Navigating Life Transitions

When experiencing life transitions, we cannot always anticipate how we will feel or what the road ahead holds for us. Yet, when one chapter of your life comes to a close it can be an exceptional time of rediscovery, a time to redefine who you are and what you would you would like the next chapter of your life to look like.

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Major life transitions such as going off to college, changing jobs, getting married and retirement are all significant turning points in our lives. And despite the fact that these transitions have been planned for with enthusiasm you can find yourself surprised by unexpected emotions and feeling as if you have lost your footing. And then there are the transitions that could not have been predicted such as receiving a serious medical diagnosis or the sudden loss of a loved one.

Transitions are about endings and new beginnings.

We don’t often think about it this way but all transitions require letting go of one chapter of your life and entering a new one. When you are going through these times, it is normal to experience a sense of being overwhelmed, lost, and perhaps worried about what the future may look like.

Transitions are also opportunities for self-reflection and growth.

Common threads weave themselves through all significant life transitions.  Knowing what to expect emotionally can help normalize the experience of feeling confused and unsure of what is next. It is a beginning roadmap to navigating the changes that you are facing.

Following are typical experiences that accompany major life transitions whether planned or unexpected.

  •  Feelings of loss and grief.

When we think of loss, we think of the passing of people we love. But loss shows up in many other ways.

Loss is experienced when we leave a situation or are being left. Loss occurs when we come upon milestones in our lives such as getting married, having children, and aging. And loss comes from expectations not being realized.

When going through a major transition you can experience sadness even when the changes have been planned for.

Ron who has had a medical practice for over 30 years was experiencing a dramatic decrease in business. The landscape of how patients were referred had changed. He didn’t know what to do, felt hopeless, depressed and panicked about his future. When framed as a grieving process, he said that he never thought about it in that way.

Heidi, a new Mom found herself struggling in the first several months after having a baby. “Why didn’t anyone tell me it was going to be this hard?” She was an active, professional woman and her life changed in ways she just could not have imagined. She struggled with her time not being her own.

Tess, a recently widowed woman described feeling “rudderless” after her spouse passed away after a long illness.

Most of us are planners. We like to prepare for what is ahead. Knowing and anticipating that this is a normative time of grief and loss allows us to more easily accept whatever emotions surface during this time. Your emotions will guide you in your changes. Allowing the grieving to occur opens doors to helping you make the necessary adjustments that will aid you in moving forward

  • Your sense of identity is shifting.

Don’t we have the tendency to define ourselves in part by what we are doing or roles we have taken on?

Graduating college and joining the workforce causes shifts in how you view yourself.  Having a child and becoming a parent dramatically changes your sense of identity. We identify strongly with the labels we attach to ourselves.

When you move into a new time of your life, your sense of yourself is evolving. You are growing. And at the same time it can feel disorienting. Again, this is a normal experience of going through a transition.

Mary retired after a long teaching career. Finding herself for the first time in many years without the structure of work, she felt lost and without direction. She planned for this time but nevertheless, it was a challenging transition.  With self-reflection and time, she was able to enjoy her free time, something she rarely allowed herself in the past. Once more comfortable with her new surroundings, her path forward became clearer.

Becoming a Mom was something that Kim always looked forward to. She didn’t expect the weeks and months following the birth of her daughter to feel so unfamiliar. Her belief was that becoming a parent would feel so natural.

It takes time to feel comfortable with yourself in your new situation. Our sense of ourselves is continuously transforming as we approach new stages in our lives. It is often a time when we review our past, clarifying what we want to take with us and what we want to leave behind.

  •   Transitions are wonderful times of growth.

They are turning points, opportunities for us to rediscover, redefine who we are and how we want to live our lives.

It is a time for self-exploration. How have you handled change and transitions in the past? Reviewing this can give you clues to how you are negotiating the changes now. Once we understand ourselves more clearly, more choices and possibilities become apparent.

What do you want your life to look like going forward? What changes do you want to make? What areas of your life do you value and want to enhance?

Jay as a newly married man wanted to change patterns of relationships that he learned growing up.  Ann, after her children left home, realized she wanted to incorporate more fun in her life, pursue some hobbies that she hadn’t had time for, realizing that perhaps she had neglected herself.

Experiencing feelings of loss, shifts in your sense of identity and experiencing many unexpected emotions are all part of what makes going through major transitions in your life challenging. Getting support from family and friends, talking with others who have gone through similar situations can provide you with perspective and reassurance going forward.

Many individuals seek support through counseling at turning points in their lives when they feel lost and the changes feel unmanageable. Normalizing one’s experience and having a roadmap for going forward has been invaluable in helping to navigate many transitions.

Taking time to reflect, honoring your experience and exploring opportunities will pave the way to living your life with a sense of purpose and ease. With patience and taking time to settle in, you can expect that you will emerge with fresh ideas and more confidence as your sense of self and identity continue to evolve