A PSYCHOLOGIST RETIRES
By SUSAN HARPER SLATE, Ph.D.
For the past 41 years I have been practicing psychotherapy and have thoroughly loved being a psychologist. I recall my very first session with a client, how I spent so much time in my head, worried I wasn’t appearing open enough, that my body language needed to indicate how receptive I was to what she was saying, etc. Truthfully, whatever my body language said, I was too self-conscious to listen. Over these years and hundreds of thousands of hours of seeing clients, I learned how to get out of my own way and start listening. What a journey.
This article will appear on our website, on my first day of retirement (March 1, 2022). I wonder, as I write this, what will I do my first day? I didn’t retire the way that I assume many of my colleagues have…letting the practice slowly wind down, and then finally stopping. No, with a very full practice, I made the decision to retire about 6 months ago, and 4 months ago I let my clients know.
One colleague said that the issue is not what we retire from, but what are you retiring to. To be honest, I don’t have an answer to that, but I do have some thoughts. I describe myself as a psychodynamic/existential psychotherapist and my existential leanings have me pondering how to encounter spaciousness, without immediately filling it. Further, how I will make meaning of my experience is a blank page for now and I enter a space of not knowing. I’m excited but also in awe of its magnitude. Some of my future will exist because of what I plan, and some because of what unfolds, and I want to embrace both.
I believe that big transitions (going through school, all the graduations, starting a career, marriage, having children, deaths of loved ones, big disappointments and tragedies, grand challenges, and aging and health issues) come with shifts in one’s sense of self, one’s identity. That shift can feel very unsettling, as though you have lost your footing. There is loss and a reconfiguring of yourself again, sometimes seeing new parts of yourself.
The transition to retirement appears to me to be most like the beginning of one’s career, the college years and beyond. At the bookends of one’s career, there are a number of questions:
What do I care about?
What do I want to do with my time?
Can I make this transition successfully?
Do I have the characteristics to do it?
How will I handle the struggles involved?
The difference between these two bookend periods is with the beginning of one’s career there is all the time ahead of you, all the choices, all the possibilities. At our younger years we measure our age in years (“I’m 16, I get to drive”, “I’m 18, I’m legally an adult” and “I’m 21, I get to drink.”). But somewhere in midlife we shift from years we have since birth to years yet to live (“Dad only lived to 65, but mom died at 85, so how many years might I have?”). As I retire, I have to consider what else do I want to do? What else can I do, with potential health issues and ultimately my own mortality? What do I want to do before I die? At the beginning of one’s life there are more gains and at the end, more losses. Retirement has its obvious advantages–perhaps travel, visiting family, etc., and hopefully not having to continue to make money so that the choices available to you are more in line with what you most want to do. Yet retirement also presents real losses, not only the aches and pains of aging, but also the loss of friends and loved ones. Having experienced many challenges and some tragedies, I have gained wisdom, and I trust that the wisdom will help me to bear the losses.
The wisdom has come from my life experiences and my family, my study of what it means to be human, my colleagues and most importantly, my clients. Whether they know it or not, therapists are changed by seeing their clients. We are changed by what our clients bring to therapy and how they process their experience. With the front row center seat to a parade of humanity, I was affected by the courage, vulnerability, and struggles that my clients endured. You cannot be unchanged by it.
Many years ago, my family visited Gettysburg, the site of the famous civil war battle between the North and the South. Our tour guide pointed out a row of trees on a ridge line and said they were “witness trees,” trees that were there during the terrible fighting on July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863 and are still there today. In some respects, that is what a therapist is: We witness the events of a person’s life, helping them to process those events, to use that processing to make their life more meaningful and purposeful. It is no small thing.
I won’t have the mantle of being a psychologist anymore, but I won’t— I can’t—stop thinking like a psychologist. I overhear a conversation between two friends, and I pick up a dynamic. I notice the way a person stands, or talks, or interacts and I see some characteristics of the person. The thoughts don’t stop coming. Waking up to the construction noise of the house next door, I am fairly certain one of the workmen was emotionally abused as a child. He apologizes constantly despite having some authority, and backs down immediately if challenged. I’m barely awake and the thoughts are there. They don’t bother me; it is just my narrating voice. There is a lot of internal work to become a psychologist, and that work stays with you, as it becomes part of you.
In my mind psychotherapy is a perfect blend of head and heart. There are many years of study. But the engine of this endeavor has always been a heart thing. It is the energy to listen and to understand, to support and to frustrate, to validate and to challenge my client into seeing new perspectives, making new changes, daring to hope. It is to Love.
Thank you to my husband, Daniel, always my most ardent supporter through graduate school and for being with me through the whole of my career. To my children, Rachel and Andrew, thank you for allowing me the time to write my case notes, return phone calls and deal with psychological emergencies, and who always thought that what their mom did was “cool.” To my colleague Charles, you and I shared graduate school, internships, workplaces and offices as well as the joys and hardships of life. I thank you for it all. To my friends and colleagues at IPN, thank you for almost 3 decades of steadfast support, brilliance, and challenge to bring our best selves to our work. IPN has been foundational for me.
To my clients, I owe you everything. I cannot begin to express how much I will miss you and our work. Thank you for trusting me, and for your courage and respect. It has been a sacred honor to work with you. I will hold you in my heart.
I have an image reappear in my mind: I am alone and arrive on a new land. I begin again.
Copyright 2022 by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.
Dr. Susan Harper Slate is a clinical psychologist no longer in private practice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org