Understanding Transitions – including the transition of LIFE!
For a larger and more detailed description of the above diagram, please click here.
Whether moving to a new city or having a baby, changing careers, going through a divorce, or shifting from anxiety into serenity, transitions are a part of life. While in the midst of change, even if the change is toward something joyous and positive like a wedding or moving into your dream house, it is normal and healthy to feel:
Most people find me because they’re experiencing intense anxiety around normal life transitions. But they quickly learn that the anxiety is an opportunity and the transition is a doorway into a profound level of healing that they never knew possible. In other words, engagement anxiety actually has little to do with one’s partner but is an opportunity to heal deep-seated false beliefs about love, marriage, and self-worth. As such, my counseling practice has grown over the last fourteen years from a specific focus on engaged women to a wide lens approach to helping people transform their anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, loneliness, and lack of fulfillment to serenity, aliveness, and joy.
Sometimes the amorphous emotions released during transitions are best expressed through other mediums. In this two minute slideshow, I use spoken word set to acoustic guitar music to capture the heart of the world of transitions.
What most people lack around transitions is basic information that would help them to contextualize these emotions, make sense of them, and move through them effectively. Culturally, we focus on the externals of a transition – planning a wedding, buying the car seat, packing the boxes – to the exclusion of the inner realm. While the externals are important, when we bypass working consciously with the emotions activated during transition, we decrease our chances of adjusting to the new life as cleanly and gracefully as possible. This can have long-term negative consequences not only during the transition at hand but for our lives in general.
Every transition involves passing through three phases:
• Letting Go – During which we separate from the old life, grieve the losses, express and explore fears and expectations about the new life.
• In-between or Liminal – During which we’re in the liminal (limbo) zone of transition – detached from the old life but not yet established in the new one – a highly uncomfortable place characterized by feeling numb, disoriented, depressed, and out of control.
• Rebirth – In which we embrace the new life and identity and feel confident, comfortable, and excited about the possibilities of growth that a new beginning holds.
Everyone goes through multiple life changes each year that, with simple information and consciousness, could be transformed from stressful and depleting events to life-affirming and transformational events. We habitually think of transitions as “hard” or “negative”, but what most people fail to recognize is that embedded in these predictable life-cycle occurrences are opportunities that invite us to spiral into our fears and grief so that we heal at deeper levels each time. Instead of powering through transitions as quickly as possible, we would benefit greatly by embracing them as the gifts that they are.
From a spiritual perspective, every transition is an opportunity for growth. As we learn how to let go into the ‘groundlessness’ that defines the in-between stage of transition between the end of the old life and beginning of the new, we move into a more effortless alignment with life. Life is ever-changing, and when we approach transitions consciously and with the intention of growth, we eventually learn how to accept this truth with grace.
This is not an easy task. Transitions require no less than the willingness to die (symbolically), to sit in the uncomfortable void, and to be reborn. Who would willingly embrace this task? For some of us, we have no choice. Transitions seem to pull us into the underworld and create such fear, pain, confusion, and disorientation that we must seek help. While in the throes of the challenge, this may seem unfair and we may be plagued with questions like, “Why do others seem so blissfully happy during their engagement when my joy is accompanied by a sense of loss? Why do others move to a new city effortlessly when I feel terrified? How come she was able to re-marry so easily after her divorce when my heart is broken and I still have dreams about my ex?”
Yet when we finally emerge from the pain, we see that the struggle was well worth it. For to enter into the death-void-rebirth cycle is to embark on the hero’s/heroine’s journey. And when the heroine returns from her voyage, she carries the boons—or jewels—of her travels. One of the great boons is that she knows, at a deeper layer of consciousness, that there can be no light without entering the darkness, and that with each descent into her darkness, the light shines ever more brightly. He knows that next time he is pulled into the darkness—which most likely will occur in the midst of his next major transition—he will be able to navigate the journey more gracefully. She trusts that, even as she cries and rages, she is exactly where she needs to be.
I’d like to enumerate the twelve common transitions. I’ll be discussing many, many throughout this blog but these are the ones that almost everyone will pass through during the course of a human life:
1. The Wedding
The publication of my first book, The Conscious Bride, in 2000 offered a groundbreaking perspective on the transition of getting married. For the first time, women (and men) could understand that their anxiety, confusion, fear, doubt, grief, and loss were all normal emotions that, when recognized and processed, could facilitate the necessary letting go of their old lifestyle and identity so they could feel present and joyous on their wedding day and embrace the new life and identity as wife or husband. For more information on this transition, please see the Conscious Weddings tab on this site.
2. Becoming a Parent
The transition of becoming a mother or father is another primary area of transition. As with the wedding transition, our culture tends to encourage pregnant women and new parents to over-focus on the externals of ultrasounds, physical symptoms, buying the right stroller and car seat, and baby sleeping techniques without educating parents-to-be and new parents about the stages they pass through as they prepare to birth their own identity as mother or father. For more information on this transition, please see the Conscious Motherhood tab on this site.
3. Quarterlife: Understanding the Transition of Twenty-Somethings
The twenties can be one of the most challenging transitions in life. Part of what adds to the challenge is that young people are conditioned to believe that once they reach the ripe age of twenty-one, they are supposed to know how to function in the world as fully capable adults. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our culture tends to regard adolescence as the time when humans wrestle with the questions of “Who am I?” and “What is my place in the world?”. Perhaps in the past, when people were expected to reach maturity, marry, and be an independent person by the age of eighteen, this time-line of self-growth made sense. But now, with the age of marriage and financial independence becoming increasingly delayed, it is in one’s twenties when people are handed the task of figuring out who they are—identity –and what they want to do with their lives — purpose.
As with any rite of passage, there is a letting go and a rebirth as a young person in her twenties releases the old identity and welcomes in the new way of life. As she moves through her twenties it is helpful to keep in mind not only the fact that these are difficult years as she attempts to find her place in the world, but also that she is finally releasing her last attachments to childhood. If she can hold the awareness that it is completely normal to grieve and struggle, the transition into adulthood will be more fluid.
Moving is recognized as one of the top three stressors that humans endure. Most people are aware of this fact and grit their teeth to get through a move as quickly as possible. While certainly an understandable impulse, moving is a surprisingly powerful time rich with opportunities for clearing out old emotional debris and beginning a new phase of life on a clean slate. Every transition carries this potential, but moving is unique in that the physical act of cleaning out one’s house invites the person to delve into long-forgotten areas of the past. Instead of pushing through as quickly as possible, a spiritual context could inspire a reader to sit down with a dusty journal from 1985 and complete the grieving process from on old loss she wrote about there. This column would provide a context and guide the readers through the emotional potency of a move, a perspective that has never, to my knowledge, been publicly discussed.
5. Buying a House
Many life events constellate to assist one’s capacity to embrace fully the identity of “adult”. Passing through the decade of one’s twenties with consciousness, getting married, becoming a parent and buying a house are among the four top events that push a person to step completely into an adult’s shoes. We don’t often think of buying a house as a transition that could assist someone’s growth as an individual. Like moving, we know that alongside the joy of finding and moving into the right house – especially a first house – stress finds its way into the luggage and boxes. But we don’t usually recognize is that this life transition is a significant rite of passage where a person is asked to call upon several resources key to the healthy development of the identity of adult: self-trust, the willingness to commit, letting go of the vestiges the child’s way that wants others to control the reins, and separating from one’s parents, who often want to have a say in the purchase of the house. Encoded in the externals of learning about percentage points and mortgages are the internal tests that either calcify the fears and limitations of the child or encourage the person to grow to the next stage of her or his potential. As one young man who I worked with said, “When I bought my first house I felt like I had become an adult. It was an important time where I had to say no to my parents, deal with their disapproval, and stand on my own two feet – in more ways than one – for the first time.”
6. New Job – Career Change
Everyone begins a new job at some point, with most people changing careers four times in their life. While job and career changes are inevitable, most people, once again, hobble through the transition without the psychological context that would turn a handicap into a possibility for growth and positive change. As our culture tends to equate a person’s identity with their vocation, when someone goes through a job or career change they can literally feel bereft of identity and question their worth as a person. In other words, if I’m not the best at what I do, if I’m in the uncomfortable zone of “not-knowing” that necessarily accompanies a new job or position, do I still have value?
All major holidays are connected at their core to the cycles of death and rebirth, closings and openings, endings and beginnings. They offer multiple opportunities to assess our lives in a similar fashion that the major transitions of life offer. While a rite of passage will activate our core issues and often challenge us in uncomfortable, terrifying, but often life-changing ways, holidays offer a more gentle and communal way to take inventory on our lives, to honor the outer cycles which mirror the inner cycles, thereby keeping a steady pulse on our spiritual and psychological growth.
Seen through a spiritual eye, holidays offer the opportunity to move closer to one’s spiritual growth. Where am I oppressed inside? What aspects of myself are hiding in the shadows? Where would I like to grow like the first green buds of spring? Where is my light even in the darkness of winter? Poising holidays within the beautiful context of transition and asking these questions is a way to bring meaning to what has become, for many people, a series of meaningless and anxiety-provoking events. As this perspective on holidays transcends the specifics of individual cultural and religious celebrations, this column would appeal to the hundreds of thousands of couples and households who are wondering how to celebrate cross-culturally in a meaningful way.
8. Menstrual Cycle
Like the four seasons, the menstrual cycle follow the phases of letting go, in-between, and rebirth that define all transitions: When a woman bleeds, she’s in the letting go phase in that she sheds what she no longer needs; she the moves into an in-between zone where she’s no longer bleeding but not quite in the new life; then, during ovulation, she with conceives a child and, thus, blossoms with a literal new birth or, is she’s engaged in a creative project, she comes into more direct contact with her creative powers. In our fast-paced culture, few women take the time to recognize that her cycle offers a weekly and monthly opportunity to connect with energy that supports her own growth. With simple information she can reconnect with her body’s innate wisdom and rhythms that occur every month from adolescence to menopause.
Millions of people divorce each year. But unlike the wedding that commenced the marriage, our culture doesn’t offer those in the midst of the pain of divorce any concrete rituals like might help them make sense of the rubble and assist them in rebuilding their internal structures. Instead, consistent with every other transition, our cultures encourages people to focus on the externals of separating shared personal belongings, navigating the rocky terrain of money issues, and signing legal documents. Because we are death-phobic to the point of resisting even mentioning the word, we neglect to validate for people in the midst of divorce that they are dying, and that the losses must be grieved like a death if the transition is going to find completion. Even if the divorce is ultimately positive and for the good of everyone involved, it is still a death: the death of a marriage, the death of dreams, the death of a future together, the dissolution of an intact family if children are involved.
When we encourage women and men to “pick up the pieces and move on” too quickly we bypass the essential grief work that must occur if each person is going to become whole again and begin a new relationship from that place of wholeness instead of brokenness. This column will clearly explain the three universal phases that all transitions follow in the hopes that by doing so I can encourage those in the midst of divorce to recognize how important it is to honor exactly where they’re at in this process so they can ultimately find true acceptance and completion. I will also suggest specific exercises to assist the person with the grieving process, such as writing down each memory in the present tense as it arises about the marriage, whether positive or negative.
10. Empty Nest
For eighteen years or longer, one of a person’s primary identities is as a parent. For better or worse, with heartache and great joy, parents struggle through the initial adjustment of having a newborn, to toddlerhood, early school years, and adolescence. Finally, the baby that once lay contentedly in a parents’ arms is full-grown and launched into the world and parents are often left wondering: what now? Where do I direct my energy and attention when my child’s need for me is no longer paramount? Parents pass through the three phases of transition, grieving for the years that are gone, sitting in the uncomfortable void of the liminal zone as they begin to redefine their identity, marriage, and lifestyle, and finally, embracing the wondrous possibilities of the new phase.
A woman bleeds monthly for thirty to forty years and then, gradually, the bleeding stops. Once again, our culture focuses on the physical aspects of menopause, helping a woman through hot flashes and the other effects of hormonal changes, but generally neglects the immense emotional and psychological effects of this time. The major life transitions – onset of menstruation, getting married, having a baby, and menopause – not only alter lifestyle but, more importantly, initiate us into an entirely new identity. When a woman marries, for example, she grows into the identity of wife for the first time. When she has a baby, she becomes a mother. And when she completes menopause, she becomes a wise woman.
Sometimes menopause occurs simultaneously or in proximity to becoming a grandmother, which is also a strong and new identity to adjust to. But in order to embrace the new identity, she must be willing to grieve that her childbearing years are over, grieve the end of youth, reflect on her life lived so far. Like pregnancy, the body usually gives her time to prepare for the final change as it bleeds, then doesn’t bleed for two or three months, then bleeds again. It’s a time for women where they could feel intimately connected to the forces of nature, the ebb and flow of the oceans’ tides, and the mysterious rhythm of the world. Contrary to the messages of our culture that diminish the power of old age, she needs to be reminded that she’s entering a time of great wisdom, and the more consciously she approaches the transition, the more readily she’ll be able to embrace and retain this access to her inner power.
The four seasons provide the most accurate metaphor through which we can understand the psychological processes that define transitions in that they visually concretize the amorphous and invisible inner realm that becomes constellated when we’re in the midst of change: autumn represents the letting go phase, winter is the liminal, no-man’s land, spring commences the rebirth which finds full bloom in the splendor of summer. Yet as those who are deeply connected to the cycles of nature well know, the seasons not only offer abundant poetic material, they are also, in and of themselves, transitional times when, if approached consciously, we can embrace and widen our path of growth. As autumn trees shed their leaves, for example, we can also reflect upon the parts of ourselves that no longer serve us and need to be shed; as daylight hours gradually decrease, so we are lulled into nostalgia and asked to ponder and perhaps grieve another layer of old losses. Likewise, the long expanse of cold or snow of winter invites us to slow down and hearken another era when life moved at the speed of nature as opposed to the speed of technology or sound or light. As the first brave bulbs pop their heads above ground, spring sends shoots of hope into our bodies. And summer pushes that hope into full green and colorful climax, a time when we are buoyed along on nature’s expression to reach another layer of our own potential. The four seasons can pass by virtually unnoticed as we bustle through our busy lives; or, touched by a small dose of consciousness, each of the seasons can be yet another opportunity to come into alignment with life’s cycles as we examine and express ourselves in ways that encourage the next level of growth.