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April 5, 2023

How to Master Life Transitions 

Bruna Martinuzzi

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I was involved in a major car crash many years ago while on a business trip to Greece. The accident made me rethink my career and what gave my life meaning: I quit my job, moved from Europe to Canada, and changed careers. 

The accident was a disruption that led to a major life transition. Bruce Feiler, best-selling author of "Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age," says that, on average, everyone goes through a life transition every 12 to 18 months.

Common life transitions include:

  • being laid off or fired.
  • having a serious accident.
  • experiencing a health crisis. 
  • working for a company that is being acquired. 
  • getting a new job
  • being promoted. 
  • changing careers.
  • moving to a different city. 
  • getting married. 
  • having a baby.
  • going through a relationship breakup or divorce. 
  • returning to school.
  • losing a loved one.
  • retiring.

Any of those sound familiar?

Experiencing a “Lifequake”

We get through most life transitions relatively quickly, but one in ten become what Feiler calls a "lifequake." He defines a lifequake as a massive change with stressful aftershocks that can last several years if we don't learn to master them.

After interviewing hundreds of people about their life transitions, Feiler found that, on average, we go through three to five lifequakes in our lifetime.

These life-changing events frequently involve a difficult loss, such as losing a source of income, access to childcare, or a loved one, to name a few. And in the aftermath of the pandemic, the entire world is going through a collective lifequake.

3 Ways to Master Life Transitions

Learning to deal with these disruptive life events is more critical than ever. If you are going through a life transition, here are three ways to help you navigate it.

1. Accepting that the "Linear Life" Is Over

Feiler's findings show that the idea of a neat, linear life path no longer holds true. A linear life is based on misguided expectations.

For example, we expect our careers will progress from a junior job to a mid-level job to a senior-level position to retirement. Some other misconceptions include believing that we will have one relationship, one home, and one source of happiness throughout our lives, from adolescence to old age.

Instead, we lead non-linear lives, which means we go through many life transitions, full of twists and turns and ups and downs. Transitions may seem like abnormal interruptions, but they are a regular and predictable part of life.  

Anticipating change helps us accept the end of predictability and prepares us to deal with whatever changes life brings. Being mentally prepared for change eliminates the element of surprise and allows us to move with greater ease from resistance to acceptance.

How Can You Prepare Yourself for a Non-Linear Life?

Let's take a current example. 

One of the latest work trends has been dubbed "career cushioning" (also known as "recession proofing"). The term describes the act of employees exploring other job options while still in their current role.

Whether or not you're concerned about a layoff, it pays to prepare for this potential disruption to your career. Some actions you could take now include: 

2. Becoming Adept at Navigating the Three Phases of Life Transitions 

A big takeaway from Feiler's research is that all significant life transitions have a distinct structure. And it isn't always obvious to someone just entering a transition. 

According to Feiler, major life transitions have three phases:

  1. The Long Goodbye: the period it takes to fully accept the change and say goodbye to the old you.  
  2. The Messy Middle: the period when you start to evaluate new options. That’s when you replace old habits that no longer serve you with new ones that help you to move forward. 
  3. The New Beginning: the period when you embark on a new path in your life. 

Being stuck in "the long goodbye" or "the messy middle" phases prevents us from moving on to the next chapter in our lives.

How Do You Leave the Past Behind?

Here's a quick example. A coaching client of mine – I'll call him Fred – was laid off from his job as a marketing manager. By the time Fred came to see me, he had already spent six months stuck in the long goodbye phase. He wasted a lot of time mourning his old life and what he had lost.

I asked him to note his weekly actions that are still connected to his old job. The list turned out to be an eye-opener for him. 

His activities included:  

  • checking the social media accounts of the company that laid him off. 
  • scouring the LinkedIn accounts of his ex-peers to see who else was laid off. 
  • emailing his ex-direct reports under several pretexts. 
  • regularly checking the company website to see if there were new hires on the marketing team.  
  • asking several ex-colleagues to go to lunch with him and using the event as an opportunity to vent.

We agreed that he had to stop doing anything related to his former employment, no matter how small. All activities connected with his old job set him back emotionally, reinforced his resentment, and distracted him from moving on. He finally cut the corporate umbilical cord and moved on to the next phase of his life transition.

3. Managing Your Emotions 

Feiler writes that fear, sadness and shame are the top three emotions we most likely feel during a transition.  

I have found over the years that shame is a strong emotion that few people want to discuss. Consequently, the feeling of shame can intensify, linger and prolong recovery from a difficult life transition. 

Consider the example of my coaching client, Melissa (not her real name.) Melissa found it difficult to cope with being fired from her job. After several coaching sessions, she admitted to feelings of shame. "I am ashamed," she said to me, barely holding back tears. "People will think that I didn't do a good job."  

I worked with her to uncover evidence that warranted her feelings of shame. Here are some of the questions we went through: 

  • Are your feelings of shame justifiable?
  • What scripts are you carrying in your head?
  • What hard evidence do you have to validate the thought that "people will think I didn't do a good job?"
  • What is the evidence against this thought?

In the end, there was no evidence to justify her feelings of shame because her concerns were objectively baseless. Given her high level of competence, she concluded that anyone who worked closely with her would know the caliber of her work.

This exploration was a turning point in helping her to process her feelings of shame and to move on.  

How Can You Overcome Feelings of Shame? 

To get over feelings of shame, it pays to consider these pointers:  

  • Pay attention to the harm that feelings of shame may cause you. Research shows that low self-esteem and depression can arise from shame. For Melissa, staying stuck in a loop of unproductive thoughts about her dismissal exacerbated the situation and made her unhappy and lethargic. For example, she often canceled her exercise class and watched TV instead.
  • Catch yourself when thoughts of shame start to creep in. Ask yourself: am I allowing my emotions to hijack my logical brain?
  • Reframe your thoughts around the situation, so that they are either realistic or at least neutral. 
  • Share your feelings with trusted others. Melissa found an accountability partner – a trusted friend – with whom she spoke once weekly. Together, they sought ways to quiet her ruminations and focus instead on the future. 

Taking Control of Life Transitions

Ultimately, we can manage our inevitable life transitions and not let them negatively influence us in the long term. We can interpret whatever we lost as devastating and allow anger, sadness, fear, and resentment to consume us. Or we can use the loss as an opportunity to gain insight and wisdom, to keep moving on, and to write the next chapter in our life.

That's what I did after my accident.


About the Author:

Bruna is an educator, author and speaker specializing in emotional intelligence, leadership, communication, and presentation-skills training.

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