They say that the only things we can count on are death and taxes, but I’ll add a third item to the list: change. Nothing escapes it. Even Mount Everest will eventually weather away into a pile of sand. So, whether we seek it out in order to improve our situation, or it comes out of the blue, change is coming for us.
This article was inspired by a reader I spoke with who recently retired and was struggling to find her footing in a new life, in which she is no longer oriented by the daily responsibilities of work and the sense of identity she pulled from it. She saw her retirement coming ahead of time, of course, but still she was looking for tips for navigating this life transition.
Retirement qualifies as a major life transition. So does divorce, children leaving home, and career change. All of it requires us to let go of a previous understanding of ourselves, our lives, and perhaps the world, and form a new one. Whether that process proves to be a net positive or negative for us, though, has less to do with the details of the change than with our relationship to it.
Here are five ways to avoid freefalling through a life transition, and to emerge stronger, wiser, and happier on the other side of it.
Look before you leap
Sometimes a “light bulb moment” occurs for people, in which they realize that the status quo of their life is incongruent with what they really want, deep down. This happens all the time with my clients, of course, and I help them figure out what will feel right, and how to start having it.
If this occurs for you, you need to understand, and keep reminding yourself, that the personal growth process is a marathon, not a sprint. I encourage you to not be in a rush not to make dramatic life changes. You need to be sure that any transition you initiate is fueled by a desire to move closer to core values of yours, rather than being a reptilian-brain, knee-jerk reaction to discomfort.
I had a client not long ago (some details of clients are changed to protect confidentiality) who arrived highly motivated to change careers, and wanted to get to work on that right away. Later in our coaching, it also emerged that she drank more than she liked.
In this case, my client was drinking primarily as a way to cope with discomfort in social situations, which called for some coaching around her self-image, and self-compassion. Once she came into a softer and more accepting relationship with herself, she felt less anxious about how she was being perceived by others, and her drinking decreased dramatically.
Her desire for a new career remains, but the do-it-right-now, compulsive feel to the effort vanished, which is a good thing. She has different ideas now than she did before about what might feel better for her work-wise, because she has settled into a better knowledge of herself. Sometimes, in a situation like that, the internal work reveals that no major life transition is warranted at all.
So, first things first. Your path to a life of ease, enthusiasm, and happiness exists in bringing your outside world into alignment with your inside world, not the other way around. Knowledge of that internal world is where to start, then.
Make changes one at a time
When people have those light bulb moments, they might realize that they want to change a career that feels like a poor fit, exit an unhealthy relationship, put an end to procrastination, or a million other things. Sometimes it’s not just one thing they want to change, but several things.
When people realize that, one of two things often happens. One is that the person’s risk- and effort-averse reptilian brain feels overwhelmed by the task at hand, triggering a retreat into procrastination or some other kind of avoidance.
Other times, the realization that a better, happier life awaits is so exciting that the reptilian brain weighs in in a different way: it wants that life right now. The temptation is to get on with it, and start making changes everywhere at once.
But here, I think of rock climbing. It’s a good idea, before you move one hand to a new handhold, to make sure that your weight is supported by your other hand and your feet. In reaching for the next hold, you don’t want to tumble down the mountain.
The same concept applies in personal growth. Use to your advantage whatever stability you have in other areas of life when you’re approaching a major transition in another. Each person’s situation is unique, but if you’re looking to end your long-term romantic relationship, now might not be the time to also change careers, even if that’s also a goal of yours.
Generally, if you take one thing at a time, you’ll build confidence in your ability to initiate and complete challenging but good course corrections. You’ll approach the next change from a position of even greater strength.
Anchor yourself in something authentic
Change isn’t always something we seek, of course. Sometimes it catches us completely flat-footed. For instance, I once had a client who, at the urging of her significant other, entered a treatment facility for addiction. Upon successfully completing the program, she returned home to find that her partner had had an affair with her sister in her absence.
People are in a pretty fragile state in early recovery, so it’s not the best time to be confronted with infidelity, obviously. Situations like this, in which change comes charging fast and furious, can test even the most resilient person. Your understanding of multiple aspects of yourself or your life is called into question all at once.
At those times, it’s good to reconnect with things that have stood the test of time for you. In my client’s case, the first thing she returned to was her spirituality, which had ebbed and flowed over the years, but had remained a consistent theme in the background, and which provided comfort.
For you, it might be a hobby. Not just as a means of distraction, but a way to remind yourself that you’re an individual with needs and abilities, and the capacity to meet and exercise some of them yourself. A way to demonstrate competence to yourself. It’s another way of connecting to what’s true for you.
One exercise I often have my clients do when they’re feeling good—i.e. before a big, negative life transition pops up—is to write what I call a “message in a bottle.” This is a letter you write to your future, stressed-out, worried, self-doubting self. In it, you describe what you know to be true about yourself: your strengths, your history of overcoming challenges, and the things that are most important to you.
You write it, and you put it away for a rainy day. Then, when a disruptive change comes barreling toward you, you pull it out and read what the world’s best authority on you has to say about you. If you’re in a pretty good place now, why don’t you write one? It’s like an insurance policy.
Surround yourself with support
There’s no need to go into the woods alone. Whatever you’re facing, rest assured, many other people have faced it, or some variation of it. If you have close relationships with friends, family, or coworkers, turn to them and give them access to your experience of your challenge. Whether they have advice for you or not is really a secondary concern. The point, really, is just to know that you’re not alone.
If you don’t have that ability in your existing social network, then explore other options. There are support groups and online communities of people who are facing, or have faced, just about every conceivable change. The reader who inspired this article, who is transitioning into retirement, might benefit from attending activities with other youthful recent retirees. Or people who, in their working lives, were in the same career.
Finding support in these places gives you a glimpse into the "after" condition, so you can see that the change you’re facing isn’t a destination, but a mile marker en route to the next one.
Find meaning in change
We tend to get tunnel vision when change comes, with each transition sometimes feeling like the defining moment of our lives. Yet, they keep coming, and the meaning we ascribe to each of them is really what defines our lives.
In keeping with the previous tip, make a concerted effort to view not just this transitional period, but all times of transition in your life, as points of interest on a larger map. An exercise I often do with both individuals and groups is to have them make a graph of their lives, much like a stock chart, with ups and downs.
At each point where the graph changes direction, recognize that you learned something new about yourself or the world. What was it? Perhaps it was learning that something was more important to you than you’d realized, or finding a capacity for overcoming fear that you weren’t aware of, or something else. Does anything you learned at those times shed any light on your current situation?
Those ups and downs are like the heartbeat of your core self, so see what they have to teach you about what makes you tick.
Also, realize that every dip in the graph is followed by an uptick. Look at your own chart and you’ll see this. It means that you have an unblemished record of surviving everything that life has thrown your way, and you’ll survive whatever this is, too.
It’s your hero’s journey
Your graph is going to continue having ups and downs until you take your last breath, and that’s where the richness of life comes from. When change strikes, it can shake us. If we let it, change can shake us apart.
But if you orient toward your most authentic self as the ultimate source of clarity when things are in question, you can develop a different relationship to change. Being shaken by change doesn’t need to be a negative. Much like panning for gold, we can use the shaking to loosen the dirt and let it fall away, revealing the gold dust that we’re really after.