How to accept life’s big changes

Bypassing life’s unsettling moments sounds tempting, but doing so could have consequences for your future.

The question:

I’m feeling stressed because of the many changes in my life. My oldest son just moved away to college and I am between jobs and not sure what I want to do next. Meanwhile, my husband is working longer hours due to a promotion and my aging father is showing signs of early dementia. I feel a little disoriented, like the rug is being pulled out from my feet. What can I do?

Change is the one constant in life — and yet, we are often surprised when it comes. Parents reward us for mastering routines early in life. Our educational system reinforces the belief that skill mastery yields the comforts of a settled life. As we age, we are measured by our gains, not our losses, our stability, not our vulnerability. We believe in change as long as the wheel of fortune spins in our favor. However, when change defies our expectations with unpleasant results, we may begin to question our preconceived expectations about life.

One of my favorite frameworks for understanding change was written by a little-known English professor whose last name is synonymous with change — William Bridges. In his 1980s groundbreaking book “Transitions,” Bridges maps out the cycle of change into three discrete stages. According to him, every transition begins with an ending and ends with a beginning. In between endings and beginning is a discomfiting neutral zone that most people would rather avoid but is essential for personal growth.

Why begin with the end? Because change disengages us from the familiar roles we play in our familiar world. Within the rubric of “endings,” he identifies five fundamental tasks one must master in order to successfully move to the next chapter. They are: disengagement (separation from the familiar), dismantling (letting go of what is no longer needed), disenchantment (discovering that certain things no longer make sense), disidentification (reevaluating one’s identity) and disorientation (a vague sense of losing touch with one’s reality).

Once endings are complete, people progress to an uncomfortable but growth-filled neutral zone which Bridges describes as “an empty in-between time when … everything feels as though it’s up for grabs and you don’t quite know who you are or how you’re supposed to behave.” Sound familiar? Most people would prefer to skip this stage. However, by attempting to leapfrog past the neutral zone, they may miss important insights and gifts, putting them at risk of poor decision-making in the future.

What you are feeling is perfectly understandable. Many cultures have rituals to mark life’s inevitable ebb and flow. Perhaps you can create one that is meaningful for you. In the meantime, reflecting on Bridges’ framework may help demystify the changes you’re experiencing so they don’t seem so overwhelming. While seeing a career counselor or learning about dementia may be helpful, give yourself a little breathing room  to mine the transition experience for insights that will help you move thoughtfully to the next chapter.

— Kim Schneiderman, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and former journalist with a private
practice in New York City. This column is not intended to be used as a substitute for a private consultation with a mental health professional, nor is this therapist to be held liable for any actions taken as a result of this column. If you have any concerns related to the content of this column, please make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional. E-mail Kim your questions at askkim@metro.us.

Metro does not endorse the opinions of the author, or any opinions expressed on its pages.


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