The Art of Transition. How to be brave when life gets really uncomfortable.
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
“Any transition serious enough to alter your definition of self will require not just small adjustments in your way of living and thinking but a full-on metamorphosis.” - Martha Beck
Transition is the time between the old and the new. It's what we experience in response to any major change in our lives. Transition is that inner shift in our identity, the shedding of an old chapter and the writing of a new one that follows a major change. And it can come in many forms. Although many transitionary periods can happen subtly with small life changes, some of them hit us with a deft blow after experiences like a death, retirement, disease, the collapse of a long term relationship or even the last of your children going off to college.
Transition is felt in our bodies. It's the sensation we feel when something familiar, known and relatively certain has come to an end. And we are now heading towards something unknown and new. And it can feel like a no-man's land. That space between mourning the loss of something that had become 'certain' and reliable in our lives and navigating the unknown waters of what's coming next. And this physical experience can be highly uncomfortable.
Funny enough, we see and accept transition as part of life's cycle in so many other natural processes - growth, maturity, death, rebirth - growth, maturity, death, rebirth - repeat, repeat, repeat. From a microcosmic cellular level to a more tangible, large-scale environmental level, we see transition all over the natural world. Summer doesn't just end in September, become a new Spring and start regrowth right away. Fall and Winter is nature's period of 'discomfort' - a transition and dormancy period between the end of the last season and the start of the new one. In the animal world, we see this too. Did you know that lobsters go though this cycle as many as 25 times in their lifetime shedding their shells in order to grow larger and stronger? When one shell becomes too 'tight' and has served its purpose, they shed it. The transitionary period that follows is a vulnerable, weakened state, as they wait in safety for this new 'softer shell' to thicken and harden. And there are countless other examples. Transition is a normal part of every aspect of nature. Which means it's a normal part of being human.
Yet, somehow our comfort-loving brains and bodies prefer to hurry and skip right over it. And over time, we humans have come up with some creative, effective, yet low-quality strategies to avoid facing endings. We silently ghost people, or do something abrupt and messy so we can create an excuse to run away. Or we find diversion in binge-watching some Netflix series, or try numbing the discomfort with over-eating or drinking while we search impatiently for the next tangible life chapter. My own past strategy was to quickly fill the uncomfortable transitionary period with another project, another quest or some other form of 'doing'.
Continually skipping from one chapter to another was an effective
pain-avoidance strategy that I learned as a child.
How discomfort tolerance can be learned. Or... not learned.
In my home, no one told me that discomfort was natural. I didn't learn that in my body, discomfort was simply a signal that something was 'new and different', and to let it run its course. I was taught that pain meant something was 'wrong'. When in actuality, pain signals that something is different from the norm, something has changed or is different than what was expected. So as a kid, whenever I felt the emotional discomfort that came with unexpected anger or upset by a parent, no one explained to me that the horrible body feeling that goes along with it was 'typical' body operation. Fear, sadness, rejection and shock evoke a physiological response to whatever event is at hand. But no one told me that. Why? Because my parents simply didn't know either. So my child-brain simply deducted that finding ways to completely avoid this awful body sensation was a plausible and effective prevention strategy: Stay ahead of the body discomfort, do what's needed to avoid it, keep moving, keep doing, keep accomplishing. Don't sit still. And when you finish one chapter, immediately start another.
This child-created behavior strategy can become a non-stop and exhausting conveyor belt of activity that carries on into adult life. And we live in a world where that type of behavior is rewarded. So why would you stop? As children, it's possible to convince ourselves that by being 'good', doing well in school, staying perpetually busy and racking up achievements, we can avoid the pain of an angry parent. The self-perpetuating nature of our brains and continued reinforcement of this behavior throughout life can then create a subconscious cycle that conveniently, and silently, works. But it can come at a cost. For me, I either became eventually exhausted by the constant activity, had little reserve left for coping with additional life or relationship challenges, or completely burned out. For some people, their bodies even begin to break down.
Don't get me wrong - achievement, 'doing' and accomplishment in themselves are not unhealthy. I fundamentally believe that part of our purpose as species is to use our brains and bodies as tools for the service
of others. However, it's the subconscious driving force behind achievement that often can lead to emotional upheaval, especially when it's not being constantly satiated.
This subconscious-motivation type of drive can lead to a relentless cycle that can be difficult to stop, and can leave you feeling devalued even when you do. There is however, another more powerful source of drive. One that is healthy and independent of external feedback. It's the drive derived from your essential self and what you value at your core. Once you discover this source of drive, you won't face exhaustion or burnout ever again.
There's no one to blame for any of this. No need for embarrassment or shame. Most of our thought and behavior patterns run subconsciously and hidden from our awareness, until something in our outer world drastically changes. And very few of us grew up learning how our brains and bodies actually work. The science behind thought and stress-response behavior has only really had traction in the last 10-15 years.
Easing the discomfort
So part of the remedy to navigating transition with more tolerance is training our brains to be more comfortable with 'not doing'. It can be quite a physiological challenge in the beginning as our body responds naturally to the 'new and different' change in activity with a cascade of adrenaline-based chemicals. Restlessness and that 'unsettled' sensation that our brains can label as either despair or excitement, can be almost unbearable at times. But if we desire to increase our tolerance of discomfort and raise our fight-or-flight activation threshold, we must bear it.
My previous conditioned pattern of 'avoid-by-staying-busy' behavior had weakened my brain's threshold for stress tolerance, simply by lack of use. So at first, my activation level was so low that any change easily rattled me. So when I first began to intentionally practice stillness and not 'doing', it felt physiologically excruciating at times. Why is the sensation so intense? The readjustment of our physiology is not as easy as flipping a switch. It's more like the inconsistent, painful shudders and surges that can accompany the withdrawal of anything our bodies have become overly accustomed to. As our nervous system recalibrates, it can randomly reach back to the old system of activation, desperate to hang onto that which was familiar.
But I willingly made myself sit through it and bear it. I intentionally exposed myself to experience it with neutrality, accepting the process my body was going through and keeping my thoughts helpful and without judgment. And over time, if did get easier and... I didn't die. I'm here to testify that the discomfort did not kill me - although there were times it surely felt like it might.
What does transition feel like?
I like the way that Jeremy Hunter from the Executive Mind Leadership Institute, describes transition as 'the Zombie Zone'.
"After the end of the familiar, it can seem like you are stepping into a void. You can feel lost and zombie-like or at least unmoored or disoriented as you wander the earth. What used to work, no longer does. You feel strange and not like your old self but not yet something fully formed."
For me, I often battled a strong pull to search for answers and a sense of urgency to just get on with it and start my new 'known' future. But this only resulted in more anxiety and fatigue, which made me more uncomfortable, so I knew this was not the solution.
For others who have shared their stories of retirement, a family death or the experience of an 'empty nest' for the first time, this coming to end of a stage, can feel almost like a coming to the end of themselves. That's how heavily identified we humans can become to our roles and chosen professions. We can get lost in them. Who were are gets merged into what we do or the role we play. And when that role ends, detangling ourselves from the decaying remains can take an intentional, herculean effort in order to reclaim our true natures -
- the essence of who we are that doesn't require a role, a task or meeting anyone's expectations to have value and worth.
It's from this place of reunion that we can cultivate a new source of drive. And one we can activate on our own terms.
How to Navigate through transition
Don't rush the process.
Sometimes the need for answers and a desire to move into a future that has more form and structure can actually add more anxiety. The answers will come. They are actually already inside you. But you can only access them from a state of calm. So slow down. Be patient. Enjoy (or at least tolerate) the ride. How long transitions take will vary by the individual and the magnitude of the experience.
Putting it into practice - Intentionally slow down and do less for a day. Intermittently, or every few hours, sit down and be still for even five minutes. Just be, breathing in and out. You can meditate, just listen to music or enjoy another sensory experience like taking a warm bath. Try to elongate the time each day.
Transition is a normal part of life. If you have successfully avoided it up until now, this may be a new experience for you. But I'm here to tell you. It's okay. You will get through it. Use the time to say goodbye to whatever has ended, thank it for its presence in your life. Acknowledge what it gave you. It's a ceremony of sorts. We have too few of them in modern culture. But in native and ancient cultures, transitions were honored, grieved, and then celebrated. They understood that a new stage of growth was coming.
Putting it into practice - How can you help bring closure to what you are leaving behind? Do you have an object, a book or an item that represents the chapter you are leaving behind? Allow yourself to go through the process of holding it, remembering what it represented, and then either give it away, throw it away or recycle it when you are ready. This simple physical, representative act can sometimes help move you forward when you feel 'stuck'.
Sit through the body sensations as they come.
Some sensations will be short, and some longer. And it may be accompanied by doubt or disorientation. Don't judge it. Just observe it. Notice it in your body. Our human bodies really are fascinating. Spectate your own uncomfortable, physical experience of transition. This step is essential in order to retrain your brain and raise your activation threshold of stress response.
Putting it to practice - note the sensations you feel. When doing your stillness practice sessions throughout the day, and you start to feel the body sensation that makes you want to get up and move, just notice it. But don't respond. Like an investigator or a scientist observing a phenomenon, pull up a neutral thought such as,"there goes that body sensation again. How my body works really is interesting". Try to delay responding to the discomfort by moving or getting up, even for 30-60 seconds. Then next time, try to delay it for longer.
Journal on it. How long does the body sensation last? What thoughts accompany it? What thoughts or images decrease or diminish the sensations? What thoughts or images make them stronger or more intense? Notice the times those sensations are absent as well. How do you experience calm and relaxation in your body? Can you think of something that can intentionally make you relax? How about a thought that makes you tense up? Play around with this. You may be surprised to discover how much your thoughts and body sensations are intertwined.
Whether from a spouse, a therapist, a family member, a friend or a group, sharing your experience aloud, is another effective way of seeing your core self as separate from your brain and body experience. Being able to depersonalize your brain's thoughts and your bodies physiological response can help to ease the discomfort of the experience.
If you find yourself with low energy and a strong pull to isolate, it may be your body trying to slow you down so you can reconnect to self and take some personal inventory. So do it in small doses. Ask yourself powerful questions like, "what could this mean that I haven't considered before?", or "Is there something I can learn from this experience?". We humans sometimes need time alone to consolidate our thoughts.
Putting it to practice - this is a good time to ask yourself - what do I really want going forward? What do I need to let go of to do it? What resources do I need to experiment and try out some new ideas? What are my core values? These values can shift in priority at different stages of our lives. It may be worth re-assessing which values are most important to you now.
Keep moving forward.
Some days the sensation that we label 'despair' can be compelling. And it may feel some days like you can hardly move. Just take one small step each day. There will be days you can move forward in big leaps and others you may need to just crawl. It all counts. So like Dory the fish from the Disney-Pixar movie series, "just keep swimming".
Putting it to practice - on days that you feel calm and not in a hurry, try some new and different things. Do the opposite of something you would typically do. Just to try it. Even something as small as changing one aspect of your daily routine can strengthen your brain and start increasing your tolerance of 'different'. Your future is unknown and unfolding. Which means, you can do most anything you want. Maybe that sounds a bit unnerving. But it can also be exciting. So check some things out and see, what feels good? What feels better? What feels awful? Try several things as if you are shopping at department store, trying on some new clothing styles. Some may work, while others won't. Keep shopping. Eventually, you'll find an outfit that when you look in the mirror you'll say, "oh yah. THIS is me."
Transition can be a time to really get to know yourself, both mentally and physically. So if you simply must 'do' something, consider this to be your transition 'assignment' - get to know your thoughts and your body. And reconnect to your core essence as you do. Notice and journal on your experience every day, as if you have a big report to give yourself in 30-60 days about all that you learn.
Your body is the biggest resource you have to tip you off as to what thoughts are running quietly 'behind the scenes'.
It's like the game of Clue, or putting the puzzle of 'you', together. Notice the clues. Collect the evidence. Connect the pieces. Track the thoughts that go with the body sensations. Are there lessons to be learned? Re-evaluate your core values, or what really means most to you in your life. Work up a full 'report' on you. But also take your time, be thorough, and observe. If you come out of transition with this knowledge, you may be surprised to find that clarity about your future often comes along with it.
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