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Life Transitions: Juggling Past, Present, Future

Let go of the past, or treasure it?

"Tradition!" celebrates a famous song from Fiddler on the Roof. What about Transition!? Transitions also are times of celebration. Adolescence tends especially to invite transitions: from middle school to high school, from high school to whatever comes next, from living at home to living outside of the family cocoon, and again from the safety of a college campus out into the world of independent living and work.

While transitions may be celebrated with graduations and parties, they also can be emotionally challenging: sometimes downright painful, grief-inducing, and yet also hopefully exciting, and important.

Paradoxically, a life transition requires embracing two challenges: letting go of the past and embracing the future.

What are transitions?

Transitions are moments of leaving a past that has been reasonably steady and familiar for a future that will be different. In times of transition, now is the bridge between a long-standing past and a discontinuous, strange and unpredictable future. The bridge may be short and shakey, long and arduous, or anywhere in between. Transitions of all sorts however require leaving elements of your past behind and moving forward to a new future.

Life transitions come at many junctures in a lifetime in addition to the graduations that mark the ends of the school-based stages of adolescence. Transitions may arrive as job changes, weddings, births of children, deaths of parents and other loved ones, marriage problems, divorce, war, natural disasters, sudden shifts into or out of wealth or fame or, as in the case of the short musings below, a move to a new city.

Alyssa Kapnik, author of the blog For a Day, wrote the following autobiographical musings just before her recent move to take a job in a faraway city.

Thanks Alyssa for your permission to share your sensitive writing with my readers.

(Below Alyssa's comments I will resume with psychological perspectives on transitions and what to do if your past is too present in your now.)

Westward Ho! On Ambivalence About A Life Transition
By Alyssa Kapnik, from her blog For a Day

I’ve almost finished the tube of toothpaste I bought last month when I was traveling in Vietnam. It’s not particularly Vietnamese toothpaste, just Colgate with some Vietnamese language on it. I bought it for the bizarre inflated price of 20,000 Vietnamese dong. $1. I’ve stopped using it, frankly, and moved on to Denver toothpaste. I have a strange resistance to finishing the Colgate, as if it were a great book, and I could somehow, through my powers of self control, stretch out the ending. And at the same time the experience belongs to my past, not my present. I have to leave it behind.

I’m moving to California in 12 days, starting my path to someday working full time for National Public Radio. I’ll be starting (overjoyed, nervous, hopeful) a day or two after I arrive. So far I’ve packed nothing. I imagine I’ll take rain coats and my new leather boots, three pairs of long pants and my bicycle. I’m not sure what else to bring.

How does one move across the country? It seems both daunting and completely common. I have ten or twelve Colorado transplant friends already living in the Bay Area, not to mention friends there from Maine, New York, North Carolina, Ohio.

At what point does a person start saying they’re from California?

My friend UA, despite his distinctive New York accent and his love for all things Yankees, declared the other night after dinner that he is a Westerner. 28 years in New York should hardly compare to 39 years not in New York, and yet I was shocked to hear him say it.

Letting go of such a big part of one’s former identity in favor of a new one is quite a revolution: a slow, thoughtful revolution, perhaps, one that involves new family, marriages, friendships, neighborhood board meetings and mortgages, and a revolution nonetheless.

I’m hesitant to change. I am incredibly proud to be a Coloradan, to the point that I nearly bought cowboy boots yesterday. I’ve become excessively sentimental about Denver lately, feeling lucky to be caught in traffic if only to have more time to sit still in my home city. Time to think about the sun reflector that is the copper office building on Colorado Boulevard, the sprinkler rockets that shoot endless streams of water into the street because no one can possibly keep up with every broken sprinkler head in Denver city parks, the growth all around the city, and the relatively short (and somehow endless) drive to Boulder where my newly-married sister lives.

My mom said that when she was growing up, a nighttime drive to Boulder was pitch black. Almost eerie. Just the light emanating from their car’s own headlights.

Things change slowly here—most times when I come home, even after months and months away, I’m shocked at how completely the same things are.

Small things do change, like the kinds of flowers Mom’s planting in her garden. Occasionally there are new stop signs at neighborhood intersections, neighborhood restaurants get a juicer, local grocery stores open a meat market. New buildings crop up, old houses get scrapped for McMansions, the formerly pitch black road to Boulder now is lined with cookie-cutter suburbia. It’s difficult to leave when I focus on the reality that things will change. I will change.

And at the same time, generally things stay the same. I count on it.

I’m excited to start my new life in California. Excited to see Ocean where once I saw Mountains. Excited to feel fog in the mornings and sun in the afternoon, excited for a new music scene and to make new and rekindle old friendships. I feel a desire to refresh my life like we refresh websites that won’t respond.

When will I start saying I’m from California?

I’m definitely going to finish my Vietnamese toothpaste before I move West. I’ve delayed the ending long enough, and am ready to move on. New adventures. New hills to climb. Maybe I’ll even scrap my Denver toothpaste as well, in favor of something entirely new.

* * * *

What to do with the past?

There are plusses and minuses to holding on to the past.

The past may contain treasured moments that we want to be able to continue to hold on to. Such is the case when we cling to memories after the loss of a loved one. In dark times memories of prior happier moments can energize us to plough ahead toward a future when the sun will shine again. Nostalgia can enable us to repeatedly re-experience long past treasured moments.

Similarly, the past may contain valuable lessons. History teaches us that if we do not learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it. Psychotherapists often encourage clients to look back productively at their personal past to find the sources of some of their current travails. A fresh look at our past sometimes truly can set us free.

At the same time, life is meant to be lived as it happens. Too much looking backward is like driving a car with your eyes focused excessively on the rear view mirror.

What can cause people to lock their thoughts too much of the time on past events?

Emotionally hyper-intense past events such as traumatic (a spouse’s affair, a painful illness, or a shameful mistake) or ecstatic (winning Gold in the Olympics) experiences can become intrusive or preoccupying interlopers on the present.

Visions of super-intense emotional experiences in the past can remain in front of us long after the event has passed much like looking at an intense light leaves us seeing bright spots of light after the actual light has gone dark. When these experiences have been painful rather than joyful, we refer to the after-light as ptsd.

People who have suffered something hurtful or unfair can be especially tempted to carry resentment mentally in front of them until a way to redress the grievance occurs. Usually their hope is that remembering the past will protect them, e.g., from allowing themselves to trust enough to be hurt again, or to impel them to make sure that we “get even.

Some transitions from past to present are incomplete.

When transitions are incomplete, sometimes that means that a person is continuing relationships with people and activities that can be meaningful and enriching in both the old and the new worlds. This kind of continuity makes a transition less absolute and may hereald growth and expansion rather than a total departure from the old.

At the same time, people sometimes hold their past too much in front of them, blocking their ability to enjoy the present and build for a positive future.

Spouses who carry resentment about something their partner has done will feel blocked vis a vis accepting their partner’s current loving actions and building together a better future.

Today, the day I am posting this article, is 9/11, so I am thinking also about why the Islamist (political Islam) leader Bin Ladin sent airplanes to destroy the World Trade Center. Islamists who commit terror acts around the globe are seeking revenge for Islamic defeats starting in the 1600's when they began losing the European parts of their empire in the Battle of Vienna. Their goal is to re-fulfill ancient jihadist (world dominion) ambitions instead of contributing their energies to building successes for Muslim people living now.

Similarly, soldiers who continue to relive past horrors find that their ptsd (post traumatic stress disorder) blocks them from relaxed enjoyment of normalcy once they have returned from the war zone. And while nostalgia for past loved ones may offer moments of sweetness, too much looking backwards can prevent folks from building a gratifying present and future.

What can help people to transition from holding the past in front of them to putting it behind them?

A therapy technique that I have learned from Dale Petterson, my energy therapy colleague, is to ask people whether their past is in front of or behind them. Dale uses muscle testing to help clients to answer this question. I find that asking clients to close their eyes and visualize their past obtains the same data.

You might want to close your own eyes for a moment to visualize where your own past currently is located. Is it in front of you or properly stowed behind you?

When therapy clients see their past in front of them, visualizing can help them to put the past behind them.

To do this I suggest that clients visualize gathering up the past from in front of them and putting it all into some kind of box. I ask what the box looks like. It may be a small box, like a jewelry box, or, as in a case I worked with just yesterday, a large steel box with a lock and key.

Once their memories have been gathered into the box, I ask where behind them they would like to store the box. They may choose a spot on a shelf behind where they are sitting in my office, a particular place in their own home, a spot far behind them or just behind their back.

With the past now properly repositioned behind instead of in front of them, available for checking into from time to time but no longer blocking their way, clients generally experience a sense of lightness, relief, and readiness to move forward. Their transition to a new present and future has been completed.

What about contemplating the future?

New can evoke anxiety. I remember recently feeling anxious just because I was trying a different brand of instant coffee. Would it taste as good as the old? Would it generate acid in my stomach?

New also can evoke excitement. That’s why people go on vacations to exotic locations. New is energizing. New triggers our happy chemicals, a term used by Loretta Graziano Breuning in her book Meet your Happy Chemicals.

Thinking about the future is especially important in times of transition. That kind of thinking we call planning. Planning enables us to be sure that at least the basics of what we will need in our future situation will be there for us.

Keys to a successful transition

With some planning, plus a past that has been sufficiently mentally located behind you, you can face transitions positively. Treasure the now thoughts and feelings that you experience as you cross your bridge to embrace the challenges and blessings that lie in the new future ahead.


Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.

Dr. Heitler's most recent book, Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More, offers helpful exercises for the emotions that arise in the face of life transitions.