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.