By Maria Lebron, March 2020
One constant we can count on in our lives is change. Transitions are a natural part of life and we all experience moments which will change our lives forever. Some major life transitions people experience are: graduation, career, marriage, divorce, parenting, loss of a loved one, aging, relocation, and existential anxiety. Some transitions are expected, like a child leaving for college, and others, like the loss of a loved one, are unexpected.
What makes change difficult?
A life transition can be stressful and challenging because it means there needs to be a change to how you’re living your life now. Going through a transitional period where your life is in flux can make you feel uncomfortable and anxious to bring this period to a close. Those feelings are to be expected but for some people, this transitional period can feel very overwhelming, causing extreme anxiety, stress, confusion, or paralysis. People can get stuck wondering how they’ll achieve their goals, if they’re making the right decisions, what the risks or consequences are, and how their actions may affect others.
Another reason transitions are difficult is because people will usually resist change. We would rather have the safety of leaving things as they are rather than taking the risk of making a change which is uncertain. However, if you stick your head in the sand and resist the change, it will only prolong the inevitable and create more stress and anxiety.
Transitions mean a new life and identity
A life transition will often mean adapting to a new identity. For example, when we marry, we become a spouse. When a child enters our life, we become a parent. When a child leaves home, our relationship with that child changes. When we retire, we are no longer identified with a career and need to create a new life.
The longer you are identified with an identity, the harder it can be when that identity is no longer a part of you. For example, if you have raised children for many years and now there are no children at home to care for, it can be challenging adjusting to an identity as an empty-nester.
Also, when there is a change to your identity or status, it can change the way others see and relate to you. This is a common experience for people who go from single to married, married to divorced, parents to empty-nesters, employed to unemployed, etc.
Decisions regarding changes which need to be made can be challenging and cause conflict when one’s partner or family is resistant or doesn’t agree. While we need to take into account the impact our decisions have on others, there is always a balance between deciding what we need in our lives and how that impacts others. For couples who have built a life together, how they decide to handle change will impact their relationship. For example, an empty-nester couple who now has more time on their hands will need to determine their own interests and pursuits, but will also need to make sure they are working together on building their new identity as a couple with grown children.
Too much change at once
It is best to avoid making too many changes at once, but sometimes life sends many challenges our way all at the same time. Imagine adjusting to the birth of a child and then at the same time experiencing the loss of a parent. This can be very overwhelming because you may feel there isn’t the time or space to deal with both life events at the same time. As a result, certain emotions may be delayed in order to function and handle the day-to-day responsibilities you have.
How can you best navigate a life transition?
Here are some things to keep in mind as you navigate a life transition:
— Accept that change is a natural part of life and you will need to take action. A major life transition closes one chapter of your life and will force you to start a new one.
— Use a major life transition to take stock of where your life is now and where you’d like it to be. Going through this process can lead you to a new beginning which opens up new possibilities not otherwise thought possible.
— Understand that some anxiety and stress is natural when facing uncertainty. Going in a direction you have not gone before can bring up feelings of fear, doubt, and uncertainty.
— Weigh the risks and consequences of the changes you are contemplating. Research your options as much as possible before taking action.
— Accept that with all changes, there will be upsides and downsides.
— Prepare for the actions you need to take as much as possible. Seek help when needed, especially from people who can give you guidance or insight into areas you’re not familiar with.
— Accept that you may need to take a few detours before you end up where you want to be.
— Believe that the change may take you in a direction where you will grow and will ultimately benefit you. Letting go of a past way of thinking or being and replacing it with something new can be difficult, but it can also be a catalyst for growth.
— Remember other times in your life when you’ve successfully navigated a major change in your life.
— If you become overwhelmed by the changes in your life, seek support, whether that is from family, friends, or a professional.