How Life Transitions Affect Us

Transitions may be traumatic. Throughout our lives, we are likely to navigate any number of them. Some transitions are welcome; others are not. Our difficulties arise because of the complications we encounter, and our reaction to them. Some of my changes were easy, others traumatic, and this post discusses how we might respond to them.

Disruptions, even good ones, are natural. Whether we are starting a new job or a new relationship, expect changes. Adjustments are typical for each of us. How we handle them and how we manage ourselves in them will test us. We will find out a great deal about ourselves.

Changes impose some uncertainty into a situation. As we transition from one phase of life to another, we may feel vulnerable to any number of the uncertainties that emerge. Our difficulty arises from the space between where we start and where we finish the transition. That in-between space is often fuzzy to us, particularly at the time. But it is in that space where we will weather our storms. Psychologist, Stephen Covey, correctly identified four fundamental factors that will determine our response in any given situation. In his book, First Things First, he lists, (i) Self-awareness, (ii) Conscience, (iii) Independent will, (iv) Creative imagination as areas of our inner life that will play a large part in how we respond to life’s challenges.

Neither the starting point nor the finishing point may be apparent to us at the time. But, when we look back after the event, we see that period in our lives more clearly. A growing understanding of ourselves will help us to learn and can be an investment for the future as will the application of the other foundations of self that Covey identifies.

An abrupt change, especially one for which we are unprepared, can quickly become a critical threat to our well-being. I wrote about the trauma I experienced in my post, Retirement re-calibration when ill health forced me to retire ahead of my plans. My stress arose from the suddenness of retirement, and not from the act of retiring. I felt utterly unprepared for the timing and the pace at which the changes happened to me. Since I was ill at the time, with stress-related burn-out, some of my inner resources weakened. Take, for example, my resilience. Illness weakened my resolve to exercise my will and powers of concentration. I could not see clearly nor make decisions.

In another example, the death of someone close to us will dent us. Losing a partner, friend, parent or child is genuinely traumatic and devastating. How often are we prepared for the death of a loved one? Does an anticipated end make it any easier? Death has a way of wrong-footing us. Some circumstances happen to us and have the power to pitch us into upheaval. We find ourselves digging deep within to find that inner strength that we need to get through the event.

In the summer of 2019, I wanted to make contact with an old school friend only to discover that they had died of pancreatic cancer some twelve years ago. The news set off something of a personal earthquake within me. I was devastated. I do not cry easily, but this news caused me to shed tears. I did not expect this news, even though the death took place several years ago. To me, this death was just as real as if it had happened yesterday. My reaction seemed disproportionate, even puzzling to me. I was grieving and mystified.

Over the last few months, I have come to terms with the news even though the memory of my friend still causes me pain. I write about the experience here to make the point that some events barge in on our otherwise peaceful lives. They happen to us. We have no control over them. They emerge without warning and may cause unexpected and great pain.

One way of looking at the phenomena between stimulus and response is to liken the in-between phase to the stage when young children start potty training. Often taking place around the age of two to fours years old, a child will longer want to wear their nappies. It is a rare child that does not have accidents. Usually, there are puddles. As a parent, it is tempting to go back to diapers, but we know that there is only one way out of the uncertainty, and it is forward. We choose the hinterland of unpredictability because we know it is the only way to the goal of a dry child.

The in-between stage happens in many areas of life. We are more ready to let go of the former things before we can embrace what comes next. When we do, we enter our hinterland and must keep moving forward even if things are tough for a while. Every child must learn to manage their need before the new clothes can be correctly worn. As it is with children, so it is with adults.

In closing, let me leave you with more thoughts from Covey’s four foundations. I ask that we consider our personal development and identify areas where we can be thankful for our progress. Additionally, the list will perhaps help each one of us to see where we can invest in ourselves.

Self-awareness: Am I able to stand apart from my thoughts or feelings and examine and change them? When the response of other people to me – or something I do – challenges the way I see myself, am I able to evaluate that feedback against deep personal self-knowledge and learn from it?

Conscience: Do I sometimes feel an inner prompting that I should or should not something I’m about to do? Do I inwardly sense the reality of true north principles such as integrity and trustworthiness?

Independent will: Am I able to make and keep promises to myself as well as to others? Can I subordinate my moods to my commitments?

Creative imagination: Do I think ahead? Do I visualise my life beyond its present reality? Do I look for new, creative ways to solve problems in a variety of situations and value the different views of others?

Finally, my deep-seated desire here is to help readers think about how they might respond to their transitions, especially those that they are going through right now. If you have an experience or insight to share, please post them via the comments.

I hope that our comments will help us all to muster our thoughts sufficiently to form a resource that we can draw on when we next go through a testing transition. I hope so.

If you have enjoyed this post and would like to know when there is a new post, then please click “Follow Russ Parkes Live”. The “follow” link in WordPress is found by clicking the folder icon at the top left of the screen. Thank you!

Quotes: The four foundations are taken from Stephen Covey.
Covey, S. R., Merrill, R. A., and Merrill, R.R. First Things First (Simon & Schuster, London, 1994) pp.62-63