Second Blooming (June 2012)
June 1, 2012
Navigating Life’s Changes and Transitions
Gail Sheehy, author of both Passages and New Passages, says, “Changes in life are not only possible and predictable, but to deny them is to be an accomplice to one’s own unnecessary vegetation.” Darn! We can’t just coast along when we’re in a spot we like? Or only make changes when we want to? No, life is nothing if not a series of changes. The one underlying everything, of course, is the fact that every day we grow a little older. It’s up to us to make “growing better” a large part of “growing older.” To do so means we must make changes that we choose, or adapt to those that come our way unbidden.
People often consider the terms “change” and “transition” as interchangeable, but they are not. Change happens quickly and is external; it happens to you, whether you seek it or not. Transition, on the other hand, is internal and is the process you go through in adapting to the change. It takes time and involves a mental adjustment. Sometimes we experience a change (such as the death of a spouse) but never make the transition to what William Bridges calls a “new beginning.” You probably know women who have become “stuck” after a major change, such as a divorce, death, or retirement.
The process is like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. With change, however, the order is reversed, with “the end” coming first. The first step in making a successful transition, then, is to acknowledge the “ending” of what used to be and your attendant losses. There is a grieving for the past. You may feel anger, denial, stressed, or wonder how you could have found yourself in this position. “What happened?” you may ask yourself. It’s important to honor the past, however, flaws and all, and maintain your integrity.
Next, you must go through what Bridges calls a “neutral zone,” though it is anything but neutral! This may happen relatively quickly and painlessly, or be a time of turmoil, confusion, anxiety, chaos, disorientation. It can be very uncomfortable as your old way of doing things is gone, but you’re not yet to the new way, either. It’s a tenuous feeling, to be sure. The danger here is the potential for making bad decisions, jumping too quickly into a “new beginning” before you’re ready, or trying to reclaim the past. A dear friend, for example, said, “I’ll do anything he wants if he’ll just come home!” after her husband left her for another woman. You may find yourself swinging back and forth towards where you were and where you want to be. Living with the ambiguity is difficult but necessary, so work on tolerating it. This is usually not a very productive stage, but it’s important to take care of yourself, practice positive self-talk, and begin to “let go” of the past. At some point, you will see glimmers of your possibilities and feel stirrings of anticipation.
There’s no magic in making the transition to arrive at your “new beginning,” but eventually, if you do the hard work in the “neutral” zone, you will arrive there. You’ll refocus your life, regain energy, see new possibilities, and begin taking risks. It can be exciting and energizing. Rebalance your life, be open to learning new things, and celebrate the journey you’ve made.
Are you currently dealing with a change in your life? Did it happen to you, or did you initiate it? Where are you on the spectrum from “endings” to “neutral” to “new beginnings”? Where do you expect to be on that spectrum two months from now?
What can you do to help yourself make the transition? There is a variety of strategies for successfully navigating changes and transitions. A dozen of them are described in Second Blooming for Women on pages 48 – 51. What have you personally found useful in making transitions in response to changes in your life? Please share, as the main goal of TTN is to help each other grow in positive and productive ways. Our cumulative knowledge and wisdom are a help to each and every one of us.
Kathleen has been an elementary school teacher, U.S. Navy officer, writer and speaker on military deployments and family life, counselor, college instructor, and coordinator of a hospital-based Employee Assistance Program. She has conducted hundreds of lively seminars for businesses, civic organizations, and non-profit groups on building personal skills and enhancing relationships. She has a bachelor’s degree in Education, a master’s in Management, and a master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy.
Kathleen and her co-author, Betsy Smith, Ph.D., wrote the award-winning book Second Blooming for Women: Growing a Life That Matters after Fifty. Both women are accomplished speakers. For more information, you can visit http://www.secondbloomingforwomen.com.