Transitions: Big Ones, Small Ones, and Everything in Between

Bonnie Bell

First of all, let me just say that I have missed you! I was out of the office for almost a month for major but not life threatening surgery, and in a bit of a health transition ever since, but all is well now, and I’m back to work full speed, and ready to get back to normal with monthly posts about breakdowns and breakthroughs in career and life. Please stay tuned.

Transitions, big or small, refer in general to the “passage from one state, stage, subject or place to another.” That’s about the simplest definition you can find to describe the types of transitions that I want to focus on here. If you Google Wikipedia or any other online dictionary or encyclopedia, you will find mountains of examples of particular transitions, more than you need, from economic to musical, to the increasingly frequent use of the term “transitioning” to specifically refer to the process of gender change. The original use of the term “transition”, however, referred to the period during childbirth when the baby has left the womb and is in the birth canal but hasn’t been born yet. That’s when the screaming happens, if you get my drift…

My purpose is to bring into focus some of the ways in which we all can learn to recognize and more effectively manage the transitions in our lives, rather than being stymied or stumped by them. Virtually every client I have ever worked with is struggling with one transition or another, and by understanding certain features of transition, we can gain wisdom about them that will help us understand why they are always hard, always painful, and always hold great potential for positive growth; it just doesn’t seem that way while we’re in the midst of a big one, like the sudden loss of a loved one or a job.

The master of the subject of transitions in general was and still is psychologist, William Bridges, ever since he wrote his first book on the subject 25 years ago, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. The revised 25th anniversary edition is readily available via Amazon, as is the body of his work on the subject. Subsequent experts in the field owe their expertise one way or another to Bridges.

When the third new client I met with in the past two weeks triggered a conversation about the difficulties of being in transition, I knew it was time to spend a little time with all of you on the subject. See how many transitions you can find in these three client stories:

  1. A woman turning 30 who has just moved back to her birthplace in the Bay Area after living in a southern state for 10 years, and who is considering a career change because she hasn’t been able to find a job in her field.
  2. A 58-year-old minister who wants to move from the ministry into business, teaching
    or counseling.
  3. A 40-year-old entrepreneur, successful but frustrated in owning her small business, who wants to return to the hospitality industry to participate on the management level with a large, high-end international chain of hotels.

Anyone can recognize, I think, that these are all examples of difficult career/life transitions, but from what I already know of them, they each are headed in a right direction that makes sense for them, and they all did the right thing when they reached out for professional help. Why???

Transitions are always hard.  That’s the main thing you need to know (and remember) about transitions right up front. I guarantee that you have experienced a slew of them already, because you started out as a baby, became a toddler, then a preschooler and/or kindergartener, and then went through countless other major and minor transitions to get through primary school, junior high (OUCH! That was probably a particularly hard one!), high school and then on and on until either high school or college or graduate school kicked you out onto the rocky road of life to survive, thrive or flop. No doubt a mixture of both occurred in various situations throughout the ages and stages of your life to this point.  The transition to retirement is a huge, often unexpected transition, even if you think you are ready for it.  With retirements increasingly lasting thirty years or more, the question we need to ask ourselves beyond “How much money will I need in retirement?” is “What am I going to be doing during retirement?”

Transitions are always hard because we humans don’t like them. We don’t like to be between a rock and a hard place, neither here nor there. After all, biologically, we are hardwired for self-preservation, and when our instinct for food, shelter and clothing is threatened by the loss of a loved one or the loss of a paycheck, we tend to freak out, to utilize a highly technical term.

Transitions are always painful.  Once we “grow-up,” whether we are conscious of earlier painful transitions or not, we tend to minimize them, and can’t figure out why the next one that hits us between the eyes or ears is so hard. What we should get better at as we evolve is remembering that all transitions are hard and painful, and that mostly we do eventually get through them to the other side. On a deep level, transitions can yield rich wisdom about who we have been and who we are and what we want to be in the future, as long as we pay attention and learn from them. That is a good idea for a little homework you could each do about your own lives. Directions: Take some time to reflect on some of the major transitions in your life. Write them down. Then choose a particularly successful one to focus on: Describe what it was like? What was hard? What was the most painful thing about it? What did you learn? Was there a lasting change that turned out for the best?  Did you grow in wisdom?

Transitions are painful because they indicate loss, loss requires grief in order to resolve itself, and grieving is both hard and painful. Every transition implies a loss of something, even if you wanted the change and made the choice yourself. Examples might be that you made the choice to get married, or to move from the East Coast to the West Coast, or to take a job that seemed like the perfect thing. In such chosen situations, don’t be thrown for a loop because your initial joy and excitement turns into discouragement and depression after the deed is done. You are in the midst of biological and environmental stress produced by the loss of the familiar old and the fearful,
anxious new.

Because transitions are hard and painful, you are weakened and vulnerable to depression. Learn how to take good care of yourself while you are
in transition.

  1. Actively, frequently, remember the times in your life when difficult transitions actually worked out well — maybe even better than expected. This will help you build self-confidence, faith (in things hoped for but not yet seen) and determination to make them work out again.
  2. Develop what I refer to as your “Inner Resume.” Take stock of your gifts, talents, education, experience and character traits that are simply the truth about you. Write them down and memorize them so that you can claim them whenever you are vulnerable to other negative voices. Strong declarative statements about who you actually are very powerful.
  3. Ask for support from friends, family, and professionals if you need it.
  4. Do things you love to do. If it’s listening to music, or playing the piano, or reading a great novel, or taking a bike ride, do it!  It’s no doubt the fastest way to get yourself out of the negative voices and into what I call “Yes Energy”, the type of energy that automatically lifts you up and expands your thinking to higher levels.
  5. Avoid “No Energy.” These are activities or people that bring you down.
  6. Eat right, exercise, sleep well, take good care of yourself, love and forgive yourself. Put yourself in the way of grace (places where good things may happen) rather than in harm’s way. Pull out all the stops.

Sometimes, things work out much better than you even dared to hope. Trust me on this.

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