Packing up and saying Hello -- Coping with transition

Transitions can be surprisingly hard – here are suggestions for coping.

Posted May 15, 2010

Deirdre* spent her spring semester in another country. As she prepared to come home, she emailed me to set up an appointment "soon after I get back. It'll give me something to hang onto while I'm going through this ending process. I'm really sad to be leaving my new friends. And it'll help me ground myself while I'm trying to settle in again at home." A wise young woman, Deirdre knew that much as she was looking forward to getting back, re-entry would not be simple. "I know I'll feel different; and I'll want everyone else to be different, too," she said, and added, "It's been a mixed experience. There have been good and bad things about it, but I'm glad I did it."

And then she asked,"But why does time seem to be speeding by and slowing down at the same time?"

This is a season of change. Children move from school to camp. Adolescents graduate from high school and college. Even if school is no longer a part of your life, much of our culture cycles around the academic year. And leaving anything is almost always a mixed bag.

Deirdre's words capture one of the hardest parts of transition for many of us - as we leave one situation and move into a new one, we often feel a mixture of emotions: sadness about saying goodbye to people and experiences that have been important to us, relief about ending unpleasant circumstances, and both excitement and anxiety about whatever awaits us. While we wait for that eagerly anticipated new thing to arrive - a baby, a new job, a new semester, a trip, a wedding or other event - time seems to drag by. And while we prepare to leave something or someone we love, time moves far too quickly.

The thing is, both of these experiences often happen simultaneously. Separation (which, if you've read some of my other blogs, you know is not one of my favorite experiences) almost always brings with it both loss and opportunity. So even when it's a positive move, even when it's something we very much want, it is often accompanied by feelings that don't seem so happy.

Here are some suggestions for coping:

1- Recognize that mixed feelings are normal. You are not crazy if you are excited about moving into your new apartment and sad about leaving your old one at the same time. You're just experiencing the feelings of loss and anticipation that are part of almost every life transition.

2- Similarly, recognize that feeling sad about leaving one situation or anxious about moving into another does not have to mean that you have made the wrong decision. Most of us have these feelings about even the best possible moves in our lives. In fact, the time that I worry about a possible problem is usually when a client tells me about an upcoming change without talking about some of the conflicts about it!

3- Try to put all of your confusing feelings into words. Tell a friend or a relative; but set the stage first, so that they don't get worried that you have either gone off your rocker or, more likely, have made the wrong decision. Tell them that you are trying to sort out your feelings, which are contradictory, and you just would like them to listen - unless of course you say something that genuinely makes them think you're forgetting to pay attention to something important.

4-Whether you are leaving a semester abroad, a house or neighborhood, a school or university, a job or a relationship, try to give yourself a little time to reflect on both the good and bad aspects of the experience. Do not try to pack in everything you have not done, or everything you meant to do in the short time you have left. And try not to turn it into an all-bad experience in your mind, something you are eager to get away from because it has been nothing but bad. This may make it easier to leave in the short term, but will have problematic consequences down the line.

5- Similarly, try to give yourself time to adjust to any new situation. It will not be perfect in the beginning. You will want to compare it with what you have left behind, which may suddenly take on all sorts of positive attributes you didn't give it while you were in it. This too is normal. But try not to take these shifts too literally. We almost always look behind us with memories that are less complex than the actual experiences. Don't be taken in by either a rosy or a very dark memory. And remind yourself that your present situation will change over time. Give it a chance. And give yourself a chance to adjust to the differences.

Interestingly, these factors often appear as clients start to get better in therapy. As much as we might want to change, we are also often afraid to leave behind relationships and parts of ourselves that feel familiar, even if they don't seem to be the healthiest or most productive way to live. Early psychoanalysts called this "resistance." I call it common sense. Only if we can pay attention to these opposites - both the pain and pleasure that comes with endings and the anticipation and dread of new beginnings, can we manage the transitions that are an ongoing part of every life.

* Not her real name. Names and personal information have been changed to protect individuals and families.