Life transitions invite, urge and prod us to grow and experience ourselves, our relationships and our lives in a more reflective, expansive and intentional way. While moving away-physically or emotionally-from familiarity is never easy, it can be approached in ways that expand our consciousness, provide self-knowledge, and help us identify and move towards goals that make life most meaningful. In this post, we’ll first examine why life transitions are challenging and why some may be more difficult than others. Next, we will turn our attention to practical ways to move through them with greater ease and comfort. Finally, as we conclude, we’ll consider life transitions as a springboard to positive self-transformation.
Why is change-even when welcomed-rarely easy and even challenging for many of us? Underlying change and transition are stories of identity, meaning and history. Let’s consider these three categories under common life transitions: divorce/marriage, starting a job/losing a job, retirement, and birth of a child. Facets of our identity are linked to these moments, which inform and direct our behavior and elicit responses from others in our personal lives and the broader culture. For example, if we are in a committed relationship, we have a role. We know-and culture affirms- what is and is not expected of us. The same can be said of our positions at work, as a parent, or partner. These facets of identity can provide a critical component of life: meaning. If we are building our lives with someone, or pouring forth our creative energies into our career, for example, we are often expressing something far deeper than a role, something tied to other stories, hopes and dreams.
As much as we may try to ignore societal voices, what is meaningful is also derived from the cultures and subcultures in which we’re embedded. For example, divorce may be more difficult to accept in some families or cultures; or, work and career may provide other social connections and status that add meaning to our lives. And, transitions are more or less difficult depending upon our history with that transition and other factors related to it: length of time involved, preparation for it, family-of-origin issues, resourcefulness and social support.
So, what might we do to ease the challenge of a transition? First, breathe! Yes, pause and take a breath. A few deep belly breaths can ease the tension in our physiology and our psychology; they can also attune us to the life-breath inherent within. In mindfulness-based practices, we utilize the breath to anchor us to the present; to regulate our emotions; and, to bring forth non-judgmental awareness to whatever arises. Non-judgmental awareness is key to our healing because sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about our life transitions are fraught with blame, shame, and/or anger. As we experience these emotions, it’s important to let them surface and process them. These may be processed in several ways: 1) with a therapist, 2) through involvement in a support group, 3) writing a letter/journaling, 4) prayer 5) meditation/yoga, 6) a trusted intimate, 7) a combination of these things.
As you engage in process activities, you will likely find blame, shame and anger diffused. Next, it’s important to be proactive in areas that will increase positive emotions: 1) Create a gratitude journal. List and experience in your mind, emotions and physiology five things you are grateful for each day. These things needn’t be huge. It may be ultimate gratitude that you have a roof over your head, that you have eyes that can see, legs that can take you on walks, hands that can touch, feel and create, a heart that can love and feel deeply the gamut of emotions love brings. These may be some of the gifts given to you each day that create a positive state. 2) Surround yourself with the people and things that bring joy to your life. If you can’t identify any now, explore and create new ones. 3) Be mindful of nutrition, sleep, and physical movement…all are helpful 4) Construct your own story with realistic expectations. Keep in mind, a transition is a moment in the totality of life moments. Where do you go from here?
We have choices of where our path leads. We’ve all heard the stories of triumph borne out of adversity. These are not the reserve of a special few! First of all, as you engage in the activities outlined above to process difficult emotions, you will likely experience a new sense of freedom and lightness of being as some of the emotions processed may have been only marginally related to the transition and/or may have sat with you for a very long time. If you are working with a therapist, she/he will be able to provide feedback on some areas that may have kept you stuck or left you with only a partial “truth.” Also, you will likely uncover additional strengths and begin to set new goals that enrich meaning in your life. Here’s where positive transformation occurs: You’ve successfully been able to deal with the difficult; life no longer feels like it’s crumbling or that you will be crushed if/when something unexpected or challenging happens. You are now emboldened to take new risks that bring forth results you desire: The career you really want; a partner that reciprocates in kind; a social circle that shares your values and is fun to be around. These become far more tangible, far more possible because you’ve not only invited the possibility of a new way of being, you’ve actively engaged in the steps to self-transformation. Your process, therefore, is not limited to easing through; rather, it is the continuous unfolding of a self that has the courage to dream again (and do it wildly!); the ability to sit with uncertainty (and be ok); to be vulnerable (and touch the beauty of self-trust); and, ultimately, the desire and experience of love-for yourself and others (unreservedly).