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Why transitions are hard and how to roll with the punches

As our lives change from one phase to another, what makes it difficult, what matters most and how should we respond?

Transitions. Are. Hard. Whether it’s from full time work to retirement, from independent woman to wife and mum, or to elite athlete to….erm what’s next? The transition from lockdown to ‘normal’ life is also going to prove hard for many.

The emotions you feel when transitioning from one stage of life to another are turbulent, random and sometimes inexplicable. Anger arises from nowhere, fear seems to appear from the shadows and jealously surprises us at random.

So whilst these transitional stages are never easy, I aim to put some language to why they are difficult and offer some suggestions to help you deal with the challenging emotions.

Identity

I can’t talk about transition without talking first about identity. Changing identity is the single biggest gear change when you leave one thing behind and move to something else. The question of ‘who am I now?’ is with us always, and seems to rear its ugly side during times of transition. Despite what people say to try and alleviate the pressure, it’s not enough to ‘see how it goes’. Certainty is what you want – to know who you are and what the future holds for you. You want to be able to say a clear, confident answer when someone asks ‘what do you do?’.

The trouble is, we become so attached to our identities. If you’ve succeeded in the past, you become attached to what you’ve accomplished. Your success becomes your identity and security. Even physiological symptoms are perceived differently according to identity - a violinist perceives pain in their finger much greater than a dancer perceives the same finger pain.

So what’s the solution? I think it lies in diversifying how you see yourself, and never becoming too attached to a single identity. The Dalia Lama teaches us that the less attached we are to our identity, the less defensive and reactive we will be and the more effective and skilful we can be. In fact, I’d argue you are more likely to be successful if you have multiple identities. So why not take a moment to consider who you are.

Not just what do you do, but who you are.

What do you bring to this world beyond the one thing you spend the most of your time doing?

For example, I am woman, an employee, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a colleague, a hockey-player, an adventurer, a psychologist, a reader, a learner, a cook, a meditator, a home-owner, a granddaughter, a gardener, a triathlete, a learner, a listener, a writer….

List it, keep writing until you have nothing left, and then write 5 more things. Come back to it the next day and write 10 more. Look at your list and appreciate how many things you are. What you do doesn’t define you. Who you are will always be more important than what you do, or what you know.

You don’t need to play the same character for your whole life.

Network

We are social beings. We like to be connected. We like to feel wanted and part of a group. We spend years developing relationships with our colleagues, only to leave them behind when we start a new job. We spend 18 years building a family unit with our children, caring for their every need only for them to head off to University or a job without even looking back. Athletes bond with teammates and coaches at a personal and professional level and go through so much together that it feels unbelievable hard to leave that behind.

Evolution has taught us this - that it is beneficial to live in tribes, where we can share out the work of daily survival. In the Xhosa language, they have a word for this that we don’t have – “Ubuntu”. The literal translation of this is “a person is a person through other persons” which I think sums it up so well. In this tribe they understand that they could not walk, talk or think as a human being without learning it from others. They fully understand that we all belong in a delicate network of relationships with people who we get to know over time.

So how is leaving any of this behind ever going to be easy? It’s not. It’s not easy. But it is possible to leave a situation without leaving relationships. You’ll find a way of keeping the people you really want in your life.

Be conscious about staying connected. Pick up the phone. Arrange to meet. Get into the habit of reaching out, not hiding in.

And, make new connections, join new groups. Often what hurts so much about transitioning from one life situation to the next is that we have to leave behind a part of us that was connected to others. But as they say, “when one door closes another one opens”, so use your drive for connections to meet new people and make new relationships.

Change

“I want to change, but not if it means changing.”

This quote (taken from a brilliant book The Examined Life) probably resonates with many of us.

Change tends to be something we do if we have to, but will avoid if at all possible.

Have you ever tried to make a small change to a habit you do every single day? The shoe you put on first, the order you put your milk into your tea, the way you sign off a message. For things as trivial as those examples, it’s ridiculously hard. Humans like order, certainty and we are creatures of habit.

So when we have to make change, when we are forced to transition from one identity to another, or when we make a decision to change that we know is best for us, it brings about many negative emotions. Fear, anger and sadness are all natural responses to change. This is because our brains have evolved to desire certainty, which stems from our basic drive to survive. We have evolved to predict and control our circumstances because doing so optimizes are the ability to live. When we experience change, our brains can interpret it in 2 main ways; as a threat or as a challenge.

The key determining factor for how we experience difficult change is our mindset. A fixed mindset – when you view personal traits and skills as static and unchangeable - makes it more likely that you to experience change as a threat. Rather than try to adapt to or embrace change, you may shut down or become avoidant making change even harder to manage or overcome. A growth mindset on the other hand is one that helps us see skills as capable of improvement. It allows us to see gaps in our knowledge as opportunities to learn something new. And when we have a growth mindset, we are therefore more prepared to experience change as a challenge to be worked through and overcome.

The good news is that you can develop your growth mindset that will help you persist and thrive through change. Try these ideas:

  1. Start with acceptance - “We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.”
  2. Adjust your thinking to view the change as a challenge, rather than a threat. Imagine you are on a path, laid out for you and this is just one step along that path. Think about what it might be trying to teach you, and what you could learn from it.
  3. Celebrate small moments of progress. Change and transition will at times be one step forward two steps back. But that’s ok, and give yourself credit for every step forward you take.
  4. Look for ways to forge a way forward, even if you aren’t always confident. There is a myth that we have to be confident to act. But in reality, most people have little idea what they are doing and are fumbling their way through change like the rest of us. So figure out how you want to act, in a way that will help you live the life you want to live, and go for it.

There’s no getting around the fact that change and transition are hard. I hope this article has given you some insight – from a psychological perspective – as to why it’s so hard, and some food for thought about how you can navigate yourself through whatever is thrown at you in the coming weeks and months. I will certainly be reminding myself of these things as my own landscape changes!