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Keys to Handling Life's Transitions

Within the angst lie opportunities for change.

Sara had recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend and though it ended amicably she was now feeling adrift. But then much to her surprise she was offered a promotion on her job – heading up a new office in another state. She’s accepted the position and is looking forward to the challenge and change, but, quite honestly, it doesn’t take much for her to feel overwhelmed and even a bit depressed.

Ready or not, we all go through numerous transitions in our lives – living high school to go to college or work, changing jobs, getting married, having children. These become those weeks or months or longer of awkward emotional spaces where we have cut ties with what we know and have not quite settled into what is new. Some, like Sara’s, are by choice, by opportunity; others come from natural ends – the graduating from college – and still others are unwillingly imposed on us – sudden layoff from a job, unwanted and uninitiated breakups in relationships. Whatever the circumstances, navigating this gray zone of transitions can be difficult, presenting us with new problems and demanding us to respond in new ways.

Here are some tips for surviving and thriving through these difficult and uncertain times:

Expect to feel depressed and anxious. Even though Sara’s relationship with her boyfriend ended relatively well, a loss is still a loss, a major change in her life. Even though her job is a promotion, she is still going to leave behind both colleagues that she has grown close to and a job that has become comfortable and familiar. Whenever we move forward we leave something behind, and this creates a psychological state of grief, however small. And if the change is unexpected and unwanted– the sudden job layoff or relationship breakup – the shock and depression are greater. And with such turmoil comes anxiety. We are out of our comfort zone; our imaginations run wild; we worry about an unknown future.

Realize that this is a new / old chapter in your life. While you need to acknowledge your loss, you don’t want to get stuck in the past. Acknowledging that a door is closed is psychologically healthy; spending your time staring at it is not.

While it sounds like a cliché, the next step after an end is a new beginning, a new chapter, and keeping this in mind can give you a sense of a fresh start. And while the particular circumstances are new, the process itself is familiar. You have, after all, made transitions before – changing schools, neighborhoods, relationships, jobs. You know the terrain, you’ve acquired experience and skills along the way. You can do this again, and this time even better.

Think positive, think opportunity. In the movie Up In the Air George Clooney played a character whose job is to fire people for companies that were downsizing. He always began his termination speech with “ I’m here to talk to you about new opportunities.” Is it a bit of spin, a bit forced – sure – but it is also true.

I remember going through a period many years ago where I had moved to a new town with my wife and 2 children and was unable to find a job. Though I was initially depressed (loss and grief), I eventually used my time to begin to write. By the time I finally landed a job, a year and a half later, my writing, even if somewhat fragile, was under way, and my outlook on work and family life had changed. Looking back on that time now, I realize that if I had quickly found a job I would have gone on auto-pilot, marched ahead into the same workaholic work I had before, and probably never had the time to develop this other aspect of me nor made my family as much of a priority. Though it was certainly a difficult time, it ultimately was a pivotal one, reshaping the direction of my future and the next 30 years.

During times of transition, when everything seems to be in flux, when your old patterns have collapsed, you may feel unsteady but are also most malleable to change. Now is the time to explore, brainstorm, consider the make-over before your life begins to naturally solidify into new patterns. Sara now has the unique opportunity to begin her new life in a new way. Starting new relationships from scratch, she has the opportunity to experiment with being more bold, more assertive, more honest than she may have been before. This is the time to think outside the box.

Hit the ground running. And don’t take too long to get started. We are creatures of habit and routine, and those routines can congeal quickly. If Sara lets her anxiety take over once she moves, she may easily find herself in 6 months coming home from work, eating a frozen dinner and watching TV night after night. The momentum is lost and it will feel harder to break out. As soon as those boxes are unpacked, or before, she needs to have a plan and get moving on it.

Get support. It’s tough to do this all on your own. Sara will probably be calling her old friends at the old job for a few months until she develops new ones; she will need to be leaning on her supervisor as she tackles the learning curve of the new assignment. Others will need to rely on family for moral support, still others on counselors. When you are feeling a bit ungrounded, support from others can help you keep perspective and moving ahead.

Have a realistic timeframes and expectations. There are going to be difficult days when Sara is going to think that she never should have taken the new job or even broken up with her boyfriend, all natural reflections of her up-and-down state of mind. She needs to be patient, realize that it may take her a year to feel confident in her job, months to begin to make new friends. Anything less and she is only adding pressure and stress.

Transitions are those unique times when we toss off the old but have not yet stepped into the new. While the circumstances are always different, the skills and attitudes needed to successfully move ahead are always the same, namely being positive, patient, and proactive.

A new journey awaits.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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