You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Occasionally I receive questions or comments from readers describing their unhappiness in retirement. Some ask how to get to their happy place. My belief, and this is just that, my belief, is we create our own happiness. Our perceptions of self and how the world looks to us is created by our beliefs, like the belief I just attributed to my thinking. I also ascribe to the notion of I don’t know what I don’t know. If there is something about my life I don’t like, I go in search of answers and change my outlook in order to change the outcome.

When I was searching for satisfaction and happiness in my own situation after retiring, I came across the concept of self-imposed limitations. I realized I was the creator of my unhappiness because I was engaging in self-talk that limited my view of retirement, which in turn limited my options. That, folks, kept me in the same holding pattern, circling the same airport with the same destination — unhappy retirement. In order to fly to a new destination, I had to break the pattern.

While you are writing to me about your unhappiness, describing what you don’t like and don’t want to do, on my end I am reading ‘self-imposed limitations’. You write, “I don’t like crafts”; “I’m not a hobby person”; “I’m not a joiner”; “I don’t like doing volunteer work”; “I’m not artistic”; “my husband, wife, friends don’t want to do this or that”; and I read ‘self-imposed limitations’. These are all statements describing your personal belief about your reality. They are beliefs that limit what you are doing or will do in your life. YOU are the person standing in the way of YOUR happy retirement.

Retirement is a time to reach your personal potential as a human being. Self-imposed limitations are negative self-talk preventing you from putting your dent in the universe. The first step to ridding yourself of this mindset is to recognize it. What are you telling yourself that is limiting, negative and without a proven basis?

For example, I waffled back and forth about taking drawing classes after my perceived failure at watercolor. I told myself things like, “I’m really not artistic. Who am I kidding? I can’t even draw a straight line.” I was talking myself out of taking the class using self-imposed limitations. Fortunately, I have a husband who encouraged me to try it. As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, I made the discovery of a lifetime. I still can’t draw a straight line, but I can draw people, animals, flowers and a lot of other things. And, now, I’m trying watercolor again, with some success.  Think about what you may be missing in life because you are filling your mind with self-imposed limitations. Recognize them and replace them with positive self-talk.

There was a TV show about getting people to face and overcome their biggest fears. Though I never watched it, I remember seeing a clip of someone facing their fear of snakes. What are you afraid of that keeps you from trying something new in retirement? What is your snake? Dig deep. Be honest. Sometimes we don’t try, failing before we even start, because we are afraid of exactly that — failing. “What if I have to drop out because I really am not good at __________(you fill in the blank)?” “What will my friends say?” “How embarrassing to fail.” “People will think I’m a loser if I don’t finish.”

So what if it doesn’t work out? This is not like it was in your work world where if you couldn’t rise to the task or the promotion, you might face all kinds of humiliation from co-workers, family and friends. You are retired. Expect to try new activities and expect to have some stick and some not. That’s part of the retirement adventure! Face your fears. Challenge yourself.

Choose to do something you told yourself you don’t like or won’t be good at doing or you are not the type of person who does that. Then, do it. And, do it with an open mind and heart. Determine up front to give it your best.

I told myself for years I was not athletic. I never did well in gym or sports as a kid and carried that picture of myself into my adult years. That was a self-imposed limitation. After having my second child, I took up running just to lose the extra pounds I couldn’t seem to shake. That’s when I discovered what I didn’t enjoy was team sports. I preferred to rely on my own steam, my performance and mine alone. I ran three miles a day every other day for several years until an overworked knee put a stop to it.

Until we try something, we don’t know what we don’t know. We must continually challenge ourselves to try new activities or new twists on old activities in order to discover our true potential and talents. Enlist a spouse or friend to advocate for you when you start talking yourself out of doing what you signed up to do. My husband played that part in the scenario with the drawing class. Now he and I remind each other when we are applying self-imposed limitations. It helps to have a buddy to keep your mind both aware and open.

This is our last third of life. We can create the life we envisioned with an attitude of exploration, discovery and adventure or we can choose to languish with self-imposed limitations until the day we die. I hope this post will encourage at least some of you who seem to be stuck to dump the self-imposed limitations and choose adventure.

21 comments on “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

  1. Good one, Kathy. I had a thought the other day: What would I do if I was 45? Which was before I got all ageism on myself – oh gosh, what if I fall, what if someone sees my chubbby self out there walking and being in the warm sun? I was courageous then, and just starting to ride my bike. And my new bike is now hanging in my garage, and waiting for me to JUST GO! A counselor I am seeing at my local senior center told me to quit planning and evaluating and when the urge strikes to do something, just go. All the practical things will still be there to do later. Just a note, I really like your blog because it isn’t all about how we look (comparisons to the “stars”), but about how we are and how we live. I’m 8 months retired, the chief carer for my Dad (who is now living close by in Assisted Living), and in pretty darn good health. And feeling like I just may be emerging into new possibilities. You are a very good encourager!

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  2. In reading this post I think that you might be interested in reading “Mindset The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck. Dweck has been studying fixed vs. growth mindset for years.

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  3. Well said. I recently read that when you complain- you are identifying something you need to fix. Like 2 sides of a coin- 1 side is the problem & the other side is the possibility. Thanks Kathy for sharing how you have found your fixes!

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  4. What an inspirational post! You have captured the essence of cognitive-behavior therapy – getting someone to realize that she or he has self-imposed limitations and is capable of stopping that kind of thinking. I need to read your essay daily to make sure I stop ALL forms of negative thinking that limits what I am williing to try and willing to think about. Great job! Thank you!

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  5. I love the sense of freedom this blog post inspires. I think so many of us have spent much of our careers being careful and managing risk in our work decisions, we don’t get much practice in letting our spirits soar and play and experiment. For me, that discovery has been one of the many unanticipated joys of retirement. Great blog! I also write a lifestyle blog about retirement- Terri LaBonte- Reinventing Myself in Retirement. Please check it out at http://www.terrilabonte.com.
    Terri😊

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  6. Kathy, I so agree with you. We can be our worst enemy instead of our very best friend. We impose limitations on ourselves instead of giving ourselves permission.

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  7. Remember: you are what you think….and you do what you think….and mistakes aren’t so bad…learn from them and go on….life is an adventure in whatever chapter you’re on

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  8. I’m thinking of this as your “tough love” post. 🙂 We carry so much baggage into this stage of life from our own and other people’s perceptions, and so often those perceptions are either inaccurate or out of date. Like many women of our generation, I learned as an adolescent that girls weren’t good at math and science and became convinced that was true of me. I think, in fact, I probably would have been good at both math and science if I hadn’t avoided them. I got over my math-phobia when I went to grad school and had to take (and later to teach!) statistics. Now I’m embracing my scientific self and learning botany.

    So often we think, “This is just the way I am and I can’t change it” when that’s not true. I was startled last year when I was visiting a friend at the rehab facility where she was recovering from surgery and got in a conversation with her occupational therapist. I mentioned that I had been putting together new furniture and that it was difficult for me because the assembly instructions had only pictures and no words, but that I have poor spatial reasoning skills. He replied, “Keep assembling that furniture for a couple of hours every day and your spatial reasoning will improve.” I had always thought of this as just some circuitry missing from my brain, not something I could work at improving! Similarly, I was recently lamenting my poor balance in a conversation with a friend and noting that I had tried a balance test of standing on one foot for thirty seconds and hadn’t even made it to ten seconds. She challenged my self-limiting assumption that this would always be true by saying, “This is an easy thing to work on.” So now I take time at the beginning and end of each day to stand one one foot, first the right then the left. In a few months, I’ve gone from not being able to stand on one foot for even ten seconds to being able to balance on one foot for almost two minutes. I’ve been excited to discover how much physical and intellectual growth is possible at this time of life.

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    • Jean, I’m so glad to hear you have such good friends! Good friends are essential for reminding us when we are imposing limitations on ourselves. They can make all the difference if we are open to what they are telling us. It is amazing what we can accomplish when we try. “What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.” (I think that was the mantra of businessman Clement Stone.) Discovery of one’s abilities and continued growth is essential to quality of life at any time but especially as we age. K

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  9. Hi Kathy!
    I really appreciate your blog. You helped me decide to sign up for a Watercolor Class for Beginners and actually go! I learned that I really can draw and paint after not having done so since high school. I discovered that I really like watercolor painting, in particular the mixing of colors. Who knew? But I slowly reverted back into the energyless couch potato I was when I first retired. I realized that I was constantly talking myself out of doing the things that appealed to me. Then I would be depressed because I ended up sitting on the couch watching TV all day. The real problem was that I didn’t believe that paying attention to my needs was important. I felt that all of the things I found interesting were not worthwhile pursuits. I was just wasting time, playing like a child. I should have been doing something important. I wasn’t important enough for my own attention. I guess I spent so many years serving others that I had disappeared. But I have changed the way I speak to myself. I have vowed to do one thing that is purely for me every day. No thinking about it, just getting up and doing it! I am also going to take myself out every week. I love museums and gardens, so that will be my weekly trip. Your blog has really helped me see that I was not losing my mind, that the way I was feeling was normal and I was not alone. You are very supportive and no nonsense which has helped me to really reflect on my current situation and make sense of it. Thank you Kathy! You have been a Godsend to me!

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    • You are welcome Seabrook! As you can tell from the other comments, transitioning to a retirement lifestyle takes time and effort and many of us, especially women who have so many roles, have to dig down to find the real person we are. Yes, getting up off the couch is key and doing something for you that you enjoy is also key. Keep going…you are doing a great job at finding yourself. K

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  10. SPOT ON!! As I prepare for retirement, I am beginning to take a Second Look at many things and reassessing my desires. I started by making a list of those things that make me feel great. I’m planning another journey and those that thought they had me figured out should hold on.

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  11. Once again.. Yes, Yes, Yes. I realized in my early days of retirement that I am more “naturally” pessimistic. I have consciously chosen to be happy in retirement. It is not always easy (especially when things get rough), but I am using affirmations (“it’s OK to be a beginner” is one!), gratitude, finding little jolts of joy everyday, and just some good “emotional monitoring” to help me be more optimistic about life. And “old” friends have noticed – they tell me I look ten years younger because I am so happy. (side benefit?) I haven’t found my drawing-class passion yet, but I am trying new things… like pottery class and cooking class and a tennis clinic… and having fun being a beginner in them. One fear I didn’t overcome this summer – taking a swimming class – huge self-imposed limitation there…. Sigh – we can’t break down all the barriers in one swoop. Little by little.

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  12. Well said! Some of the limitations we impose on ourself are so subtle and buried to us, that it takes awhile for us to even find them. But that kind of “excavating” is really worth it; we can do & experience so much more when drop the rules and just beileive in ourself.

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  13. I guess I will be the Debbie Downer here. I found the post to be mean spirited. A blog like yours dealing with the challenges of retirement should acknowledge that after x years of working, establishing a work family, and yes having an identity associated with your professional success, retirement is a very hard transition. I do get frustrated when blogs spin the cookie cutter responses of learn to play an instrument, volunteer, get a book list and read, taking painting lessons, etc. Even with such activities, there will be time to fill–maybe acknowledging that some plain old relaxation can be a part of the puzzle will help. I was one of those who said I would stop working only when they take me out with a sheet over me–I wish I had stayed with that philosophy. To compound matters, after one year of retirement, I took another full-time job and really don’t enjoy it, so I am defeating the purpose of retirement. I am just looking for suggestions on how to strike a balance in retirement as I don’t see me staying in this current job much longer.

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    • Hi Walter, Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry you found this post mean-spirited. It is what I call my kick in the pants post or as Jean put it in her comment, my tough love post. I have actually written about all of the things to which you refer, including just some old fashioned relaxation and the difficulty of transition (have you read my posts on The Transition or The Stages of Retirement?). After nearly four years of writing, I have written about just about everything imaginable. Those of us who blog about retirement are doing the best we can do with what we have to do it. Although I read plenty about retirement and life in general, I am not a retirement expert – the blog is limited to my experience and view. Perhaps those of us who blog are only writing about the cookie cutter activities because that’s all there is (I’ve also written about that). I am sorry you are having a difficult time transitioning — I have been in your shoes, which is why I write as honestly as possible. It is meant to help others move forward just as some kick in the pants articles helped me to move forward. We are all on this journey together, yet each one’s journey is unique to their personal views, feelings, life experience, personality and circumstance. I hope you find answers for yourself. Best to you. K

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  14. Previously, someone on your blog mentioned the book Never Too Late To Begin Again – Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond by Julia Cameron. I got the book and am really enjoying it. I have been fully retired for about 2-1/2 years and was at the feeling blah point in my life – the bloom had worn off the rose of having endless free time to myself. This book is a 12 week kick in the pants and I am already starting to look at my retired self differently. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who needs help in figuring out who they are and where they are going with their life.

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  15. ““I don’t like crafts”; “I’m not a hobby person”; “I’m not a joiner”; “I don’t like doing volunteer work”; “I’m not artistic”; “my husband, wife, friends don’t want to do this or that””, described me so well I thought you were getting at me personally at first! Except I am a hobby person.

    I am surprised by how much time just living takes up. My main fear is that the rest of my life will just whizz by, and I still won’t have washed the kitchen floor.

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  16. Thanks Kathy, I’ve been reading your blog for the past year & you are right on! I too worked all my adult life & each day I’m trying to figure out what makes me happy. I volunteer, exercise & try to participate each day in “life”. Thanks for new ideas for my future. I’m finding just activities to get us out around people help us to find out about new activities!

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  17. After 35 years in a high stress job and raising a family, having no time to develop any hobbies, I recently retired. So far, I have taken up several hobbies that I never would have imagined myself doing – gardening, canning, quilting. I took classes to learn quilting and used internet sources for canning. The gardening is a work in progress! I just kind of jumped in, tried, and realized I was a pretty good learner. I went in with an open mind. I really enjoy reading your blog. It’s very uplifting.

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