Have you ever read the statistic that says that moving is the third most stressful event you can endure, following death and divorce? I’m always stunned by this statement. Let’s take a moment to digest this: Death, divorce, moving… Wow. Clearly, for it to rank so high on the list, the stress cannot possibly be solely due to the practical aspects; it doesn’t equate that packing up one house and moving to another location would trigger this level of emotional response. But in the worldview of Conscious Transitions, it makes perfect sense. Furthermore, the level of stress that moving typically instigates is equivalent to the level of healing that’s possible when we approach this transition consciously.
Like every transition, there’s a practical element and an emotional piece. Moving, like the wedding or preparing for a baby’s arrival, certainly comes with a host of items that need to get done. But when we only focus on the practical elements to the exclusion of the emotional realm, we miss the real work that needs to be done and risk sending ourselves into emotional chaos. The culture tells us that if you stay organized and follow your timelines and checklists, you’ll avoid the stress and chaos. While it certainly helps to stay organized, this alone will not prevent the emotional upheaval that moving often activates.
Moving is so stressful for several reasons:
1. Moving forces us out of our familiar and comfortable habitat. At the core, we are creatures of habit and we like the safe and the familiar. We like knowing where the spatula is. We like being able to drive to the supermarket on auto-pilot. We derive a deep sense of security from the predictable and knowable aspects of our lives. When we move, chaos is unavoidable. Our ability to surrender into chaos is tested. The more we can ride the waves of chaos and remember that it will end, the easier it will be to manage.
2. Moving triggers our deepest issues around control and loss. All transitions are fundamentally about learning accept feeling out of control, but because moving includes the piece of moving out of your physical space and comfort zone, it’s particularly triggering. Again, when we can remind ourselves that it’s normal to feel out of control, it’s easier to surrender to the wave and allow it to tumble us around for a while until we’re eventually tossed onto solid ground.
3. In dreams and the world of the unconscious, the house is a symbol of Self. When we move, we shake up our selfhood to the core, like a self-imposed earthquake. In this vulnerable stage and encouraged by the act of sorting through our stuff which may span back to childhood, we often find ourselves immersed in old memories which can trigger layers of grief and loss that need release. With the veils peeled back, core issues emerge which you can either sideline as you quickly move onto the next task or sink into and thus relieve a bit of pressure.
4. Moving activates a return to the child or infant self. Stripped of the familiar external trappings of our life and rendered to a state of vulnerability, we’re as raw and primal and as we can be. Without support, guidance, and a context within which to makes sense of this experience, we attempt to fill up the empty spaces and barricade against the rawness with the practical aspects of the move. It’s scary to be in this stripped-down state, but with the right information and approach it’s bearable and, eventually, fruitful.
As always, having an emotional roadmap and context can ease the chaos considerably. When you understand what’s being activated inside of you, you can address it and move through the move, so to speak, more fluidly. As with every life transition, our culture only offers advice for how to manage the practical aspects. An internet search on “moving stress” will provide immediate suggestions for how to deal with externals, offering checklists, timelines, and step-by-step protocol on how to go about moving. While helpful, these suggestions do nothing to address the emotional undercurrent that fuels the majority of the stress. Do we really believe that the stress is about packing and unpacking? Sometimes the superficiality of this culture really irks me…
Popular and habitual thought tell us that the more quickly we zip through our checklists, the happier we’ll be. Actually, the opposite is true. Let’s imagine you’re cleaning out a box of old papers and you find some journals from high school where you wrote about your parents’ divorce or breaking up with your first boyfriend. A wave of grief swells up inside of you. You can either ignore the grief and keep going, as advised by our culture, or you can take a few extra minutes to pause, let the grief swell to full release, and cry. Like all transitions, moving provides a powerful opportunity to heal layers of ourselves that often don’t emerge unless we’re in the midst of a transition. When you release the grief, you release pressure inside of you which will give you more internal space and energy with which to continue the external tasks. On the other hand, when you bottle it up, the pressure builds until you end up snapping at your partner or yelling at the moving company.
Here’s the emotional context and roadmap:
Moving follows the three stages of transition (which you can read about in depth here): letting go – liminal – new beginning. The transformational potential of moving lies in our ability to utilize the practical tasks to access the emotions inherent to each stage.
1. Packing up and Letting go: In stage one, we pack up our old life, sorting through what we no longer need and putting everything into boxes. What a perfect metaphor for this first stage of transitions! In sorting through what we no longer need on a physical level, we also activate aspects of our emotional selves that we’re ready to relinquish. When you come across letters from an ex-boyfriend, you may feel a wave of grief about that relationship and then decide to let them go (both the letters and the grief). Packing provides countless opportunities to heal layers of old transitions and losses if only we pause long enough to allow the feelings to surface and release.
2. Liminal (in-between): With the house packed up and furniture moved out, there’s usually a day or two when the house is empty. There are few things in life as emotionally empty as standing in a freshly packed house. Not only does it trigger grief, it triggers memories. Suddenly you see the spot where your partner proposed to you. You see your children running around chasing each other. You see the corner that used to hold your favorite comfy reading chair. This is the moment to let your tears flow. A good cry will transform a melancholy emptiness into a bittersweet one so that you can find the sweetness among the sorrow.
Disorientation is one of the key hallmarks of the liminal stage. The literal emptiness that surrounds us on either side of the move mirrors the internal emptiness which easily disorients us. We’re fundamentally creatures of habit, and when our routines and physical signposts are removed, disorientation is inevitable.
3. New beginning: When we unpack and reorient physically, we also have the opportunity to unpack and reorient emotionally. We organize the kitchen and we organize our internal structures. We learn a new city or a new neighborhood and we access new resources within ourselves. With the emotional de-cluttering that occurred in stage one, we have more internal space which allows for new qualities that we consciously and intentionally invite to emerge.
Ritual is important when moving, especially if children are involved. It’s always hard to say goodbye but especially so when it’s a home that you’ve loved and has sheltered hundreds upon hundreds of memories, positive or otherwise. I’ll be writing more about moving with children soon.