Why transitions (always) suck—and what you can do about it

an unwitting victim...bwahahhahahaa

Scan­ning over my recent post about tran­si­tions, it struck me that I glossed over one key fact: Tran­si­tions always suck.

That lost, con­fused, hope­less feel­ing that seems like it will never end?  No, it’s not just you. It’s the nature of the beast.

How do I know this?  Well for one thing, I’ve been through a lot of tran­si­tions, and it was ever thus. For another, I’ve read a ton about tran­si­tions, and every­one seems to agree.

Those who study and write about tran­si­tions even have their own names for this uniquely unset­tling phase:  Change guru William Bridges describes it as “the Neu­tral Zone.” Life coach Martha Beck calls it “Death and Rebirth.” Nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist Sara David­son refers to it as “the Narrows.”

But while the names may be dif­fer­ent, the core feel­ings are the same: Dis­ori­en­ta­tion, anx­i­ety, fear. Panic and desperation.

Fun, isn’t it?

So, you may be think­ing, it’s all well and good to know that I’m on track, but that only goes so far. How do I keep mov­ing for­ward when I don’t want to get out of bed?

In his ground­break­ing book Tran­si­tions: Mak­ing Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges offers the fol­low­ing 10 sug­ges­tions for nav­i­gat­ing these chal­leng­ing times.

1. Take your time

As I noted in my pre­vi­ous post, tran­si­tions often take a long time—far longer than we’d expected and far longer than we’d hoped. Think years not days or weeks.

2. Arrange tem­po­rary structures

Do what you need to do to bridge this period of dis­lo­ca­tion. It may be tak­ing a tem­po­rary job, adjust­ing your com­mit­ments at home or at work, con­nect­ing with a spir­i­tual com­mu­nity, or join­ing a sup­port group. Ask your­self what prac­ti­cal adjust­ments you can make that are likely to ease your passage.

3. Don’t act for the sake of action

As Bud­dhist teach­ers some­times quip: “Don’t just do some­thing, sit there.”  Rec­og­nize that sit­ting with uncer­tainty is often the best option—and in itself, a real accomplishment.

4. Rec­og­nize why you are uncomfortable

You are uncom­fort­able not because you’re doing some­thing wrong but because you are in tran­si­tion. Remind your­self of this again and again (and again).

5. Take care of your­self in lit­tle ways

In par­tic­u­lar, Bridges sug­gests small plea­sures that bring a sense of con­ti­nu­ity. Think watch­ing a favorite TV show or eat­ing a favorite meal.

6. Explore the other side of change.

This is an inter­est­ing one.  As Bridges sees it, both pos­i­tive changes (such as hav­ing a baby) and neg­a­tive changes (such as los­ing your job) both have upsides and downsides.

If you’re fac­ing a change that you didn’t choose, Bridges sug­gests spend­ing some time reflect­ing on its pos­si­ble ben­e­fits. On the other hand, if your change was a wel­come one and yet you’re feel­ing inex­plic­a­bly uneasy, he sug­gests giv­ing some thought to what the change may have cost you as well as to its gifts.

 7. Get some­one to talk to

Hav­ing at least one reli­able and empathic lis­tener is crit­i­cally impor­tant when your life is in flux. If no one in your net­work can serve that role right now, con­sider find­ing a pro­fes­sional coun­selor or join­ing a sup­port group.

8. Find out what is wait­ing in the wings of your life

Bridges notes that tran­si­tions open up space in our lives for us to grow in new ways. Ask your­self: What is wait­ing to hap­pen in my life now? (Try set­ting aside a bit of time to put this down on paper. You may be sur­prised at what comes up.)

 9. Use this tran­si­tion as the impe­tus to a new kind of learning

What do you need to learn right now, and how can you start to learn it?

10. Rec­og­nize that tran­si­tion has a char­ac­ter­is­tic shape.

As I wrote ear­lier this week, every tran­si­tion fol­lows a sim­i­lar struc­ture. This period where every­thing sucks is nor­mal and nec­es­sary. The good news? This phase will come to an end.  (It just may take a while.)

Do you have a strat­egy that’s helped you to nav­i­gate a major life tran­si­tion? If so, please share it in the com­ment section.

© 2011, amy gut­man. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Why transitions (always) suck—and what you can do about it

  1. The points you’ve made on tran­si­tion ring so true. I just com­pleted one year of tran­si­tion which has changed my view of work and pri­or­i­ties. The next chal­lenge is set­ting a new course to fol­low that will bring greater fulfillment.

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