How Do Therapists Know When It’s Time to Retire? Saying Goodbye to the Work You Love.

by Lynn Grodzki and Margaret Wehrenberg, Psychotherapy Networker Magazine, Jan 2024

To read this at the magazine:

A room with a sofa and table and lights

Jenna, a clinical social worker in private practice, was 65, the average age of those who retire in the US, but she found herself inwardly cringing every time her husband raised the dreaded R-word.

He, happily retired from his own career, made a good case for the things they might do if she was no longer working: sell the family house and downsize to a condo, spend more time with their grandchildren, and travel more before they were too old. “After working for 40 years, aren’t you ready for the next phase of life?” he asked. “Isn’t it time to take care of yourself instead of caring so much for others?”

“I love what I do,” she explained to her peer-supervision group. “I’ve spent so many years refining my craft. I have a good-sized caseload, and many of my clients would be distraught if I left. My sessions are always interesting. I love the support and friendship I get from this supervision group. I built my practice, and I’m proud of it. I’m not ready to close the door on all this.

Her therapist friends got it right away: “It takes time to age into this career,” one of them said, “and, it’s equally challenging to age out.”

According to data, the majority of therapists remain in their profession long beyond those in other healthcare careers. For a psychotherapist, especially one in private practice, age is just a number, not a signal that it’s time to leave. It’s not uncommon for older therapists to work until their own health or a family crisis forces them to stop.

It’s the uniqueness of our career that makes it challenging, compelling, fulfilling, and exhausting—and ultimately harder to let go of. So how do therapists age out of their profession? And why would they ever leave voluntarily when their work provides so much fulfillment, both personally and professionally? Is there a way to make the topic of retirement easier for those in their 70s, 80s, and, yes, even 90s to discuss before illness or another circumstance forces the conversation?

Our Work, Our Selves

We (Lynn and Margaret) are therapists, authors, and presenters in our 70s, whose friendship has spanned 15 years. About five years ago, the R-word began creeping into our conversations. We wondered whether burnout was causing us to think about retirement, or if it was a signal that we needed to attend to some other life-stage-related need. One of us (Margaret) made the leap into retirement after taking a few years to wind down with clients. The other (Lynn) has allowed her caseload to shrink naturally by not seeking new clients but hasn’t closed her practice. She’s now thinking more seriously about retirement. We began to research the issue of therapists retiring and were surprised at the dearth of material on the topic, save for a few journal articles. We decided to dig deeper.

In 2022, we emailed more than 50 surveys to retired or retiring licensed therapists to hear what was difficult for them about the process, what was going well, and above all, how they were handling emotional and psychological issues related to the shift away from their professional identity. Who had they been before retirement? Who were they now? We did follow-up interviews and picked up on common themes related to their deep attachments to clients and the challenges of overidentifying with the therapist role.

We understand the ties many respondents developed to their professional roles, degrees, and licenses, as well as to the trainings that can become a major part of one’s self-definition. We also understand how, as some said, it’s easy to become the repositories of clients’ histories, narratives, hopes, traumas, and dreams, which live on in us even after we end therapy with them. It’s part of what makes stepping away from the work so difficult. Indeed, many respondents said that while they were “officially” retired, they’d continued working pro bono. Psychologically caring for others was, in effect, who they were.

Most survey respondents identified with their professional role so much that, when asked how they described or introduced themselves, they listed their title above other roles like spouse, mother, partner, and volunteer. They explained that much of what they did professionally was based on who they were personally—authentic, warm, curious, observant, easy to talk to, and analytic—and that these values and qualities were directly responsible for their clinical success.

Clinical success often means feeling uplifted by the knowledge that our compassion and empathy have made a direct impact on someone’s well-being. Every respondent wrote about how their work made them feel good in this way. Several even spoke about the addictiveness of the good feeling that helping provides—and the way it can interfere with retirement. From this perspective, continuing in the role of therapist can be understood as compassion/empathy addiction. Like any addiction, to live without it, we need a plan to discover other interests, which will nourish us in its place.

We don’t have to stop being compassionate when we leave our role, but we do need to find new outlets for our desire to help—and perhaps show ourselves the same compassion and empathy we show our clients. This takes practice!

Our Business, Our Selves

It’s not just the feel-good aspect of our work that keeps us from retiring. Many therapists are self-employed, and their businesses carry their name—literally. We are the businesses we build.

For Mary, in private practice for 30 years, the biggest retirement challenge wasn’t letting go of her caseload, but letting go of her business. “I was the first woman in my family to be self-supporting,” she explains. “I worked hard to build a reputation as a Black therapist. I grew up with a picture of Mary McLeod Bethune on my wall. I was determined to build a brick-and-mortar practice. I bought office space, learned how to network and advertise, hired associates, and handled payroll. This business is my baby!”

Few professions allow people to set up a business so quickly, without a bank loan or even a business plan, and operate it profitably for decades—yet 60 percent of all therapists do just that. It provides clinical autonomy and financial independence. It becomes a major source of personal pride. It’s another layer of attachment that can be wrenching to dissolve. It’s rare and difficult to sell a small private practice, since the main asset is the therapist running it, and her results and reputation aren’t easily transferrable. Often when therapists retire, they have little choice other than to simply remove their shingle from the wall, close the doors on decades of effort, and say goodbye to clients.

Losing one beloved client can feel like a huge loss, but what about losing your entire caseload? Your practice? Your business? Your professional identity? All this needs to be grieved and processed. It’s one reason why taking your time when planning retirement is so important, as is considering your own needs as well as your clients’. But how do you start planning for this? What does it take not just to retire, but to retire well?

Lynn’s Story: Contemplation

When James Prochaska, developer of the transtheoretical model of behavior change, mapped out his six stages of readiness, he noted an early stage that came before the concrete work of preparation and action: contemplation. I (Lynn) have been in retirement contemplation for the past year, thinking, researching, and writing, but not taking any formal steps toward it. By choice, my caseload has been growing smaller each year, but at 72, I’m still happy to have it.

For most people, retirement means doing things unrelated to work with one’s savings. Warren Buffet says he values time more than money, but he wants to work for as long as he can. He finds pleasure in running his business. Today, in good health and with energy, I feel the same, as do many therapists in my position. I think a part of my lack of readiness to retire is that I haven’t defined what retirement could offer me that’s better than what work offers right now.

During my early years of coaching training, I often heard the phrase “I’m in the question of—.” This fits where I am now. It validates my need to stay in a place of not knowing, and the richness of allowing a big question to unfold. For me, being in the question of retirement is like walking through a verdant forest full of unknown paths and interesting things to ponder. What would I do with more time? What’s missing from my life that retirement might offer? What would I do to match the connection and fulfillment of this work?

When asked if I’m going to retire, I like to say I’m engaged in the question—which gives me a reason to keep asking others about their experience, listening to my own emotional responses, wondering and pondering without pressure, and experimenting with new activities, all to explore what my own retirement might look like.

Margaret’s Story: Moving Forward

I (Margaret) often get asked by other therapists how I could’ve stopped working in the midst of a flourishing career. “Why stop doing what you’re good at?” they’d wonder. One colleague has asked me this repeatedly, as if by deciding to retire I’m letting someone down. The truth is, I made the decision after the joy I’d long found in the work had begun to diminish, and I was feeling increasingly fatigued. What these colleagues haven’t considered is that, regardless of the fulfilment we may get from facilitating therapy, it’s still work and can become depleting.

In deciding to retire, we must ask ourselves some questions: What does it mean to be without our professional identity? How will others relate to us? How will we introduce ourselves?

Many of the retired therapists who answered our survey described what I felt after five decades in the mental health field. The weight of responsibility to care for my clients, who trusted me unequivocally, had become too heavy. I began to feel a similar weight at having to show up every week and on time, utilize the most up-to-date methods, and take care of myself and guard against transference. I began to feel the weight of being fully engaged in each and every session, no matter what was happening in my life outside the office. For me, all of this became too much to bear.

After decades of loving my work, I knew I was ready to explore life outside it. I wanted to access empathy and compassion in a less demanding way, volunteering at a job where I could skip a week or a month without abandoning or hurting anyone.

The realization that it was time to retire came with additional responsibilities, at least initially. It meant preparing my clients. Many of them had never envisioned therapy with a different clinician, nor had they ever imagined I wouldn’t be available for as long as they needed me. I started early, telling clients I was planning to retire in “a year or so” and beginning a review of their progress and their needs. Giving clients substantial notice and time to reflect on our relationship and their own lives, I learned, is the first step to a successful retirement.

The Importance of a Plan

Having a plan for retirement starts long before we give clients notice. In the years leading up to your decision, it may mean screening new client inquiries for people with trust and abandonment issues, and when appropriate, letting people know you may not be the right therapist for them. After all, many clients feel the loss of their therapist intensely. When you do give clients notice, they’ll need time to review what brought them to therapy, how they feel about you and their relationship with you, and what the loss of this relationship may mean for them. It’s important to note that therapists aren’t without feelings in this process. It’s a challenge to end the therapy relationship and not allow our own feelings to interfere, so take careful note of countertransference.

Some clients will get angry or feel hurt when we share we’re retiring. They may even leave therapy preemptively. Discussing with them other times they’ve been left or felt abandoned and exploring how they handled it can prevent unfortunate or abrupt endings.

Many clients want to know why we’re leaving and what we’ll do in retirement. Although we may be exhausted from caretaking and tired of the responsibility, this should only be shared with our own therapists, supervisors, or trusted friends and colleagues. Instead, we can choose to share our plans. When I (Margaret) told my clients I was closing in on 70 and wanted time to travel and pursue other goals while I was healthy, most seemed accepting.

Part of retirement planning involves considering ahead of time which clients need referrals, which therapists might be best suited for them, and even who might be in their insurance network. In helping clients make a smooth transition, we can agree to taper sessions while they get to know a new therapist, or we may make a clean break to allow the new relationship to form on its own. These decisions are unique to each client.

As your retirement date approaches, you’ll have clients bring up new topics or suddenly delve deeper into issues they were previously hesitant to discuss, especially traumas related to abandonment and loss. It’s natural to feel compelled to finish working on this before we retire, but it’s necessary to stick to our announced retirement plan, if for no other reason than to model how we take care of ourselves. Maintaining boundaries around a retirement plan is as important as maintaining boundaries during the normal process of therapy.

Determining Your Legacy

One of the hardest aspects of retirement is considering your legacy, which can be difficult to put your finger on as a therapist. How do you recognize and honor the impact you’ve made in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of clients?

Some legacies feel easier to measure, like when your work has involved teaching or supervising. Students’ achievements reflect their mentor’s accomplishments, the product of hard-won knowledge passed down to the next generation. Likewise, therapists who’ve been involved in research may feel like their work and findings have a life beyond them. Many therapists who’ve written books or authored articles feel a similar sense of satisfaction.

Many of us, however, don’t have these ways of conceptualizing our legacy. The task then is to review your career similar to how you’d review a client’s progress at the end of therapy. It can be helpful to journal about your career, tracking your progress since your days as a student, when you honed new skills and developed specialties. You might make a list of the challenging clients you stuck with, or helped recover from trauma, or supported in forming or maintaining healthy intimate relationships.

Recognizing the ways our legacy exists in each of our client’s lives can help us accept that, although our work has come to a natural end, its impact continues.

Beginning Again

Without a plan, retiring can feel like quitting. It can feel like we’re deserting our clients and prioritizing ourselves over those who need us. Leaving with guilt or regret, or judging ourselves as uncompassionate, won’t help us create a vibrant life after practice. Leaping into retirement with no plan is like swinging on a trapeze with no safety net. Preparing to retire well must include a recommitment to what you genuinely love to do.

“Spending more time with my family” is an amorphous, catchall phrase for people retiring from politics or demanding careers. It doesn’t convey much. If you want to spend more time with family, what will that look like? How will you be of service, and how will you interact in a way that’s rewarding to you? Keep in mind that family and friends may have their own jobs and responsibilities and may be shorter on time than you think. As I (Margaret) retired, I was eager to reengage with family and old friends, but not all of them had space in their lives waiting to be filled. I needed to voice my desire to reconnect. It took work to establish new relationships and reestablish old ones.

For both of us, as for many therapists, our clinical work gave our lives structure. Developing a new structure might seem unnecessary for the retiring therapist who’s looking forward to a life with minimal responsibility, but structure creates an anchor so you won’t feel adrift. Many of the retired therapists we surveyed created specific plans to structure their lives in retirement. They created weekly schedules and set big goals to develop new skills and have satisfying, new experiences. Goal-setting is an essential part of creating a life with purpose, and for most therapists, ongoing education and improving a skill set is highly rewarding. Although it might seem strange to attend a professional conference knowing you’re closing out your career, it can boost your self-esteem and keep you connected with peers.

Now that I (Margaret) am retired, I feel lighter, more cheerful, more energetic. The first several months of retirement challenged me to adjust my lifestyle and weekly schedule—which was disconcerting at first. My “normal” pace of life shifted dramatically. But now, I’m reaping the benefits of my newfound flexibility, which includes enjoying freedom to write without pressure.

I (Lynn) know that retirement is often a time of ambiguity, but it doesn’t distress me. I’ve slowed down but without having received a clear signal—yet—to stop. You might say I’m waiting. For someone who’s been proactive throughout their career, waiting can be uncomfortable, but I’m cultivating patience and learning to appreciate the mystery of whatever comes next. I’m allowing my life and my work to evolve organically, in their own way.

As both of us embark on this new stage of life, we’ve found it can be filled with exciting moments. Chase your passion in retirement, whether it’s creating art, traveling, exercising, learning a new skill, volunteering, or writing. There are as many choices as therapists. After all, retirement is more than just ending a career; it’s a new beginning.

Lynn Grodzki, LCSW, MCC, is a psychotherapist in private practice, a master certified coach, and the author of Therapy with a Coaching Edge: Partnership, Action and Possibility in Every Session and Building Your Ideal Private Practice.

Margaret Wehrenberg, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist, author, and international trainer. Margaret blogs on depression and anxiety for Psychology Today. She has written nine books on the topic of managing anxiety depression, and her most recent book is Pandemic Anxiety: Fear. Stress, and Loss in Traumatic Times.