Transitions and New Beginnings: Tuning Your Inner Compass

Leaving“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth.” —Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

In a time of transition, we become travelers to an uncharted terrain—unmoored from the known path, yet equally uncertain of the path to come. Whether divorcing, changing careers, becoming parents, taking on new leadership roles, or moving, this new path stands before us. It would not beckon us if there were not potential for growth, and it would not incite tremors of doubt if there were not potential for difficulty.

One of the most helpful reflections I have heard, from one of my mentors, is that new developments are awkward. If they were not awkward, they would not be new. So we take two steps forward, one back, turn a little to the right, take a few steps, stop, and look around. Awkward, graceless, lurching—yet something is happening. Or maybe there is a state of reverie and flow for a while in which we awaken to this new experience after gliding through a passage and look back from the other side to see where we are now. Then again, some changes turn out to be sidelining distractions that we vow not to repeat.

I often hear doubts from bright, accomplished, otherwise confident people going through a transition. A young adult captured the ambivalence many of us feel, saying, “But what if I don’t want to go back to her after I try life on my own?” Or, for a new parent, “What if I do not want to go back to my job once our baby is here?” We face these questions when we are the ones choosing, yet we cannot fully know how we will feel about our choices until we leave what we know behind and find out what the future holds. You may be afraid of who you will no longer be, afraid of who you will become, uncertain of your wherewithal to navigate this new terrain. (We tend to label ourselves—say, “I am a wife” or “I am a teacher”—so transitions shake our confidence and identity until we reestablish in the new role.)

In his classic book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges provides a checklist for someone going into relationship transition:

  1. Take your time.
  2. Arrange temporary structures of daily life.
  3. Don’t act for the sake of action.
  4. Take care of yourself in little ways.
  5. Explore the other person’s perspective on the change.
  6. Find someone to talk to.
  7. Think of transition as a process of leaving the status quo, living for a while in a fertile “time-out,” and then coming back with an answer.

Bridges emphasizes inner process and discovery, cautioning against external demands and cultural norms that tell us to “fix things” and have them sorted out, calling them traps of fast forward and reverse.

In the awkwardness, sometimes familiar angst returns: “What will others think?” or “They will see that I do not know what I’m doing.” You might exclaim to yourself, “I will be exposed for the impostor that I am!” We do not have to repeat our teenage years as adults—thank goodness! Yet we may feel that painful, gangly stretch first experienced when reaching for a fuller sense of adult identity. Sometimes that first movement from the end of childhood to greater independence creates a style in which we approach later changes—rebellious, abrupt, heroic, or otherwise.

Finding Comfort in Community

In my work as a therapist, I have noticed how many people naturally reach for community at this time. They seek others who are going through a similar transition or have navigated it in the past. You may want to ask, “How did you re-create your social life after a move?” or “What helped you to meet other parents?” or “Where did you go when you were pressured by family or friends to stay the same?” or “How did you know that you were making the right choice?”

We need to explore new ways of understanding the world, and part of that process is telling others what we are learning and what we are wondering about—having some “fellow travelers” on the road with us. And sometimes one person returns to a group, like a hero back from a quest, with news of the possibilities out beyond the familiar and tales of how they overcame obstacles on their journey. This person may bring wisdom to their friends, family, or community. Ultimately, each of us still has to find our own way, but it helps to have heard from someone else who has done so.

It can be helpful to carefully consider who you want as a confidant. How do you feel after you share what you’re exploring? Does the other person hear you and hold your feelings and ideas safely? As the expression goes, “Do not throw pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet.” If people closest to you are not open to your growth, spend more time with those who are or seek out new people who can understand what you are going through.

Familiarity Amid the Change

Bridges reminds us to also spend time in what he calls the neutral zone, a place of “attentive inactivity” where there is a moratorium on conventional activity that would maintain old roles and identity. During this time of reappraisal, maintain fruitful routines that help you think things over—go for walks, log your daydreams, make a cup of coffee, take in nature, or go for a drive alone. It may help to bring your conversations with friends and mentors back into solitary times of inner focus, away from familiar distractions, and mull over what they evoke for you.

Navigate toward a genuine aloneness that allows your inner signals to be heard. Make a log of your experiences and be true to what you know. Circumnavigate the quagmire of withdrawal that could create a fog over inner knowing.

Here is a favorite question that I ask people who are struggling with new developments and the demands placed on them: If you could have anyone you want by your side—historical, fictional, literary, or otherwise—who would it be? What qualities would they bring that would support you? We look for examples, mentors, and guides as we learn to bring forward strengths within.

It may be a good time to take more long walks, write in your journal, or resume a regular meditation practice. Choose books, music, and stories that inspire you. We need to take nourishing breaks and have time to absorb, integrate, and express the changes that are going on inside. What is the nuance of how you feel? What do these changes mean to you? What feels satisfying or purposeful about this new path? What is too hard, too lonely, and how can there be more of the right kind of support in your life? Navigate toward a genuine aloneness that allows your inner signals to be heard. Make a log of your experiences and be true to what you know. Circumnavigate the quagmire of withdrawal that could create a fog over inner knowing.

See if you can focus on one or two small steps—baby steps—and what your hopes are for the outcome. Be mindful of this moment. We so often want to see the whole picture, yet with new transitions it is often not possible to know the future, so we want to take it one step at a time. When was the last time you made a significant change like this? How did you decide which action or step to take each day? Would some things that helped you then help out now with this phase of your life? What is needed today to help you move forward?

Looking Back to Move Forward

Bridges has made a study of these crossroads in peoples’ lives and notes that without the neutral zone and shift in perspective, we risk going back and finding yet another “rotten boss” or “terrible relationship.” This is a time when the past can be recast in a new light, creating a backdrop for a new future. Like the two heads of Janus, Roman god of beginnings and transitions, we must look back at the past differently in the service of looking forward to future growth. Inner realignment toward what we yearn for in life becomes a powerful source of motivation.

In the next chapter of life, there may be communities and relationships that you separated from during the transition and now return to. Your return can be staged; reincorporate as you are ready. Come into your social contexts in a new way, and know that others will be adjusting to the loss of your former identity. Keep your mentors and peer travelers alongside you, and remember the “deep longing” that has taken you forward.

Daphne Rose Kingma, author of several books on love and relationships, highlights questions for your reflection, such as: What is your developmental task right now, at this moment? What is your developmental growing edge? What are the most important qualities you need from the person with whom you form your next relationship? Ask similar questions about career developments: What do you need to let go of? What is waiting to come forward in your life?

As athlete Kristin Armstrong states, “Times of transition are strenuous, but I love them. They are an opportunity to purge, rethink priorities, and be intentional about new habits. We can make our new normal any way we want.” The road ahead beckons. May your travels be fulfilling and your inner compass be your guide.

References:

  1. Bridges, William (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, Revised 25th Anniversary Edition. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  2. Kingma, Daphne Rose (2012). Coming Apart: Why Relationships End and How to Live Through the Ending of Yours. San Francisco, CA: Conari Press.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Melinda Douglass, PsyD, therapist in San Francisco, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Tru

    June 9th, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    Once you have some life experience under your belt making decisions about which path to take can often be a little easier than they perhaps were when we were younger. You have something to fall back on, you know how this went before and you kind of have a better idea of who you are and how you will travel down this chosen path. These are all things that come with age and experience.

  • Ella

    June 10th, 2015 at 11:56 AM

    The whole thing about a life transition is that it will not always be easy and I don’t think that big changes like this are meant to be easy. We only learn from the things in life that are a little more difficult- these are the things that are destined to make us stronger. I have never heard anyone say that oh that was so easy and I learned a lot from that experience and the decision that I had to make. I have though heard people talk about how life changing a difficult decision was for them and that they have really grown for having to go through that. It might not be comfortable but it sure will teach you a lot about who you are and what you can tackle.

  • carey

    June 11th, 2015 at 1:17 PM

    You try to take it in stride and visualize yourself moving on to a new and exciting place. Look at the past through the rearview mirror and instead of letting it make you mourn for it, give it only the power to show you how strong it has made you to conquer this brand new adventure that you could now be facing.

  • Stewart

    June 12th, 2015 at 3:43 PM

    Easy to say. What if their are children involved, 21 college still dependent financially?

  • Stewart

    June 12th, 2015 at 3:51 PM

    There* Anyway, I’ve been in a loveless marriage for 20 years, trying to over compensate for an alcoholic wife.

  • Don

    June 12th, 2015 at 4:19 PM

    I am at a transition in my life. After 24 years of being with my wife and her telling me that she is not in love with me anymore I am moving on and taking care of myself.
    I have been good to her and she has even told me I am a good man.
    The part I don’t understand is why at 59 years of age why is she throwing away myself and our beautiful home and splitting up our dogs? Our way of life has been good and we have a great income but she is unhappy and confused.
    Life can be strange sometimes and as everyone has told me she will be sorry in the long run!
    I am the only one that has been faithful to her in all of her relationships!

  • jen

    June 12th, 2015 at 9:48 PM

    Don – Good for you in realizing that you need to take care of yourself during this time of transition. Remember that, even on the tough days. I am in the same place as you. Married 26 years, husband had an affair with a very close family friend of 20 years, told me he was no longer in love with me and I am a good person and deserved to be loved. It stinks. I do think that no matter how good we were to them and/or everyone else in our life, people do change and they don’t even understand why. I am not making excuses for them. Try to not harbor too much anger as it is not going to help you in any way. We are in transition and it is definitely hard. Do what feels good and healthy. Hoping good things for your life!

  • jen

    June 12th, 2015 at 9:50 PM

    Thank you for the great read. There is a wonderful amount of information here. Good reminders for us to remain strong and on whatever path guides us to greater places!

  • Melinda Douglass

    Melinda Douglass

    June 18th, 2015 at 5:08 PM

    Hello All,

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments and the life experience you bring to this topic. Change can be stressful, particularly when it is not something that we choose. I want to mention that support groups (i.e. Grief and Loss, Divorce support, Stress Management) can be a good source of support at these times. I find the AGPA.org web site to be a valuable resource – they have a national directory of groups led by certified group therapists.

    Finding support and meaning in times of change can help the transition to be purposeful and to know that you are not alone.

    Warmly, Melinda

  • Jen

    June 18th, 2015 at 11:41 PM

    Extremely difficult day today. I have been working toward change and growth. At 46, and having been married for 26 years and now separated, probably toward divorce, this has been harder than I would have ever imagined it would be. I have read your post 4 or 5 times now and am looking forward to reading the books and authors that you noted.

    My question is in relation to finding groups and mentors to help keep us on the chosen and hopeful path. I live in Montana, and did try to find something on the site that you sent out in another mailing. There is nothing here that I could find. Any insight on how to find groups or others that might be insightful during the time of transition?

    Thank you for any help you can give.

  • Joanna

    June 20th, 2015 at 9:27 AM

    Yeah,nice article to read..it gives good,helpful advice how to deal when we come across challenging changes in our lives.

  • Gladys M.

    July 5th, 2015 at 1:14 AM

    Am trying to be strong and I no that I will be ok but I have so much angry and knowing after 34 years don’t want you no more it’s hard mentally and physically

  • Tiffanie

    August 21st, 2015 at 3:31 AM

    You are strong. Take it one breath at a time. Look at some other challenges that you faced in the past and see how you made it through. You will get through this too!

  • Krystal

    August 18th, 2015 at 10:58 AM

    Some of us women who tell their husband that we don’t love them is so this so we can stop hurting them. I know that I’m toxic to my family. I have no skills to fix this. I’d rather be alone and miserable than ruin any other lives. Honestly, I don’t want any of my negativity to spread. I’m a terminal cancer.

  • Tiffanie

    August 21st, 2015 at 3:28 AM

    Why do you hurt? There’s a deep hurt within you thus the reason why you feel you must hurt others and/or live a miserable life. Stop thinking that you deserve a life of misery. You deserve to be happy and you deserve to be loved. First love yourself.

  • Monica

    November 18th, 2015 at 7:45 PM

    This really adorable to me right now as I am working for an organization that is reorganizing right now. So much is changing and will change. I keep trying to roll with it and stay self-aware and yet I keep finding myself getting sucked into conversations and committees that add to my personal struggle with the change. Thank you for this article right when I needed it!

  • Monica

    November 18th, 2015 at 7:46 PM

    Adorable should have been applicable.

  • Marla

    March 24th, 2017 at 3:36 PM

    Thank you….

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