We all go through life transitions all the time. We start and end relationships, get married, have children, buy homes, switch jobs, lose loved ones. One would think we’d be quite good at navigating them, right?
Last night, I returned from the U.K. where I dropped off my daughter at university (or “Uni,” as the Brits call it—the equivalent of college for my North American readers). I’d been dreading this moment since August of 2021 when she started her last year of High School.
Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful that I was able to accompany her there and be part of such an important milestone in her life. Two years ago, when her older brother went off to Uni, I couldn’t do that. I was heartbroken when I said goodbye to him at the airport, not knowing when I would see him again (thanks to pandemic travel restrictions and quarantine requirements). So I don’t take anything for granted.
Still, last night, I dreaded coming home to an empty apartment (both my husband and youngest son were away for the night).
I dreaded passing outside my daughter’s room and seeing it dark and empty.
I dreaded the loneliness of missing her, which starts as a lump in my throat and then slides down the middle of my chest and just sits there with all its weight, making it hard to breathe.
But most of all, I dreaded having to deal with the fact that her life is now elsewhere—and where that leaves me.
Enter the life transition…
Life transitions have an inherent sense of loss attached to them. Whether referring to a person, a place, a relationship, a job, or a lifestyle, loss generates strong emotions that we often struggle to process. Sometimes losses cluster together: divorce may mean you lose a partner, a way of life, an identity, a circle of friends—all at the same time; when a child goes off to college, you lose their presence at home, the role they play in the family, but also the role you play as a parent, which is part of your identity. Even “good” transitions, like getting married, having a child, or moving into a new home, involve a loss or ending of some sort.
Most of us find endings uncomfortable or daunting and therefore tend to avoid them. But besides endings, transitions inevitably involve new beginnings. And I think those are worth feeling excited about 😊.
So how do you navigate a life transition?
More specifically, how do you process all the emotions that come with it—without falling apart?
Based on my experience coaching dozens of transitioning clients, but also my own real-life trials and (many) errors, I have some tips for you that will help you approach your next transition mindfully, in a way that doesn’t deny the reality of your emotions but also allows you to make the most of your new beginning.
Tip #1: Know what to expect
Even though not all kinds of transitions are predictable, their general structure (the way in which they unfold) is. Simply put, all transitions have
A beginning (which is really the end of something);
A (messy) middle; and
An end (which is really the beginning of something else).
How long each stage lasts may vary but knowing what to expect in terms of what each stage feels like, can be reassuring and comforting. It also gives you a sense of control over your life.
Another paradigm that helps me is thinking in terms of the U-curve of adjustment. Originally it referred to the stages of culture shock, but it applies to any transition. In Chapter 2 of my book, I talk extensively about the cycle of transition and its four stages: honeymoon, crisis, recovery, and adaptation. If you’re in what feels like the crisis stage, it helps to know that it’s only a matter of time until you get to the next one, and that will be a massive improvement.
Tip #2: Listen to your body
Unfortunately, as children, we are not taught to notice what’s going on in our body and what that means, which is a shame because our body is where our emotions first show up before they are verbalized into thoughts. The constriction in our throat, the tightening of our chest, the butterflies or the knot in our stomach…anger, sadness, excitement, fear. If we can ‘hear’ and interpret these emotions early on, we are better positioned to cope with them. We can try to breathe through fear or anxiety without our thoughts spiraling out of control; we can try to communicate uneasiness or hesitation to the person we’re interacting with; we can express anger productively without getting consumed by it; we can embrace sadness and find comfort in the fact that all emotions are temporary.
Tip #3: Ground yourself
When you ‘hear’ what your body is telling you, give yourself what you need, whether it’s movement, connection, or other forms of self-care. When I’m in the midst of a challenging transition, my rituals and routines keep me grounded: a morning meditation, a midday walk, and my yoga practice. Even a few minutes will do the trick, especially when it comes to moving our body—it works wonders for our mood.
Tip #4: Practice emotional agility
I provide the link to Susan David’s brilliant book below, as it’s worth reading in its entirety, but the reason why emotional agility helps me here is that it allows me to be present with uncomfortable or painful emotions without getting lost in them. Being emotionally agile also means that I can pause and take some distance from the emotions to understand what they show me, and even learn from them. For example, I may feel incredibly sad to leave my daughter, because I’ll miss her so much, but that sadness also shows me that we have a loving and close relationship, for which I’m grateful every day.
Tip #5: Reframe and plan
Finally, my favorite way of navigating a life transition is to view it as the new beginning that it is. My divorce may have been one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but it was also the start of a new career as a coach and a shift to a more creative direction in my professional life. Similarly, losing a job may be the opportunity to start an entrepreneurial career. Once you’ve reframed the transition as a new beginning—and are ready for it—you will start to see all around you opportunities for making the most of that beginning.
Do you have a vision for what comes next?
I don’t know if it’s still to come (probably, it is), but contrary to my expectations, I did not fall apart upon my return. Perhaps I’m resting in the knowledge that my daughter is in a good place, safe and taken care of as she embarks on her new life. Maybe the tips I mention here, which I’ve been following, have allowed me to both stay connected to my emotions and distant enough from them to feel grounded and grateful. And yes, I’ll admit it, having a child still at home and (thank heavens) still willing to provide an unlimited supply of cuddles has been the most helpful of all.
If you’re interested in learning more about coping with transitions, here are some resources:
- William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (I admit that I find myself going back to Bridges’ classic book every time I’m facing a big change in my life).
- Bruce Feiler’s TED Talk on “The Secret to Mastering Life’s Biggest Transitions” will give you an idea of what his book is about.
- Finally, another one of my regular go-to books is Susan David’s brilliant Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life.