4 Secrets to Overcoming Unexpected Life Transitions
Change is easier when you embrace it, this author says
“Horrible. Awful. Ego-bursting,” said Therese of the earliest days of her transition. She was a mid-50s financial guru whose transition was triggered by an unexpected termination from a job she’d held for close to a decade. “My career and accomplishments are a large part of how I see myself and the success I’ve had in life. So it’s been really, really difficult.”
While my transition started 10 years earlier, Therese’s reactions were familiar. Transitions, triggered by intentional or unintentional events, can be devastating but needn’t be.
My conversation with Therese was part of my research on women and transitions for my book coming out in November: Women & Transition: Reinventing Work and Life. In total, I talked with more than 200 women about their experiences. What started their transitions ran the gamut: An unexpected job; a retirement; a mid-career reboot; a divorce; a remarriage; the birth of another child. With the help of their collective voices, I identified four non-negotiables for adults on this path:
1. Reframe for learning: Our society conditions us to focus on binary singular outcomes, like success or failure. We effortlessly create these “on” or “off” mental models every day. While in some instances, this clear distinction can be a motivator, it stifles transition. Transition requires us to envision a new future and then validate that future through a series of experiments. The experiments are opportunities to learn. This learning requires us to focus on the right questions, not their answers nor their intended outcome.
2. Adopt a phrase: Have you ever been on the receiving end of the well-intentioned question, “What do you do?” In transition, it is best if you adopt a phrase so you can effortlessly walk through these sometimes uncomfortable social situations. The phrase will do two things: give you cover while you are unsure and give you the chance to leverage others.
When crafting your phrase, use verbs like investigating, considering, or unearthing. Each suggests impermanence and action. The phrase communicates to listeners that you are in process. It should also contain a statement of interest. “I’m exploring non-full-time work.” Or, “I am exploring post-retirement gigs in environmental policy after a career in the law.”
The statements are designed to engage others in conversation. The statements are not designed to communicate your transition’s desired outcome. Think of it as a means for experimenting with what might be next for you. One that can supply immediate feedback.
3. Be wary of big early commitments: Our first reaction to a transition’s trigger is often to mobilize. For example, we quickly move to replace a job when faced with a job loss. My research revealed that these early big moves introduce risk in transition. We often make these early decisions more in response to the feelings accompanying the trigger — like fear or shame — instead of making the decision because of alignment with our own values or the meaning we seek.
4. Suspend self-judgment: Are we our own worst enemy in transition? A friend shared a poignant moment from an informal gathering of 30 1980s alums from Duke, her alma mater. “Shame,” she started. “Most women were ashamed for not having done more. It held them back.”
Her remark hung with me. It seemed as if the feeling of shame influenced these women’s beliefs about what they could or should do. Here’s the real tragedy: Each woman was a gifted energetic person with the potential of making great impact in the areas she chose. Instead, their self-judgment was curbing their plans. Transition will require you to suspend the judgment, however difficult or unfamiliar that is.
I’ve come to learn that transition is an enormous gift for those who choose to explore it. It asks us to re-examine our assumptions about identity, capacity and values. It led Therese to a new job, one in a not-for-profit that served cancer survivors. Her sister and mom both survived breast cancer. After the first few weeks on the job, Therese said: “I felt as if I could breathe for the first time.”
Transition at any age can be positive, optimistic and approachable. It all depends on the tools we use to embrace it.