Four weeks. Four Mondays. Less than four Fridays thanks to Thanksgiving.
That’s all we have left of our traditional working careers.
It’s thrilling! And terrifying. Both of which I expected.
And it’s a little bit sad, as we say goodbye to colleagues and clients we’ve worked with for a decade and a half (me) and nearly two decades (Mark). I expected that, too.
When we’re not working, we’re checking items off our final to do list, figuring out which health care coverage to buy off the exchange for next year, and double-checking our math to solidify our withdrawal strategy for next year. All stuff I’d anticipated.
But as much time as we’ve spent thinking and talking about this moment — right on the cusp of our early retirement — and as many words as I’ve devoted to projecting how we’d feel when the time came, my best guess about that mix of emotions didn’t quite get it right.
We knew we’d be in an emotional soup, feeling multiple things, some of them conflicting. We knew we’d feel busy and like we won’t be able to get everything done in time. (It’s true. We won’t. But that’s not stopping us from trying. Three more medical appointments this week!)
People who know our plans keep asking us how we’re feeling, and we know how we’re supposed to answer. We’re supposed to be excited, and the answer we give feels like a performance, playing the part of “how a person this close to early retirement is supposed to feel.” But it’s definitely a performance.
Because the truth is, I’m not actually sure how I feel.
And then there’s the physical part. But we’ll get to that.
Feelings Don’t Always Agree With Each Other
One of the best things I learned from going to therapy for years was that we’re often feeling more than one thing at a time. That reaction I might have to something frustrating, that feels like anger? It’s probably not pure anger. There’s probably a healthy dose of sadness and hurt mixed in. And that overwhelming sense of excitement about something awesome coming my way? The overwhelming part is almost certainly a pinch of fear and a sprinkling of anxiety. Feelings are rarely that simple or singular.
I’m grateful for that lesson all the time, but especially when I’m facing down the big moments in life. It’s thanks to therapy that I knew approaching early retirement wouldn’t be 100 percent happy, even though it represents so many happy things: the culmination of a freaking huge life goal, the end of work on someone else’s terms, finally being able to get enough sleep, etc. I knew there’d be sadness, from the necessary goodbyes to the many people I work with whom I consider friends, perhaps a touch of disappointment in wondering if I’m not living up to my potential, and maybe even some anxiety about wondering if we’re doing the right thing.
Those feelings are all here, and I’m certain the sadness will hit hard when we have our goodbye parties in a few weeks. (Retirement parties! Holy crap. This is real life.)
The Pressure of the Performance
So back to that question we keep getting: “How are you feeling?!” It’s always asked by someone genuinely curious, who’s excited for us and maybe even a little envious.
And each time someone asks me that, I know: You are not looking for the full answer. You want the pure stoke answer. Like when someone casually asks how’s it going, they are just looking for “Fine,” or “Good!” not a full rundown on the ups and downs of your life.
“I’m excited, but to be honest, I can’t really focus on that right now because I’m feeling the bigness of leaving my long-time career, the sadness of saying goodbye to colleagues I love, the overwhelm of trying to get through too many to do list items before mid-December, all mixed with a healthy dose of ambivalence about the whole thing. Actually, the truth is that it’s all so surreal that I just feel kind of numb.”
Um, yeah. Not the answer anyone is looking for.
I can know that and still feel this odd pressure to perform in that moment, and to tell them what they want to hear. But it’s not just what they want to hear, but how that response should look. A robotic and unfeeling, “Yes. So excited,” is not the correct answer. This is a “once more, with feeling!” moment, demanding a big smile, an enthusiastic delivery and a twinkle in the eye. All of which I can muster, but at a cost.
And that cost isn’t just the tiny psychic labor I do each time I answer that question. It’s also the question it amplifies within myself: Isn’t that answer I just gave how I should feel? Why don’t I actually feel that way? What am I doing wrong?
I know I’m not doing this wrong, or at least I’m not doing it wrong for me, but the weight of that question coming up again and again just adds to the ambivalence I’m feeling in this final stretch.
The Physical Part
A few months back, I was certain I could sprint to the finish, and keep pushing myself too hard with both work and personal projects because it was only a few months.
But the last month has been a reality check, reminding me that I’m still a human bound by the laws of physics. Or maybe just that I need more sleep, and to take better care of myself generally.
After years of infrequent migraines, I’ve had two really bad multiday migraines in the last month, one interrupting a trip to see family. And I’ve just generally felt bad, with more pain than I’ve had in a while.
I definitely did not expect to feel this way physically with early retirement just right up there. I can count the number of work days I have left on my fingers and toes — shouldn’t that knowledge make me feel good physically?!
I got close on anticipating what the feelings would be like, but I was waaaaay off on how my body would feel. Physically, I feel like I’m going to collapse into early retirement, the way Mark and I often felt that we collapsed into the weekend while in the thick of work. I knew I’d need time to decompress and catch up on sleep, but I thought I’d be healing from the last 16 years, not from the last six months.
The state of my physical health is forcing me to slow down on some things, to take a social media break (xoxo to my Twitter friends!), and to put some things off until later that I’d hoped to have done by now. I’m bummed about it, but also accept that it’s necessary.
Processing Feelings Generally
Something I’ve realized in writing this blog and then seeing the comments that come in response to the posts is that it’s easy to assume that what I share here — mostly the thinking about things, and much less the doing of the things or living with the decisions — is the entirety of our experience. And that’s not remotely true. I don’t spend all of my life overthinking every possible outcome, worrying about decisions and planning for contingencies. That’s just a small portion of our lives, but it’s the majority of what I write about here.
I’m a “think hard about the decision before I make it and then never look back” kind of person, and second-guessing myself is not something I do often. But writing posts that say “Remember that thing I spent 2000 words talking about? I did what I said and it’s cool,” would get boring fast. So I write about the front-end thought processes primarily, where the real thinking is, and not always the happy aftermath.
And so I’m aware that talking about how what we’re feeling now is not pure, unmitigated joy will sound to some like I’m unhappy, or like I’m regretting the decision to retire early. And that’s not true at all. I’m excited, and eager, and all of those positive things — but I’m also exhausted and stressed and nervous and sad and a little bit numb and any number of other, more complicated and ambivalent feelings simultaneously.
But this is another version of my front-end processing of feelings. I’m feeling all of this stuff so acutely now — especially the negative stuff — because this transition moment is looming, and because (as a wise reader recently told me) we’re wired to process most change as a loss. So I’m staring down a pretty big loss right now, and it’s making me feel all the things, even though it’s a loss I’ve willingly and excitedly signed up for.
I’m confident, though, that once we hit the end of our last work day, I’ll feel something really different, and much closer to the flood of positive feelings that I feel pressure to feel right now.
It’s just four weeks away.
Let’s talk feeeeeeeeels.
So curious as always to hear from you guys. Anyone else who’s close to your end date experiencing the strange mix of emotions, not all positive? Or experienced this in some other big life transition? You know you’ll make me feel better if you share your story. ;-) Any other “do the big thinking upfront even though it sounds like overthinking and then move forward confidently with no self-doubt” thinkers want to commiserate? Want permission to slow down a bit and take better care of yourself, despite your desire to kick ass and take names? I’ll gladly offer support! So much to discuss today. Let’s dive into it all in the comments!
This is my only post this week because of the holiday, and because I will happily take a short breather. You can catch me Wednesday on an all-new episode of The Fairer Cents (Kara and I are talking about emotional labor this week with the author of the seminal piece on the topic). And I’ll be back at ya next Monday with a new post here.
Sending out a big THANK YOU to everyone reading, whether you’re celebrating Thanksgiving this week or not, for all your support, whether you comment or not, for dropping by. It means the world to me. I’m so grateful. xo
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Categories: gearing up