Mastering Life's Transitions

As one chapter close, another begins: Some guidelines to help you navigate

Posted May 19, 2016

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Carla was suddenly laid off from her job as project manager for a start-up. Although not surprised since the company was struggling, she is now at a loss at what she wants to do next.

Ben and his girlfriend mutually decided to call it quits from their 5-year relationship. On a good day he feels it was the right move; on others he feels depressed and questions their decision.

Our lives move in chapters and as one closes, another begins. The challenge is often about moving through these transitions from one to the next. Here are some guidelines to help you along:

Expect a sense of loss and grief 

Even though Carla was not surprised, the loss of her job is a loss nonetheless. It is not only about the job itself, but the loss of contact with coworkers that she enjoyed, as well as her own sense of identity. With any loss comes grief.

The same is true for Ben. He had been with this girlfriend for a long time, and regardless of the quality of their relationship there was an attachment between them. When that attachment is broken, there is a sense of loss. Like Carla there are days when he will miss his girlfriend, he may lose contact with some the mutual friends they shared, all triggers from normal feelings of grief.

And of course if the changes were more sudden and traumatic – Carla was suddenly fired because of work performance or Ben’s girlfriend herself called it quits with no warning, the sense of loss and grief is greater.

Expect some depression and questioning 

With the loss comes some depression and questioning of yourself, your decisions, your past behavior. Here Carla wonders if she will be able to find another job easily, whether she should have taken the job with a start-up to begin with, whether she couldn’t have done differently all along. Ditto for Ben who wonders if he should have ended the relationship sooner or tried harder or on a bad day whether he will ever meet someone he is truly compatible with.

All this is tied up with the grief and loss but if you tend to be self critical, this beating up on yourself and disasterizing can pull you down. Here you need to push back against the those negative voices, stay in reality mode – that yes, Carla does have skills and talents that will help her find another job, that yes Ben, in hindsight, may have some things differently, but he has learned valuable lessons that he can take into his next relationship.

Think of this as an opportunity to step back and think big picture 

It’s easy to go on autopilot: Carla is scanning Monster.com within hours of her getting her notice, Ben is activating a profile on Match.com. This is good to do so you don’t get mired and stuck in the mental quagmire of depression, but you also want to slow a bit, take a couple of deep breaths and reflect. Transitions offer an opportunity to think creatively, to assess long-term goals, to brainstorm. Carla may want to find similar work, but she may want to also consider applying her skills in a different field, or not work at all and consider going to grad school.

Ben needs to be careful he doesn’t fall into a rebound relationship because he feels lonely. He may want to take a break from relationships, get more comfortable with being on his own, or, if he has nothing particularly holding him to his town, brainstorm about transferring his job to a satellite office on the west coast, or move to a Florida where he always wanted to live, or like Carla think about switching fields or going back to school.

Keep moving, explore 

That said, this is not a good time to be impulsive. Ben up and moving overnight to Florida probably reflects his grief and depression and trying to escape his feelings. But he and Carla don’t want to sit on the couch and wait to feel better either; the antidote to depression is action. Carla should check out grad schools or Ben the possibility of a transfer or housing costs in Florida. Transitions are times to gather lots of information, to mentally stir the pot and then see what settles. Sitting around only makes things worse.

Have realistic expectations of yourself

Ben needs to not expect that he will meet the person of his dreams on his next exploratory date, but he also needs to counter those voices in his head telling him that his next relationship will wind up like his last. If Carla decides to switch fields or go back to school, she needs to keep in mind that there will be learning curve on either front and keep her expectations reasonable.

Have realistic timeframes

Making the transition from one chapter to the next usually takes a couple of years before you have a firm footing. Carla may not be settled into the student role until her second semester or second year of grad school. Ben, should he decide to move or begin a new relationship, will need to couple of years to build up new friendships in his new job or town, or reach the level of intimacy that he had with his old girlfriend. On bad days your doubts about your new decisions will linger, but over time the good days and positive feelings that you have will increase.

Realize that you are always recreating your past 

We are constantly recreating our past through the lens of the present. Should Carla struggle to find a job after grad school or should Ben have a couple of relationships that go bust, their minds will naturally replay the past, wondering once again about the old job, the old relationship, roads not taken. This part of human nature. The antidote is realizing that you always make the best decision at the time, that you are always creating and re-creating your life, that you, as Benjamin Button says, can always start again.   

Get support

While this is all about you, this is not a time to go it alone. Reach out to friends and family for support as needed and if you feel you are struggling – with depression, anxiety, or decision-making, consider a short stint of counseling to help you sort out your feelings and get over the emotional hump.

A new chapter begins….