You got married. You got fired. You graduated. You had a baby. You moved. You survived an illness. We’re all dealing with some form of change all of the time. And while a greeting card may exist for the particular type of transition you’re currently experiencing, one thing Hallmark never covers is exactly what you’re supposed to do with the cascade of emotions that accompany any major change, positive or negative, in life.
The good news is, when we wake up to whatever moment of change we are in—major or minor—it becomes a lot less scary and out of control. By figuring out where we are and where we can expect to go, we can begin to gain clarity. We can resist less, open more, and navigate through the waters with some ease.
A helpful map that I like to use is an adapted version of the Transition Framework, developed by William Bridges, PhD, in his bestselling book Managing Transitions. He describes three major stages of transition: Endings, Middle Zone and New Beginnings. Even though these stages overlap and sometimes loop back onto each other, they are helpful guideposts as we begin to chart our journey.
I always seem to be the last one to realize I am going through a major transition. I notice things seem to be off. I experience periods of depression and anxiety. I long for times past and start thinking if I can engineer my life just right, I can get back to that place in the past where, even if I wasn’t happy, at least I was comfortably unhappy. It always takes more time than I expect, but at some point, either I realize it myself or someone says to me: “Yael, you had a baby earlier this year,” “You moved just a few weeks ago,” “Your job just changed dramatically.” Oh yeah. Right. I am experiencing a transition.
Endings happen at the start of a transition and they are marked by a tremendous amount of grief. Even if the change is a good one, whenever a change happens, the “old you” has to die in order to make way for the new you to emerge. After the birth of both of my sons, I first experienced profound denial about the fact that I had a baby at all. I tried to keep apace with my work responsibilities, despite being on maternity leave and sleeping 2-3 hours at night. I strove to be a hip Brooklyn woman who just happened to have a baby, when in truth the baby was taking over my life, my body, my heart, and definitely my sleep, and resisting that truth was causing a lot of suffering. I needed to accept that the baby-free woman was gone. That life was over and was never going to return. Cue the sense of loss, the tears, the sadness and grief.
And yet, once I opened up to the grief, even though I felt sad, it felt better than fighting with the truth. Once I acknowledged the loss, I could be more present for the new reality that was slowly taking shape. If you are in the Endings phase, you have to be very gentle with yourself. You are shedding a skin, and it can feel very tender, emotional, and difficult. As much as you can, remember that grief is a natural part of this process (even for the good changes) and treat yourself with a lot of kindness as you say goodbye to what is gone.
The Middle Zone is the gap. Once you have moved through the grieving of your old life, suddenly you are thrust into a new space with no instructions and no experience of the terrain. It is a time that feels chaotic, uncomfortable, confusing, and disorienting.
These periods are also often marked by low productivity, needing to be alone, a feeling of suspension in time. This is all normal and natural. The old structures that held up your life are gone, and yet you are not comfortable in your new way of life.
When I graduated college, I felt very float-y, very lost. I wasn’t exactly depressed, but I also wasn’t jumping for joy every day. My identity as a student was over (for the time being) and I hadn’t yet started working full-time. Each day was a dizzying vertigo of trying to figure out who I was and what I was supposed to be doing with myself.
It is very hard not to fill this type of silence or gap with distractions, anxiety, or excessive planning. And yet, if you can stay off your phone and open up to the feelings of not-knowing, you will discover a great deal of creativity in this period of time. The Middle Zone is where our new route takes shape, one step at a time. It can feel out of control, but if we practice mindfulness and breathe through it, we will see that we are not just drifting…we are being guided somewhere new.
About two years after I started meditating regularly, I was walking down the street and I stopped suddenly. Wow, I thought, apropos of nothing in particular, I haven’t had a panic attack in about a year! Previously, I was having them about 2-3 times per week. That is what New Beginnings feel like—sudden realizations that you are making your way in new waters with more confidence and skill than you thought possible. Don’t get me wrong. It takes time and lots of work to get there, and New Beginnings can often include many “backslides” back to old patterns and ways of doing things. These “backslides” should not be taken as failures. Change happens in a spiral—not a straight line—gradually getting us to where we need to be. Slowly, eventually, we get there.
The bottom line is, no matter where you are in the transition process, be gentle with yourself and understand that everything changes, and you won’t be in this uncomfortable spot for very long. Breathe. You will make it through this time. YOU’VE GOT THIS.
By Yael Shy