The past year has been loaded with major transitions for just about everybody. Health threats emerged, jobs were lost, daily routines were altered, and new priorities and plans arose. And although it’s rare for the entire planet to undergo a collective life-altering transition, individuals experience major transitions with surprising regularity—few people have one job, one mate and one home for their entire lives. The typical American will experience three to five life-altering disruptions, according to author Bruce Feiler’s research, and each will leave him/her unsettled for an average of nearly five years.
Waiting until things “get back to normal” isn’t the answer—life rarely returns to the way it was previously. Instead, we must improve our ability to manage life transitions. Bottom Line Personal asked Feiler to share the seven tools he has uncovered for coping with transitions, based on his interviews with hundreds of people in all 50 states who successfully reinvented their careers, personal lives or other aspects of themselves. The following tools can be employed in any order. It’s best to draw upon as many as possible…
Accept that the transition is happening—and that it will be emotional. It’s natural to resist transitions, even those that are voluntary. We cling to our former lives because that feels safe and comfortable while transitions seem daunting and uncertain.
To accept a transition, we must accept the emotions that it stirs up —even if our natural response to challenges is to push feelings aside—and roll up our sleeves and get to work. Such emotions typically include fear, sadness and/or shame. Guilt and anger also are common.
Some people find that journaling about their emotions helps. Follow-up research from a landmark study done in 1986 at University of Texas at Austin found that 27% of people laid off from their jobs who wrote about their thoughts and feelings found new jobs within three months, compared with 5% of those who didn’t journal.
Whether you journal or not, you should acknowledge what you’re feeling and use hard work as a way to overcome these emotions, not as an excuse to ignore them. Example: Army interrogator Eric Maddox felt fear when he was sent to Iraq—he was trained in Mandarin, not Farsi, and felt ill-equipped for the assignment. Rather than ignore his fear, he told himself, I can turn away because I am scared, or I can go to work and learn how to develop trust in this part of the world through an interpreter. Maddox’s interrogations helped track down Saddam Hussein.
Create a ritual or tribute to mark the transition. When people experience a major transition, they often stage some sort of event or activity to commemorate the change. Negative events need closure, while positive events, such as a child’s marriage or a new job or relocation, need celebration and acknowledgment to mark the new beginning. These “rituals” take many forms—a memorial service where friends and family members mourn the past or a party to celebrate the future…a good-bye letter written to a deceased partner or former life…a name change, such as a return to a maiden name…cleaning out a home…shaving off a beard or switching to a new hair style…a once-in-a-lifetime activity, such as skydiving…or something else entirely.
A ritual is something you can take control over at a time when much of life feels outside of your control. It also reinforces to you—and to your friends and family—that you are not going back to your old life.
Shed old mind-sets, routines, possessions…and even dreams. To make room for the new self, we must leave behind parts of our former self—possibly even parts that we value. A heart problem might mean that we must give up some favorite foods. A layoff might mean that we have to give up the dream house we were planning. A divorce might mean that we must give up some of the comfortable daily habits we’ve developed.
It helps to remember that this is a great opportunity to clear away parts of yourself that were not serving you well—decluttering your life to make room for the rewarding life you will create. Example: When Loretta Parham’s daughter died in a car crash, Parham was left to raise her two granddaughters. She discovered that to be a good parent, she had to give up being an indulgent grandparent, a role that she loved. It turned out that, despite the loss of her daughter, the role of parent was tremendously rewarding.
Find a creative outlet. People who find time for a new creative endeavor, such as painting, cooking, dancing or writing, often discover that this helps with their transition. It’s more than just a diversion from the long slog and mental strain of a life transition—new creative activities also encourage us to believe that we have it within us to be more than we previously were. If we can begin baking delicious bread or painting beautiful landscapes, it seems much more plausible that we also can find a new job or new relationship. Example: Evan Walker-Wells was a student at Yale when he was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The diagnosis forced him to leave school for six months of chemotherapy and leave behind his youthful sense that he was free to do whatever he wanted. He taught himself to cook and play guitar during this time—he was someone who had the capacity and drive to continue learning and growing under any circumstances. He was recently in his second year at Yale Law School.
Seek support from others. It’s probably no surprise that aid from other people is among the most powerful tools to help us through challenging transitions. What is surprising is that different people tend to crave very different types of support—and most of us are not very good at obtaining the type we prefer.
Many people crave comfort during times of transition and so welcome supportive feedback such as, “I love you” or “You can do it.” But others want a nudge in the right direction—
“I love you, but maybe you should try this.” And a smaller percentage want a proverbial kick in the backside—they yearn for someone to say, “Get over yourself—you’ve had your pity party, now get back to work.” People may want different forms of support from different people—a nudge or kick in the rear from a mentor, perhaps, but comfort from a spouse.
The trouble is, the people we go to for support often fail to give us the type we prefer—they give us what they think we need…or what they would want if they were in our position, leaving us frustrated and perhaps deterring us from seeking outside support again.
Solution: Tell people which type of support you hope to obtain and which you don’t want…and/or seek support from people who show a tendency to provide specifically what you need.
Publicly unveil your new self. At some point during your transition, a sense of normalcy will return to your life. That’s when it’s time to make a public statement that you’ve made a life transition. Tell your friends you’re ready to date again…throw a housewarming party for your new home…or update your LinkedIn page to show that you’ve launched a new career. If the “ritual” described earlier commemorated the end of your old life, this unveiling celebrates your new normal.
Helpful: One way to launch a “new self” is to provide assistance to someone else. Volunteer with a nonprofit, or help a friend in need.
Rewrite the story you tell yourself about your life. When people are in the midst of transitions, they usually think of themselves in terms of what they used to be—I was happily married or I was a successful professional. Rewrite this into a story of overcoming obstacles or of rebirth—I used to be that. I went through a life change. Now I am this. Example: Chris Waddell, a medal-winning Paralympian, set out to be the first paraplegic to climb 19,000-foot Mount Kilimanjaro—but just 100 feet from the summit, the boulders were too large for his arm-powered four-wheel mountain bike to pass. The other members of the expedition carried him to the summit. Waddell was initially crushed by what he viewed as a failure until he rewrote the story from I set out to climb a mountain unassisted but failed…to Nobody climbs a mountain alone.