Alex Lickerman M.D.

Happiness in this World

Handling Transitions

A different way to look at change

Posted May 03, 2010

When I was a child, I was afraid to go to summer camp. Most kids found the prospect exciting and the experience fun, but I dreaded it. What would the activities be like? Who would my counselors be? What other kids were going? Would I be made to swim if I didn't want to?

After a few days, the camp routine became just that—routine—and I settled down. But transition periods remained challenging for me throughout my adolescence. As adults, many of us still struggle with change-even good change, like starting a new job, moving to a nicer house, or getting married. Just what is it about transition periods we find so challenging and how can we get through them with less stress?

THE GREAT UNKNOWN

In my case, transitions were difficult because they represented a change from the known to the unknown. The unknown, for many of us, feels unsafe. We worry the unknown, once known, will prove to be more than we can handle, a problem we can't solve. It's easy to be confident when you know exactly what you're facing and how to overcome it, but far harder to be confident when what you're facing is unclear. So we try to learn as many details as we can about whatever knew environment we're about to enter, striving to make the abstract more concrete for the purpose of measuring ourselves against it, of finding ways to minimize any potential dangers.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

But in doing this we sell ourselves short. Why not instead view transition periods as ways to exercise our ability to manage change? If the last time you faced a transition you found yourself a wreck—anxiously overreacting, struggling to get a good night's sleep, snapping at your loved ones out of fear—why not look upon your next transition as practice. Reflect on and catalog your reactions during transitions as they occur. Then each time you find yourself facing a new one, pick one thing you didn't do well during your last one. Maybe you belittled your abilities, failing to believe you were up to the job for which you were hired. Maybe you worried incessantly about how you were going to handle all the details of a move. Whatever reaction you had that you'd like to improve, during this next transition focus on it and it alone. Don't worry about failing to live up to any other expectation. Just strive to improve this one thing. If, when you're through the transition, you find you didn't, that's okay, too. The beauty of viewing transition periods as practice for improving yourself is that you get to keep trying until you do.

Further:

  1. Just do it. It may be a cliche to say that half the battle is just showing up, but cliches are cliches for a specific reason: they're true. Remind yourself you don't have to be perfect and that you don't have to do everything at once. Just getting through a transition is the definition of success.
  2. Look upon transitions—even negative transitions—as adventures. You can change poison into medicine. Even if you're fired. Even if you get divorced. Even if you become chronically ill. We all have the innate ability to create value out of hardship, and in so doing often add an enjoyable dimension to our lives we didn't have before.
  3. Remake your reputation. A transition is also an opportunity to re-brand yourself. Perhaps you called in sick too much on your last job and want to become a better employee. Perhaps you allowed life's small inconveniences to irritate you too much and want to become a more carefree person. If you look upon a transition period as an opportunity to change yourself, you'll be able to introduce a better self to the new people you meet. But take care not to fall prey to the misguided notion that simply by changing your physical location you'll change anything else about your life. Unless you change yourself, you'll recreate the same old life you always had, just in a new space.

Transitions are part and parcel of life, in which nothing ever stands still or remains the same. To learn to navigate transitions therefore is to learn to navigate life itself. Take the time to reflect on how you handle transitions. Plan ways to improve. Because if you can learn to face transition periods with equanimity, not much else will be left in life to disturb you.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.