Excerpts from Negotiating Life Transitions (January/February 2005)
Change is an inevitable part of life. Transitions are as natural as night and day. In nature we observe times when things move slowly without visible change – and then suddenly acceleration occurs followed by a transformation. Tree leaves that have been green all summer suddenly turn red and gold and within a short time are blown to the ground, the tree’s branches left bare. In the spring the process begins again. Within this cycle of change, we must deal with both endings and beginnings.
Life transitions are predictable changes associated with a discontinuity from the past. With each change we must give up the structures that protect us and then face the world anew with a sense of fragility and vulnerability. These disruptive times may test the limits of our ability to adapt. However, with each transition we have the opportunity to learn a great deal about our inner resources and to ask ourselves what we really want out of life. This period of self-reflection can then lead to self-renewal and a new phase of stability and eventual equilibrium.
With each transition we have the opportunity to learn a great deal about our inner resources and to ask ourselves what we really want out of life.
Sometimes life thrusts change upon us dramatically and unexpectedly. Disabling accidents, the deaths of loved ones, divorce, the loss of a job, a major illness – all of these events mean that we must leave something behind and then adjust to a new way of living, even if we feel totally unprepared to do so. These events can strike without warning and leave us struggling with a personal crisis characterized by denial, anger, depression and withdrawal. But not all transitions arise from negative experiences. Marriage, a new job, a move to a new location, the birth of a child, reacquaintance with an old friend – these events, which may be planned and expected, may also lead us into a life transition.
On other occasions, life transitions occur because we find ourselves in a rut. We may have the nagging feeling that something is wrong, although we can’t quite put our finger on the reasons. Our lives are not going the way we thought they would, and time is passing us by. We feel that it is time for a major change. This can happen at any time, but it is most common during what Gail Sheehy has called the “predictable crises of adult life” which often accompany our decade changes (that is, our twenties, our thirties, our mid-life years, older stages of life...)
As William Bridges points out in his book, Transitions, our life transitions are composed of an ending, a “neutral zone,” and a new beginning. When a transition occurs, we need to give up our old definitions of the world, our old ways of doing things, as we are challenged by the process of “letting go.” Endings are difficult for most people, even when we are unhappy with the way things used to be. What is known is more comfortable than the unknown. Once we let go, however, we enter a period of feeling disconnected from the past but not yet connected to the present – the neutral zone. This is a time which can engender great self-reflection, an assessment of what we really want out of life, and a time to reorient ourselves toward the future. Finally, the new beginning completes the successful transition. This is when we embark on a journey of new priorities and the sense of a renewed future.
When You Undergo a Life Transition...
Life transitions, difficult as they can be, afford us the opportunity to find our true inner direction and engage in the process of self-renewal. Here are some guidelines to make the journey rewarding.
1. Give Yourself Enough Time. When our lives are disrupted, it takes time to reorient our inner feelings to the new reality. We may feel uncomfortable during a transition, especially when we give up our old activities. To create new activities prematurely, however, without giving ourselves the time to reflect and reorient, may only serve to perpetuate the old ways – and a rewarding life opportunity may be missed.
2. Arrange Temporary Ways of Living. Although transitions can be disruptive, hold on to those parts of your life which provide comfort and security. When we feel safe we are able to accomplish the task of the transition more productively. If your transition involves a job loss, find temporary work until you discover what you want to do over the long run. If you have lost a relationship, there is no need to isolate yourself from all of your friends. Hold on to those who can comfort you.
3. Tolerate the Discomfort. Transitions can introduce confusion and disorientation into our lives. Expect to experience times of anxiety and insecurity. These are natural feelings and an important part of the process, but they are only temporary. Trust in your own ability to see your way through the transition. Above all, realize that using alcohol and drugs will only serve to subvert the process. Face your challenge with integrity.
4. Take Care of Yourself During the Transition. The stress of transitions may wear you down, and you may feel so depressed that you don’t want to engage in normal, healthy activities. Do something for yourself everyday which you find comforting and pleasurable. Get a normal amount of sleep and make sure your diet is healthy. If you can, try to get some exercise everyday, even if it is only a walk around the block.
5. Find the Support You Need. A time of transition is an excellent time to seek the support of a trained professional therapist who can guide you through the process in a safe and encouraging setting. Finding the support of friends is also important – but avoid those who are only there to give advice. While advice may be helpful at times, your greater need at this time is to explore your own feelings and to find the truth which emerges from your own inner resources. Therapy provides a safe and productive way to negotiate this part of your life journey.