Becoming Who We Really Are


May 10, 2016 by Jean

imageRecently, I’ve been thinking about how the retirement years can provide us with an opportunity to become more who we really are. I feel as though retirement has allowed me to grow in many directions, developing capacities that had been mostly dormant. And this kind of growth makes me feel more fully alive.

This experience reminds me of the concept of “self-actualization,” which I learned about in one of my first college psychology classes. As defined by the twentieth-century psychologist Abraham Maslow, self-actualization is a need or desire that human beings have to develop their capabilities, moving toward realizing their full potential.

It makes some sense that the experience of self-actualization would be more common among those who are older, and especially among retirees. Maslow theorized that self-actualization was at the top of a “hierarchy of needs;” people could only focus on actualizing their potential when other, more basic needs – for physiological survival, safety and security, love and belonging, and esteem – were met. We can think of our adult working years as times when we are focused on meeting our own basic survival needs, on finding a living situation that is reasonably safe and secure, on building families and friendships, and on developing skills (both at work and in interpersonal relationships) for which we are esteemed. Only when these layers are in place, according to Maslow, can we focus on self-actualization.

The later adult years may provide more opportunities for self-actualization than the younger adult years in part because our more basic needs have been met, but also because, as we grow older, we are more likely to understand who we are and what our strengths, weaknesses and capabilities are. This self-knowledge is important for actualizing our potential. The later adult years may also free us from some of the pressure of other people’s needs and demands that can dominate our lives at younger ages. I remember my mother telling me when I was in my thirties that she had not felt free to be herself until after her own mother died. (My mother was in her early sixties when this happened.) My mother was an introvert in a family of extraverts, and her mother was particularly critical of her emotional reserve and preferences for solitude. With her mother’s death, she was released from the pressure to try to be who her mother wanted her to be. The demands of parenthood may also be reduced in the later adult years, when children are more likely to have left the parental home and be established in their own adult lives. When these conditions for self-actualization are in place, retirement can provide the time to pursue dreams and engage in self-actualizing activities and creative efforts.

Does this mean that all retirees will find themselves on a path to self-actualization? Unfortunately not. Poverty or poor health can mean that trying to meet basic physiological needs dominate an elder’s life. Even when basic physical needs are met, those who experience financial insecurity or who are in living situations that do not feel safe will find their energies focused there. The death or serious illness of a spouse, an unwanted divorce, estrangement from a child, or social isolation can all mean that needs for love/belonging are not being met. What about meeting our needs for esteem? For many people, work is an important source of esteem and retirement may be a threat to esteem. Whether or not that is so will likely depend on whether we leave the workplace feeling like our contributions are recognized and valued and whether we have alternative ways to continue using those valued skills in retirement.

I have been very lucky to enter retirement well-housed and healthy, feeling reasonably secure in my retirement savings, with a wonderful network of friends who provide me with a sense of belonging, and with skills that I enjoy using and that I know others value. Retirement has given me the time and opportunities to use and further develop my valued skills in new settings (e.g., teaching at the senior college) and to develop capabilities that were undeveloped during my working years. I feel as though this stage of my life is making it possible for me to become more fully who I am and who I want to be.

9 thoughts on “Becoming Who We Really Are

  1. Jean R. says:

    What an interesting example you used of your mother being released from the pressures of trying to be what her mother wanted her to be after your grandmother passed. My own mother used to say that her 60s were the best time of her life and I think that came from having raised her family, her grandchildren were off to a good start,she had quit working outside the home and she was then free to become who she really wanted to be. Women put so much on hold to take care of others that the retirement years can be our time to shine. It’s wonderful to see you shine in your retirement!

  2. Brenda says:

    Beautifully put Jean. Retirement has given me a huge feeling of liberation. I fear for retirement’s future though. Without pensions, it’s so difficult for people to save enough to retire while still young enough to be in relatively good health. We feel very fortunate that we were able to do so. I was interested in you mother’s comment. I, too, was an introvert in a family of extroverts, with a sharply critical mother, “Why don’t you entertain!!??” My mother’s personality mellowed after her stroke a few years ago and, as your mother said, it’s freeing to be able to be myself, without apologies to anyone.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, When my mother told me about the freedom she felt after her mother’s death, she impishly added, “Unfortunately for you, I’m in good health!”

  3. Funny I have been thinking on similar lines….this time for me is also about reaching the top of Maslow’s hierarchy….now I have a few things to iron out but I am feeling so much more at ease.

  4. Diana Studer says:

    If it’s good, retirement can be very, very good.
    I do appreciate having so many choices of things to do … that I need 2 or 3 lives ;~)

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I feel very fortunate to be experiencing one of those very, very good retirements. I’ve made peace with the realization that I’ll never get everything done by realizing that it’s better than reaching all your goals and then sitting around twiddling your thumbs and waiting to die.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

Please join me as I step into my future.

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