Tanya Younce, M.Ed., LPCC


Land Ho! Getting Through Life’s Transitions

Although change and transition are inevitable over the course of our lives, and the pace of life and these transitions seem to be avalanching upon our heads more and more, most people are grossly unprepared to cope with them.  But it’s not just the pace of change or our lack of preparation for it that leaves us disorientated.  

Another reason is that many Americans just don’t suffer well. Our society is constantly helping us avoid pain or discomfort with quick-fixes.  Our banking system offers us credit cards and loans so that we don’t have to wait to save money for big-ticket items.  Mood-altering drugs are easily available to avoid emotional upset.  Diet pills, cleanses, and herbal body wraps help us lose pounds and inches in days, rather than months or years. 

Still another reason for this disorientation is that people have lost faith that the transitions they’re going through are actually getting them somewhere. It certainly helps to have a picture of the new phase of your life in your mind, to tolerate the means to the end.  But there are no guarantees and the picture might even change during the process.  Anything that doesn’t have a clear destination toward where you are moving, will seem frightening, eternal, and maybe even impossible.
But change is unavoidable.  So let’s do this.

In his book “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes,” William Bridges talks about how each transition consists of three stages: an ending, a period of confusion and distress, and then a new beginning.  

The ending stage involves letting go of an old way of doing or seeing things.  It may take the form of a death, a divorce, an illness, a move, a layoff, or bankruptcy.  It can also be a letting go of a certain phase in your life, or an innocence or ability of some kind. Think of this first stage as diving off a pier, into  a lake.  It’s a launching off from the OLD in order to swim to the NEW.

The period of confusion and distress stage is where people freak out and want to swim back.  When they look back, however, they most likely find that the dock has broken loose and is already headed downstream.  This stage is the most distressing, tiring, lonely and intense part of the transition.  During this ‘swimming’ stage, there appears to be an abyss, or “stuckness,” that people need to somehow get through before they can find and land upon whatever the next shore is.  There is no rule for how long this stage lasts, but the more support and positive beliefs you have, the more quickly it passes.

The new beginning stage is when things start to fall into place.  You feel your feet more firmly on the ground, you develop a stronger inner confidence, and relief finally comes forward — you have arrived!

We can think of these stages with the metaphor of remodeling a kitchen.  In the beginning, you tear down all the cabinets, pull off the countertops, and rip up the flooring.  You pack things up and move them out and lose the general functioning of your kitchen. There’s a lot of mess and frustration during the in-between stage, and there might be problems or delays that you face.  But then…one day you notice that the new cabinets are being put up, then the countertops are nailed down, a backsplash is applied, and new tile flooring and appliances are in place.  After all is said and done, you might even admit that the new and improved kitchen was worth the wait and the headaches you had to endure!  Now, can you imagine if you decided to put back all of the old things and go back to the way the old kitchen looked, because you just couldn’t tolerate the temporary mess and dysfunction of the transition process?

The way to hang on during the confusion and distress stage is to develop as clear of a picture of the new phase as possible.  If you can develop at least 70% of it, it leaves the remaining 30% up to fate, the Universe, God, or whatever else you might believe in.  If you have some general idea of your direction, it helps you stay the course.  I once heard someone say that you can drive from the east to the west coast in the dark with your headlights on and only see 20 feet in front of you the entire way. The entire transition will NOT be lit up for you to see 100% clearly.  But learning to develop strong coping skills (i.e. engaging in good self-care, comforting activities, and healthy distractions), having a good support system in place (family, friends, therapist), and keeping focused on at least 70% of a mental vision that you have faith in, will empower you to embark on and endure the journey that Life’s inevitable transitions will put on your path.  You can do this.

If you need more convincing or inspiration, here are some movies about loss and renewal that may help:

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