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When I am working with clients, sometimes their fear of what could happen is more limiting than dealing with what is actually happening.

I suppose that this is not unusual — when confronted with something we view as disastrous, we have to marshal our resources to tackle it. But sometimes it seems we are more comfortable with our fears than with influencing our realities. I see this often happen with retirement planning.

I was talking with friends the other night about what is hard about retiring.

One of them was concerned about staying relevant. Several of us wondered what we would do with our time. One person described how much she loved her life and doesn't wish for it to change. Another talked about her varied interests and how she has folded them into her life so that retirement for her would simply be "more of" rather than something new.

Why is retirement for some so exciting and for others scary?

Most financial decisions tend to address two very different questions: What does this do for me and what does this say about me.

The home we buy, the car we drive, the clothes we wear do something for us and say something about us.

Retirement tends to be heavily weighted to the "what does this say about me" question because we often wrap our identity into what we are doing at a particular point in time.

What work does for us is allow people to quickly sort us in a way that makes everyone comfortable. When we are no longer working, many of us have to somehow explain what retirement says about us.

When I ask clients what things they have incorporated in their lives now that they are retired, many say: "I have never been more busy."

Busy is a shortcut for productive, and we know we want to be productive. But can productivity exempt us from other responses?

What would it say about us if we weren't busy in retirement? What if we could not describe where our days went? Could we live with the reaction we may get?

Most of us want to have meaning in our lives, but we make value judgments about ourselves and others regarding what that means. Do you feel the same about the person who golfs as you do about someone who volunteers?

I am not much of a golfer, but I know many people who are. Golf provides them with exercise, community, fresh air, competition. It seems possible that these golfers are deriving meaning from golf. And some may be using it to simply occupy their time.

I also know many people who volunteer. Volunteering gives them a sense of community, of purpose, of trying to do something bigger than themselves. And some may be using it to simply occupy their time.

The point is that what ultimately matters in retirement is what you end up saying about yourself. And while you may receive feedback from others in your world, ultimately it falls on you to become comfortable with your own story.

Rather than be fearful of retirement, here are some things that I have seen in my clients who have successfully transitioned to retirement.

• They had serious interests outside of their work. This helped them not simply go from something, but go toward something.

• They created a social network. They were able to re-create some of the social interactions that work or child rearing provided.

• They used their money to support their values rather than to create them. They made decisions that were right for them rather than for how they looked to the outside world.

• If they loved their work, they worked longer than expected. Some had mandatory retirement, but others stayed engaged in their jobs well into their 70s (one actually worked into his 90s).

• They were more active. They spent time outside.

• They stayed open to new experiences. They were willing to try different things, some of which were outside their comfort zone.

• They stayed mentally engaged. They were curious.

While this list is not exhaustive or conclusive, it can serve to help you plan for how you are going to handle your own next stage.

The best way to prepare for it is to begin before you need to. But in order to do so, you have to overcome the fear of what you are giving up and replace it with the possibilities of what lies ahead for you.

Ross Levin is the chief executive and founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina.