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How to Let Go and Move On

Making job and life transitions you didn't choose for yourself

One of the most difficult parts of making transitions at work or in life is letting go of who you were and what once made you successful. When I teach new leaders that they have to let go of being the top performer or when I coach people who have been forced to do something they didn’t choose, they always say, “How do you let go? People say to let go but it’s hard to do.”

Joseph Campbell said, “We must let go of the life we have planned so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” Whether you choose your next move or the decision was made for you, you have to clearly see what you must release to move on. From this vantage point, it is easier to step into the next phase, one that could be just as rewarding if not more so if you give it a full try.

The shift is particularly difficult if you were in the spotlight and you now have the role of helping others to be in the spotlight. Your values must shift from I do great work (for my organization, my team, my family, my community, or all humanity) to they do great work. The attachment to “my great work” is common, whether you are moving into your first leadership position after being a superstar performer or you are stepping back due to family or life situations.

If you were good at your job, it can rattle your brain to step into being supportive, patient, and committed to helping others make decisions on their own. This is also true for parents having to deal with their children growing up.

First, you need to recognize the strength of the attachment you still have to the way it used to be and who you once were. Then you need to see this attachment as a detriment to fully accept the new role you are now in.

Step One: Take a moment to articulate what was good about the past. Were you the one who saved the day? Did people come to you for advice, honoring you as the one who knew what was best to do? Did people show how much they appreciated you? Recall how important you were and what wonderful outcomes you achieved. Declare why it will be hard to let go.

Step Two: Grieve the past. Saying goodbye to a fulfilling past can be disheartening. The moment you recognize what you are losing, no matter what you will gain going forward, can be painful. Acknowledge this discovery as a powerful revelation. Let yourself feel sad for a few days. Take yourself on a retreat. Recognizing your grief can help it pass more quickly.

Step Three: Once you grieve your loss, look to see what is possible going forward. You have to find value in the life you are now living or you may never let go of the past. What will make you feel relevant now? What achievements are possible that you can look forward to?

You can’t force yourself to love your current life but you can recognize the value today and the possibility for fulfillment tomorrow. Or maybe you need to start looking for a new role, job, or adventure that will get your old needs met. Be careful, you should not decide you are failing at your new endeavor because you aren’t perfect. Making a full transition takes time.

Step Four: Shift your daydreaming to the future. Find at least one thing to look forward to every day. Consider what will be possible a year from now if you keep moving forward. Vision what a great day will look like one year from today. Every time you catch yourself thinking of the past, shift your thoughts to the vision you created. Then make your plans to make that dream come true.

Remember—all career and life transitions are a gradual process, not an instantaneous event. Courage is needed throughout the process. Where are you on the continuum between letting go of the past to stepping into the unknown future? You can engage your heart to dream once you activate the courage to release your attachment to the past.

Note: If you are trying to help someone else move through a difficult transition, you will find techniques and specific cases that relate to this in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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