Each week I shared intense intimacy with my clients and guided them where others fear to tread – into the shadow. And I feel privileged to have watched them alter ingrained self-sabotaging patterns and lead more fulfilling lives. My days were filled with depth and intimacy, and I felt gratitude.
But during my 68th year of life experience, I noticed a restlessness, a stirring that I had felt several times before at the end of a cycle and the beginning of another – when I had stopped teaching meditation full-time but had no vision for a new career and felt like I stepped off a cliff; when I had stopped writing journalism but didn’t hear a new call and stepped into the dark unknown; when I had left book publishing and decided to go to grad school to become a therapist, but without financial or emotional support. Each time, I had entered liminal space because of a call from my soul. Each time, a path appeared, with allies and guides and, eventually, a fulfilling destination.
I became aware that it no longer bothered me when clients disappeared without a formal termination or closure process. Previously, I felt that I was left holding the relationship when a client stopped communicating. Now, I could let it go. Previously, I looked forward to traveling from the Santa Monica mountains into my office in town. Now, I didn’t want to do the drive. Previously, I enjoyed traveling into others’ inner worlds. Now, I wanted more time to explore my own.
It wasn’t that I cared any less about my clients; it was that my attention was moving away from the work, and my heart was opening in other ways. What was it moving toward? I was hearing the call of a divine messenger for a new orientation to time – less structure, more flow. A new orientation to responsibility – less obligation, more choice. A new orientation to service – from one-on-one therapy to teaching large groups. A new orientation to purpose – from role to soul.
After many years of practicing attuning to myself, I listened to the inner voices: “I wonder what else I could do with my time left? I wonder what I need to stop doing?” “I think I should do more. I think should do less.” “I don’t want to travel.” Then I book more trips. “I want to slow down.” Then my calendar fills up. Then, the most essential question arose: Who am I – if I’m not Dr. Connie, a therapist, the shadow expert? What would it mean to let go of my role, my brand? What has been sacrificed to maintain that role? Who am I if I am no longer the Doer? How do I overcome the resistance to letting go in this transition?
First, I stopped accepting new clients. When they emailed, I took a breath, wished them well, and referred them out.
Next, I began discussing my own departure with clients. We explored the range of their feelings and moved slowly, each in a unique way, toward completion.
A few months later, the opportunity came to give up my city office. I went for it – and let go into the unknown.
I suspected that, with the gain of freedom, there also would be loss. I would feel less needed and important for a while. I would feel less secure and more uncertain for a time. I would feel less independent with the loss of income from therapy. As my husband continues to work, it will change our partnership and the way we care for one another. And I might feel less purposeful, a bit disoriented with the uncertainty, the path ahead still hidden.
And I would lose the precious vehicle, the clinical relationship, in which to transmit all that I’ve learned from my own inner work, intellectual development, and spiritual growth to others. It has been a sacred container to radiate my level of development to others, who willingly received it.
Of course, I cherished my clients for who they were, but also for who they are for me. Aside from my husband and grandkids, who would I love with such fierceness? Who would receive my consistently positive gaze and devotion? That would be a terrible loss—and a potential gain, if I turned my loving gaze back to my family, friends, and myself.
My clients love me back in a certain way, of course, in the projection of a good parent. For some, I’m the only good mother they’ve ever had; for others, the only kind sister or wise grandmother or spiritual mentor. As I’ve carried that positive projection over the years, I’ve become accustomed to wearing it like a gown and standing in the archetype for them, rather than disclosing anything about my personal limitations. It will be a loss to give up the power and status of that projection – and a gain to cultivate more equal and reciprocal relationships. It will be a loss to give up the “brand” of shadow expert – and a gain to extend it into this whole new territory of late-life in my new book.
Retirement from clinical practice is not what it looks like. It means retiring a spiritual path to my own deepening and widening awareness. It means retiring the need to help; it means retiring the need for answers; it means retiring the need to be appreciated. It means retiring from a life that’s known and facing an unknown, liminal time. And it means retiring a practice of love that has connected me to the depths of the human soul and to the journey of the human species. It has been a privilege.
Cristina Kanu says
I’m an AGNG 320 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I writing this blog to review the blogpost “Reflections on Retiring in the Helping Professions” by Connie Zweig. I really resonated with this post because it was about entering the unknown and closing one chapter and moving to a situation that is complete foreign. She is talking about how the stages of life and the leaps she had to take to change careers or grow out of situation that no longer served her. She is talking about the grief of going into retirement and the lack of growth in it. I think that this is something I resonate with because change is hard for anyone and not knowing what is next in the next stage of your life is very scary. ” I suspected that, with the gain of freedom, there also would be loss. I would feel less needed and important for a while. I would feel less secure and more uncertain for a time. I would feel less independent with the loss of income from therapy.” In my AGNG 320 class we have been studying about wellness and aging which I think is important when you think of retirement because it is a lass of something you have held onto and worked on for essentially decades and then do not know what you are going to retire to do and that is scary, a loss, and a gain.
De Herman says
Thank you for writing this most resonant piece. On my 66th birthday, after a decade of hospice chaplaincy, I felt similarly called to step away from that role and I now join you and Howard (and many others!) in this liminal space. Still wanting to serve in a meaningful way, my own “deepening and widening awareness” is moving me toward a new ecological activism–different from what I took on before my chaplaincy and one that is still trying to define itself as I move through this eldering time. Like you, I’m a certified Sage-ing facilitator which I enjoy sharing with our fellow Boomers. Like Howard, I’m not energized to promote myself. It’s clearly a time for “getting to know myself in new and surprising ways…” I look forward to reading your book.
Oh, Connie. As you know, I relate to everything you say here. The retirement path has been a real challenge for me, as I have always been in service. I have not found anything to replace the feeling of being relevant in the way that I connected as a therapist with so many people as “the good father.” I write now, but have absolutely no interest in sales or promotion, so my books remain parked within the Amazon ethers. I sculpt now, but my sculpture sits or hangs in my own home — taking up way too much space inside and out. And I am getting to know myself in new and surprising ways as my own introject tries to move into center stage and judge me for becoming insignificant. Onward….