amount of unrecognized stress many of us are under at work.

    As for being an imposter in retirement I do sometimes feel that if I go for something big or a luxury (like say buying an expensive RV) and even when my financial adviser says we have the money, I feel maybe it's going to come back and bite me, that I want too much.

    My logical side tells me it's okay, you worked hard and deserve to spend it on whatever you want but there's always the little voice that makes me doubt that this is really for me. I try not to listen to that little voice too often and logic generally prevails but that's also probably why I am often say out loud to myself: "I saved all that money so I could spend it. If I'm not going to spend it then why did I save it?"

    I suppose that's my little pep talk to myself.

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    1. I was a teeth-grinder, too. Now, it is gone.

      The issue you raise is an important one, and not easily answered. Yes, we sacrificed and saved so we earned what we have. But, then what do we say to someone who did everything right and is harmed by health or economic problems out of their control? How should we feel?

      I must admit I also feel more guilty than being an imposter when traveling to a poorer country, knowing I am spending more on a hotel room than a family earns in a month. Jesus said we will always have the poor with us...he was right. But, that doesn't lessen my feelings of unease. The money spent on a two week vacation would feed several families for a year. I know I can't solve poverty, but how do rationalize my life with the massive imbalance I see?

      I don't have an answer that satisfies me, I am afraid.

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    2. I do know what you mean about being incredibly lucky to have what I have while others have so much less. It hit me hard decades ago as I was starting to achieve some career success. After thinking about it hard for some time I came to conclusion that if I gave everything I had to the poor of any particular impoverished country it would make hardly any difference and then I would also join the poor. With that conclusion I gave a set percentage of my income to charity feeling "Well, at least I can do this".

      One can always do more but I needed to be able to reconcile my feelings of wanting to help with also wanting to create a more or less good life for my own family. There's only so much a regular working (or retired) person can do on their own but it seems to me working together through our governments is a way to accomplish more for the disadvantaged. Sometimes I wonder when we stopped being citizens and started being just taxpayers.

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    3. Yes, I was recently floating in the ocean in Hawaii and feeling the same guilt. But I give to two charities monthly and worked at a food bank for seven years.

      I also am contributing to an entire economy when I travel for pleasure. And we're great tippers.

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  3. That's one syndrome I've never had. Quite the opposite. I was always afraid people would find out I could do more than I let on because I already felt overworked and didn't want any more responsibilities. Still do it today because there are a lot of groups out there that would be glad to fill up a retiree's time with stuff and stress I was glad to leave behind in another life.

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    1. Excellent, point. A retiree can have a target on his or her back, in terms of what others think we can or should do. Striking a balance between service and self is not easy.

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  4. As with all of your articles, Bob, you strike a chord within. I'm still amazed that you nail so many of my EXACT same feelings and you'd hope we'd gain support from the many of us who feel just as you do. But, truthfully, it's hard to overcome lifelong insecurities even if I'm aware that millions share the challenge. Please keep pounding at me!

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    1. Writing this blog for nine plus years has allowed me to get stuff out of me that rolls around inside. Whether it strikes a cord with others is easy to tell by the number of people who read a particular post!

      Sometimes I worry I share too much or am too transparent. But, if not, what is the point? All of us have questions, insecurities, and unfulfilled needs. Talking about it here is cheaper than seeing a shrink.

      Thanks, Bruce. I am quite touched that you find something of value here.

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  5. This was a common comment at the time of my retirement 6 yrs ago - you're so lucky. Lucky? I would suggest that anyone could be as "lucky" as me. Here's what you would have to do. Since I left high school, I had one year that I wasn't studying or working; that was the year I was on maternity leave. I invested in a workplace pension and worked full-time for 34 of the 35 years I was employed. That year, I worked part-time while I completed a postgraduate degree all while raising my son, being a farm wife and eventually a single mother. The lucky part was that I was born in North America to a family with a strong work ethic, jobs were readily available at the time of my graduation and I was able to stay with one employer for the duration of my career. It was more good management than good luck and I don't feel like an imposter; I've earned it. I may not "work" for a pay check any longer but I certainly earn my keep on this earth, volunteering in the community and doing the 101 little things that need doing as my elderly mother transitions from her home to a care facility. Retirement affords me the luxury of time and frees other family members from some of these responsibilities.

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    1. Well said, Mona. Your recount of why you are where you are today can resonate with many. I think luck plays some part in every human life. However, the the overall direction we take comes from a collection of decisions and beliefs that guide our choices, not simply waking up on the right side of the bed every morning.

      As you note, being born where we were gives us an advantage that we cannot dismiss. It also gives us a responsibility to do the most with what we have for ourselves, our loved ones, and the larger world in which we live.

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  6. Oh dear, you have (as you always do) set me thinking. There are moments when I worry that life can’t continue in such a contented, untroubled vein, but I put that down to enjoying retirement so much that I just don’t want that enjoyment to end. Now, you have me wondering if the concerns are actually indicative of a deep rooted insecurity. Will you be writing an antidote or should I admit myself to therapy?

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    1. My antidote is to assume imposter syndrome is a problem that affected me when I was employed, but no longer. Things are going very well now, but I know I am not guaranteed that condition will continue forever. If (when) something goes wrong, I hope to have the strength to recognize it as part of life and no failure on my part.

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  7. Hi Bob, new to your blog, and managed to read the VERY post regarding my "syndrome." Funny how that works, eh?! I've been retired for 2 years now, and it's taken every bit of it to realize that I was still "hustling for validation." Meaning, I took great pains to fill my days with "doing what I wanted" so that when asked, I could recite a long list of accomplishments. Took a diagnosis of high blood pressure and some other creeping maladies, for my Dr. to make that astute hustling pronouncement. I had to reflect deeply on this - as I was wearing myself out. And the bottom line(s): I wanted to still be considered productive, I was slightly embarrassed that I didn't HAVE to work while most of my friends still do, I didn't want to seem like a slacker, after all, I've worked since I was 14 and retired at 56. The most important lesson is that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of me or my life, only what I think of me and my life. I have made some changes that reflect this new philosophy - I don't say YES to as much, I MAKE time for my friends and for some laughs and fun, and all of those chores? They get done when they get done. The BP is going down, and I don't feel embarrassed that I GET TO live this life. I earned it, and am grateful to my toes that I can.
    Thank you for this post that made me see what I was doing!!

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    1. I think this is called synchronicity...when you experience something that was just part of your life a brief period earlier. It happens enough to be a little disconcerting!

      I retired at 52; Betty was 47. We had a rough time interacting with others since 99% of our acquaintances were working. Like many, I over compensated with volunteer and busy work.

      After a few years, I came to accept where I was in life and begin to build my own path. But, the imposter syndrome still rears its head on occasion, even 18 years later.

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