navigating a life transition

Some people’s transitions start with yearning. They yearn for something better, and having established that vision, they step towards it.

My own life transitions start with discontent. Life takes on a low-grade buzz that feels difficult to be with, something akin to wearing an itchy sweater.

The discontent has a purpose: to get you to pay attention. If you don’t pay attention, it amps up to feelings of intolerance, a sense that the bullshit you’re tolerating is reaching a tipping point and has gone too far. Most people quickly identify something as the scourge of their unhappiness, and then start looking for escape routes, quick exit strategies. Can you quit the job? Quit the marriage? How do you know when to quit, anyway?

This is a time period of paying attention. What’s actually going on, here? You might talk to people, ask them questions, or you might go deeply internal. You might also, by the way, start feeling inexplicably irritated or depressed, that itchy wool sweater feeling growing worse because there’s no immediate relief.

Sometime after intolerance, there’s usually a feeling of despair when the answers don’t come easily, or at least there’s some pulling at the reigns, a “Hoooold on, let’s not get ahead of ourselves” feeling that desires to completely ignore doing any personal inquiry.

The work of needing to actually change, needing to do life differently, needing to quit something in order to make room for what’s next, suddenly feels like a ton of work. It’s overwhelming. Or, wisdom steps in and reminds you that you might be wrong about what needs to change. It might not be the job. It might not be the marriage. It might be something…deeper. That, too, can feel like an overwhelming idea to parse out.

This is the crossroads moment in navigating any big life transition. This is the threshold where you’ll decide that the work of personal transition is or isn’t worth it.

Now here’s the thing: the voices of fear are probably going to be really loud at this point, telling you to make the “right” decision at this juncture and figure it all out. I’ve noticed that with any transition that someone really needs to make, the change needed is an inevitability. There actually is no “right timing” for the truest transitions of life.

A true transition functions more like a current, and once you’ve examined any feelings of discontent long enough, you are in that current, and once you’re in that current, there really is no going back although to continue the metaphor, the current might slow down a bit if someone decides not to pull back.

Also, someone who decides that now is the moment isn’t necessarily stronger or more courageous than someone who backs off and delays, because when a transition must happen in your life, backing off doesn’t actually take you out of the current of that transition. Backing off only raises the sense of intolerability. When a transition is necessary on a soul level, backing off might temporarily alleviate some of the anxiety of making a change, but as your mind turns over why things just don’t feel right, you’ll feel that discontent again and feel that intolerability again. It’s something of an inevitability that if you use that discontent, you’ll come to realize what must change. You’re in the current, you’re in the transition. It’s happening.

So then here’s the crazy thing about navigating a big life transition: we live in this culture that romanticizes big a-ha moments, that romanticizes courage and makes courage into this glittery adventure. People have these expectations that are very cinematic, that fit into some kind of storyline arc where you easily recognize the necessity of change, start taking steps in that direction, encounter external obstacles along the way but remain committed to your mission, and then voila—because you stayed committed, you get what you want. You get the happy ending.

Yeah, life’s transitions? They tend not to function quite that way. Rather, people recognize the necessity of change, then beat up on themselves as being not up to the task, or blaming someone else for why change is impossible, or they numb out with wine or Netflix or Facebook and dig themselves deeper into a hole. Then, if they again recognize a necessity for change, they often flounder and aren’t sure what change they need and they might try swapping out a few variables like career or life partner or city they live in, and those swaps might bring about some of the change they want…but then there’s that unrest, again, at which point someone might realize that the changes they most need are more personal and internal. The transition itself is not an external transition. It’s navigating a personal transition, something internal that needs to be rewired.

The commitment really is a commitment to staying with the internal obstacles that get in the way, not the external obstacles. In movies, the external obstacles—the villain, the system, the fact that the protagonists true love is currently married to someone else—are easy to spot. In life, the internal obstacles—the places where you think you’re not enough and this mindset influences every choice you make, the lifelong fear-based habit of self-sabotage that you don’t even realize you’re engaging in, the rage or grief that you’ve never dealt with, the skill-set you lack around forming deep connections that leaves you isolated—those are difficult to spot.

With behavioral habits, we’re so used to doing things the way that we’ve always done them, that we assume “this is the way that I am.” The Zen Buddhists talk about how common it is that when someone begins seriously meditating, they often have a concurrent sudden and seemingly paranoid fear that they are going to die. I’m talking about a literal feeling that nearly every meditator has when they go deep enough into meditation, that is a fear that they could die.

The way Zen Buddhists explain it, this is the ego realizing that because the meditator is now paying attention, things are going to change, so the ego throws out the biggest possible fear it can: a fear that you will not survive this. And as the Zen Buddhists explain it, this fear that you could die will feel really real until you realize that the ego is talking about its own death, and YOU are not your EGO.

And that, my friends, is why I’m always trying to remind people: you are not your fear. Your fear-based critical voices are wounds that need help and healing, but they are not you. Those voices are simply part of your experience.

So, okay—life transitions—when you’re in the thick of it, what the hell do you do? How do you work with and through all that’s coming up?

I think you sleep more. You drink more water. You ditch alcohol or drugs or anything that makes you more prone to get tossed off into your fears. You read more books. You spend more time alone or more time in the company only of those who you’ve noticed inspire you to think bigger than you usually do, the people in your life who always tend to assume that anything in life is figure-out-able and that of course you can do anything that you set your mind to.

You name the transition. The fear comes up, and you say to yourself (and the fear), “I’m navigating a life transition.” You have a day where you feel like you’re completely confused, and you say, “I’m in the midst of a big transition.” You have a moment where you want to throw in the towel and you say, out loud and in a mirror while making eye contact with yourself: “This is what it feels like to navigate a life transition.”

You do this because you know that there really is no way out once you’re in the messy middle. If you turn back now, you’re only going to feel the discomfort you felt when you started out. If you keep going, at least, then there’s got to be some respite up ahead.

And there is. The respite is that the more you sit with the discomfort and challenges of a personal transition, the hardier and more resilient you get. You stand stronger. You have the fortitude to say your true yes and true no. You start getting more in touch with your instincts, and what’s more, instead of feeling an instinct and thinking, “But that’s crazy; am I crazy?” you think, “The only thing that’s crazy is a world that tells itself that instincts are crazy.”

This is a truer and better respite than the world of easy, logical, linear answers. This deeper knowing and touching down into who you truly are will carry you through your entire life. It’s great if you realize something about your job or marriage or how to handle a conflict with a friend. It’s priceless if you realize something about your truest nature, and how to follow your heart.

The next time you are navigating a life transition, remember this. Remember during the most difficult of times that whatever internal challenges you are transitioning through, the rewards are worth it.