Many people I know are going through transitions. Graduations, weddings, new babies, retirements, layoffs, career changes and moves often happen during the summer months. Whether the change is something positive that we have chosen or something forced upon us, it is a time of uncertainty. Change shakes up our equilibrium, makes us uncomfortable and causes us to doubt our very identities.
You can get through transition periods and not only survive, but thrive. In the last year, I quit my job of eighteen years. We sold our house and moved to a new city. I started a new business. My husband struggled with leaving one company for another. I watched my daughters move from college to careers and grad school. In the midst of this we were reeling from the death of several loved ones. We managed to successfully navigate a year of transitions.
Every transition is different, but there are some commonalities. Transitions have three stages, and there are some concrete steps you can take to not only make it through, but come out on the other side happier and stronger.
Stage One: The Ending
Every transition has an ending. Endings mean a change in old routines, schedules and ways of life. Whether literal or symbolic, there is a death that requires moving in a new direction. It is a time of loss as we give up something for the unknown future. Endings are difficult because we can’t see ahead to know exactly what is on the other side.
With endings, there is often resistance. We want to perpetuate the familiar, comfortable old ways. Change is threatening. It scares us. Our stress levels are high. Know that feelings of uncertainty, devastation, sadness, shame or anger are normal.
Endings often happen badly. You may lash out or become defensive. You may mourn lost people, places or comfortable routines. You may become disoriented, confused or feel lost.
Take time to grieve your old way of life. Take photos of your old home, your child’s graduation or your soon to be former colleagues. Remember the good times. Reach out to family and friends. Take comfort where you can find it. Cry when you need to. Give yourself permission to sleep; endings are emotionally and physically draining.
Know that in every ending, there is a new beginning. We have to let go of the old way of life before we can move on. Try to see the positive things that are coming. Understand that you will get through this.
Stage Two: The Reckoning
After an ending, we have to rethink who we are and how we will live. This stage can last awhile as we try to figure out what our new life will be like.
There is often a loss of identity. We identify ourselves with the circumstances of life and in transition we wonder what to tell people. Am I still married if my partner has died? Who am I now that I have a child? What will I say when they ask what I do? My own struggle with my identity was deep. Who am I now that I am no longer a college professor? It shook the very core of my self -image.
There is more confusion during transition times. The new parent struggles with figuring out how to take care of and soothe their new child. The new graduate worries about getting a job or going to college. The person who moves has to find everything from new grocery stores to new car maintenance shops and new medical providers. Someone recovering from a severe illness or surgery struggles to walk or to see.
During this time of disequilibrium, take time to be alone. We hear our own inner voices best in silence. Trust your own wisdom. Ask yourself what you really want. Don’t rush into things. Take time to discover what works in your new world. We need some time and space to get perspective.
Some part of you will resist the new. You may ask yourself, “What have I done?” When nothing feels solid beneath your feet, old ways are comforting. You will want to hang on to the old routines; do so with caution. If you keep going to lunch with your former colleagues, it will be more difficult to move on.
Don’t be afraid to try new things. I let my hair grow long and curly. It felt liberating. I started swimming in the middle of the day, something I had longed to do but not found time for in my former life. Try temporary routines and experiences. If you don’t end up liking the new vet you can always find a different one.
Control what you can. Invite a friend to join you at a social event that might be uncomfortable. Deliberately choose how to celebrate a holiday that may be difficult rather than waiting for others to make choices for you. I painted the kitchen in my new house during the first weeks of school when I knew my friends and former colleagues would be going back to work. I knew I would feel a loss, and my project kept me engaged during a time of potential sadness.
Engage yourself in doing little things that make your life better. Clean out a closet. Take care of deferred health care or home maintenance. Meet a new friend for coffee. Buy yourself a new outfit. Plant some flowers. Splurge on little treats. Be good to yourself. This stage may be full of struggles, but good things are just around the corner.
Stage Three: New Beginnings
There is no welcoming committee to greet you at this new stage of your life. How will you know you have arrived?
You will have started to feel an acceptance for your new life. There is a calmness and peace with your circumstances. There is an ease in decision making. You have ideas about your new direction and a confidence to move towards new goals.
There is an inner realignment. Your old self is not gone, replaced by your new self. Rather, there is a fusion that creates a more whole person. You have a deeper knowledge of who you are and what you want.
During this stage, you will start to act. You realize that most choices are not irreparable and you forge into new endeavors. You take on new projects, new relationships and find new energy. You feel like you are back, changed, but back.
Revel in the new possibilities before you. When we are ready, new opportunities often show up. You have been through much. Acknowledge your achievement. Celebrate your accomplishments.
Like the seasons, transitions are a natural part of life. We will grow old, people will come in and out of our lives and things around us will change. We can fight it and be miserable, or we can adjust, looking for new opportunities and chances to grow.
We can always exist, but when we thrive, we become our best and happiest selves.
“Not in his goals, but in his transitions man is great.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson