Life is full of change and transitions. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan a few years ago provides a perfect example. Thousands of people had to relocate their homes to new areas, bury their dead, or learn that there were no remains to be buried, after having survived the horror and the terror of losses that happened in minutes. I teach a class on Managing Transitions, and want to offer some key tips about managing transitions successfully. I share them in the hopes that there’s at least one “gold nugget” you will identify that can help you with your own life transitions.
Let’s begin by drawing the distinction between making a change and making a transition. The two can be confused and they are not the same thing. Change happens when something starts or stops in our lives – a new job starts and an old one ends. A marriage begins and being single ends. One friendship stops and a new one starts. In each situation, the circumstances in our lives are different in some way and that’s change.
Transition, by comparison, is the psychological process that we must go through to disengage from our old identity and become oriented to our new one. We are leaving behind an old life, not just a job or a relationship. Thus, transition takes longer than change – the new circumstances may be present immediately but the new identity can take months to form.
Transitions have three stages: an ending, a neutral zone and a beginning. Note that the ending comes first – people in transition forget that an old life has to end before a new one can begin. There isn’t much help in our society to honor the transitions in our lives – no rites of passage as there were in ancient cultures and still are in some parts of the world. Yet we all need to learn to deal successfully with transitions in life, so here are ten steps that can help:
#1: Be aware of the process you are going through – recognize what is ending, what might happen in the in-between time (neutral zone) to help you reach your new life with its new energy and new purpose. A great book to read is William Bridges’ Managing Transitions.
#2: Remember that transitions take time. Don’t rush through the process. It’s so typically American to want to hurry up and get to the new life without taking time to honor the past life and all that we have learned from it.
#3: Make plans for dealing wisely with changes in your circumstances and seek the help you might need if the transition becomes so painful it is interfering with your sleep, your mood, and your perspective.
#4: Talk to someone about the transition and the painful feelings of loss that come with endings. A good friend can be a wonderful sounding board, as can a life coach, or a therapist. Consider writing about it in a journal; explore your feelings fully and completely. Have you ever been through something like this before? What did you do then, and what can be applied to this latest transition?
#5: Find a way to celebrate the ending you are undergoing. What actions would express its inner meanings to you? Do you want to share the celebrations with others, or would you prefer a simple, private ritual? Celebrations can take many forms – it’s up to you and your creativity.
#6: Expect to experience some of the same aspects of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, despair/depression – and know that none of it lasts forever and that you will reach acceptance one day when the world will look better to you.
#7: Consider how this transition fits into your Big Picture Life Path – and give it a title – “Growing Up at Last”, “Learning How Strong I Am ” or ” A New Day Dawns”, etc.
#8: Experience gratitude for the lessons learned.
The in-between time – the neutral zone -can be lonely, and, sometimes, frightening – but it is also a time of renewal, of great creativity that brings beneficial solitude. Use this quiet time to reflect, and to answer questions like “What do I really want at this point in my life?”
#9: Be on the lookout for “happy surprises” and fortuitous “accidents”.
As you live into your new beginning, you may find that things are coming together for you; goals start to become clearer, plans take shape, and new ideas form that are practical and may not have occurred to you earlier. Coincidences will occur and synchronicities will happen now that you are ready to receive.
#10: Look at transitions realistically
Transitions are a natural part of life and they usually take a long time, so cut yourself some slack. Don’t hold yourself to unrealistic expectations but be gentle and kind toward your own internal process and pace. At AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) they have a lot of sayings that relate to the enormous transition people undergo when they get sober; consider adopting their saying to take “One day at a time.” People in AA know that getting sober is about getting through one hour, one day, one week and that each of the little steps taken add up. Time is actually on your side, so keep moving at the pace that suits you.
I hope these comments are an aid toward your own growth and positive change as you manage the transitions of your life. Feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences on this site.