Dealing with life transitions

I have recently experienced some significant changes in my life. This made me think about transitions and how to handle them.

Any kind of transition can lead to uncomfortable feelings, and it may take time to work through them. The extent of the emotion you feel is linked to the level of loss. However, it’s not all bad, as transitions can also be opportunities for growth and reshaping of your relationships.

We can’t escape things ending and new things beginning. It’s all part of life. In this article, you’ll discover four main types of life transition described by Sharan Merriam (Professor of Adult Education, University of Georgia), and get some ideas about how to deal with them.

When you understand what type of transition you’re facing, it may help you through the process.

Anticipated transitions

Some transitions are expected. They are not a surprise. That doesn’t mean they are always easy!

Example 1

If your role gets made redundant, and you’ve known it’s coming for a long time, you can prepare. You can update your CV and practice your interviewing skills. Maybe retrain. Perhaps you’ve already found your dream job and are ready to move on. It’s a loss, but it’s not like being made redundant out of the blue. There’s more on unexpected transitions below.

Example 2

The recent death of Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 96 was not unexpected. For the majority of UK people she’s been the Queen for their whole life. She represented stability and continuity, giving some reassurance and comfort in a world of constant flux and change.

We all knew she couldn’t last forever, but, in the moment, her passing still seemed sudden and a shock, as shown by the public outpouring of grief. Some people queued for up to 24 hours to view her coffin lying in state.

In that scenario, it’s important to create a safe alternative.

The funeral plans were in place for decades. With the amount of preparation that had been done, everything worked smoothly and was elegant and dignified.

Her replacement, King Charles III, has big boots to fill, but there is currently much goodwill towards him. If he can model a degree of continuity, people will quickly settle.

Example 3

On a personal level, my youngest child has just gone to University.

This is an expected transition, and something to celebrate. I wasn’t always confident that she’d make it as she is smart but was never studious at college. She loves it and it’s wonderful! I’m happy that she’s on a growth trajectory, but am really feeling the loss.

  • She’s no longer at home and I miss her being there every day
  • My son, who left home a couple of years ago, is planning to go to Australia next month for a year
  • I am now an ’empty nester’
  • Much of my identity, thought and energy has gone into being a mum, and I’m feeling the loss of that chapter in my life

When I came home from dropping her off, her shoes were no longer beside the front door (and believe me, there were many pairs!), the laundry basket wasn’t overflowing, and there was less food in the fridge. The house is silent and tidy. It’s awful!

I could see the maternal bonds breaking. It felt like a bereavement and was very upsetting to me.

I’m slowly coming to terms with it, but it’s been more painful than I thought it would be. Four weeks on, I am realising that both children still need me. I’m still a mum; it just looks a bit different now. Plus, I’m discovering my newfound freedom, which is exciting.

Unexpected transitions

Because you don’t know they are coming, transitions can be exceptionally stressful and painful, (but the rewards can be greater in the medium or long term).

For example, you may be made redundant unexpectedly. It may be from a role and/or with a team you love. If you’ve been employed for a number of years, it can feel very destabilising.

In your personal life, a relationship may come to an unexpected end.

These transitions are sudden and can be a shock, so you may need support to get through. Scroll down for ideas to help you.

Non-event transitions

This is a transition that you hoped for but which didn’t happen. For example, you worked hard for a promotion and didn’t get it.

Personal non-events could include not having children, or not getting married, when you expected that you would do these things in your life.

Sleeper transformations

These transformations occur gradually, without you really noticing. They sneak up on you. For example, one day you might realise you’ve improved your competence at work and you’re ready for the next step, or that you’ve become demotivated and desperate for a change.

Perhaps your company is going through a transformation and you realise that your skills and mindset are no longer ‘in fashion’. You might feel you’ve become irrelevant or find yourself feeling cynical. (Note that age has nothing to do with this.)

It’s important to stop that slide. Get your antennae up and working. Go and assess the current environment. Do a gap analysis to review what you have versus what you want as compared with where the company is now headed. Look at what you need to do if you want to get on board, or if you decide to move on.

Feelings associated with transitions

Your reaction to a transformation will depend on the amount of preparation you’ve been able to do and whether you see the change as positive or negative. As I said in the introduction, the extent of the emotion you feel is linked to the level of loss for you. Remember, real growth can come from negative transformations. You might end up with a better job, a more meaningful relationship, a new hobby or lifestyle to explore.

If you initially see the transformation as negative, here are some of the things you might feel:

  • Fear
  • Loneliness
  • Sense of failure
  • Anxiety about the future
  • Sadness
  • Grief
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Blame
  • Loss of purpose

You might recognise the change curve below, as I’ve shared it before and it’s well known:

Change curve

You may go back and forth through these emotions as time passes. They don’t always arise in the same order or last for the equal amounts of time.

An alternative is the three-stage process (I’m finding this useful at the moment):

Survive > Stabilise > Strategise

Survive: In the early days, just try to survive, physically and emotionally. The focus is to look after yourself. Accept how you are feeling and trust that you’ll not only bounce back, but you’ll bounce forward

Stabilise: Get used to your situation. You may feel it’s two steps forwards, one step back, but you will have moments of peace

Strategise: Look to the future, take time to think and plan

Advice for dealing with transitions

If you know a change is coming, do what you can to prepare. For example, when retirement is on the horizon, what can you do financially, practically and emotionally to ensure you’ll be ready?  Can you book a holiday? Sign up to a club?

If you didn’t get the job you applied for, remember that it’s not about you. You might indeed have been well able to do the job, but another candidate was a better fit for the company at that time and in that context. You might think it’s not the right decision, but there are probably factors at play which are outside your control.

Whatever happens, don’t stay stuck. Look at the big picture. Request feedback, take stock, and decide what you want to do about it. Use the experience as a catalyst to assess where you are and what you want.

Remember that getting a new job is a numbers game. You just have to keep trying. The more jobs you apply for, the more likely it is that you’ll find somewhere and will probably end up happier than the one you didn’t get.

If it’s a negative transformation, you have to go through the pain. You can’t avoid it or go round it. Until you’ve gone through it, it will always be there. The starting point is to identify the pain, acknowledge it and sit with the feelings. Even if it is painful, trust you will emerge stronger and with new learning.

Trust in your ability to work through the transformation. You will have dealt with other transformations before. What did you do then that enabled you to cope?

The transformation, whether positive or negative, will eventually become a memory and an important part of your life. For me, all my photos of the children and family life can be painful to see because those moments are gone, but I have some wonderful memories. Now they are both adults, we can build new memories. Perhaps one day I’ll become a grandparent (hopefully not just yet…)!

Some people come into your life for a reason, some for a season, some for a lifetime. A personal relationship may end because it’s had its time. But that doesn’t mean it was a ‘bad’ relationship and it might have resulted in some amazing memories. Appreciate that you may end up stronger as a result, and your new freedom can mean you do something wonderful that you wouldn’t otherwise have tried.

Be aware of your needs. These may change as you go through life. A simple exercise is to take a pack of sticky notes and write one need per note, then prioritise them, and condense them into a maximum of three. Maybe you’ll get it down to just your number one need. Then respect yourself enough to get that need met.

You can download a printable PDF needs list from the book: Why Weren’t we Taught This at School? Meanwhile, here are some example needs that might resonate with you:

  • Emotional safety
  • Stability
  • Autonomy
  • Fun
  • Creativity
  • Love
  • Belonging
  • Learning
  • Acceptance
  • Recognition
  • Respect
  • Authenticity
  • Purpose
  • Intimacy
  • Contribution
  • Self-expression

Turn to your support network. As human beings, we are wired to connect. Use the people around you, share your experience and let them know how best to support you. For example, maybe you or someone close to you has ill-health. If so, join a community of people who are going through the same thing. It can be incredibly helpful to know you’re not the only one in that situation and you can learn how to deal with it.

Surround yourself with people and sources that inspire you. Maybe you have someone in your life that lifts you up? For example, a friend recommended an Audible book ‘The 9 Secrets to Thriving’ which I’m currently halfway through. It contains stories of people who’ve been through awful events and have come out thriving, not just surviving – the book shares these lessons.

Focus on the positive aspects. If you’re retiring, how do you want to use your time and what do you want your purpose to become? If you’re downsizing your home, it will enable you to declutter or go for a new look. If a relationship has ended, it gives you the space to make new friends (and have control of the TV remote!).

All my usual wellbeing tips apply. Look after your physical health by making sure you get enough sleep, eat well and keep up your exercise routine. Be kind to yourself. Don’t expect too much in the early days. Focus on your needs and let people help you. Remember, this will make them feel good as being altruistic releases happiness chemicals in the brain.

Finally, know that transition is part of life and happens to all of us. It pushes us on to new experiences and growth. Lean into it and don’t be afraid – good things will happen for you!

If you’re experiencing a big transformation that triggers a disproportionately strong response, there may be something deeper at play. In this case, it may be helpful to have some counselling to understand what this is, followed by coaching to help you move forward. (Of course, I can help with the coaching!)

Advice for leaders

Here are some things you can do when one of your team is going through a difficult transformation:

Put yourself in their shoes and try and understand how they might be feeling and what they might need. But remember, everyone is different. Don’t assume anything.

Also, don’t give yourself the pressure of having the answer or doing something (but if you can do something that helps, then that’s great). Simply ask them what help they need, listen, and then move mountains to deliver it.

Sometimes the most helpful thing is to provide a safe and supportive space. Come to it from the position of ‘being’ not ‘doing’. Can you just sit with them so they can explore the issue and feel cared for?

Show them this article!

Remember that grief and loss is not a linear process, and they may not follow the logical path of improvement over time.

Trust that the person WILL get better over time, without you rushing it or wondering if their focus will return.

Related reading

If you found this information useful, you might like my other articles on similar subjects:

You might also enjoy my Kindle books which repackage some of this information (and more), available on Amazon:

Next month

How to deal with emotionally immature people