I’ve had transitions on my mind recently. A lot of clients I work with feel stuck in the middle of a transition they didn’t quite anticipate, or that felt thrust upon them, or whose ramifications they just couldn’t calculate at the outset of the change.
Marriage, divorce, childbirth, graduating college, losing a job, moving back home: whether positive or negative, transitions can be messy. And they can also give birth to previously unforeseen opportunities for growth.
Therapy is, after all, about change, so I guess it is no surprise that as a therapist I should be witness to transitions galore.
William Bridges, author of a book aptly titled Transitions, writes that moving from here to there involves three distinct stages: endings, the middle ground, and beginnings. He emphasizes that it is not until we fully acknowledge and move through endings and slog through the ill-defined and uncertain middle ground that we can move into the realm of beginnings. It is the sometimes-neglected and complicated topic of endings that I want to focus on here.
Each of us has an idiosyncratic way of navigating endings. Whether you tend toward avoidance (ending, what ending?) or dive headfirst into the sturm und drang of grief and loss, you likely will benefit from knowing just where on the continuum you tend to fall. Past behavior is a pretty good predictor of future behavior. Having mined your past for clues as to how you characteristically approach the ending of one thing — your high school days, your first love, that job you hated — you can learn what to anticipate as future transitions approach, and be better prepared to cope.
Beyond anticipating what might be coming down the pike, Bridges also discusses the importance of letting go in successfully navigating transitions. Before we can move on to the future, we need to let go of the past, including its implications about who we are and what we make of the world.
Over the days, months, and years, we become so strongly identified with the circumstances of our lives that it can be easy to forget that to move on to something new is, in some ways, to de-identify with whatever came before. Failing to let go or modify the parts of ourselves that rightfully belong in the past can make the messy process of transitions even messier. And yet we cannot shrug off the entirety of our identities just because a transition has happened its way along our paths.
So how do we choose what to leave and what to bring along? It is at this junction of deciding which parts of us we will carry forward, and which we will leave behind — not in the transition itself — that the greatest opportunity for growth lies.
Packing light allows us to discard emotional and psychological baggage that we may have been unknowingly carrying around for a long time. No wonder I feel so tired, you might say to yourself, toting around this 500-pound suitcase of ideas about myself and the world that are outdated, based on faulty assumptions, or tied up with messages I’ve received from other people.
So here is the challenge presented by endings: As you stand on the cusp between this and that, here and there, make a conscious choice about “former me” and “becoming me,” between who you were and who you would like to be. Sure, you might not be able to fully discard all of the aspects of “former me” that you’d like to. And your notions about “becoming me” might be a tad overblown in the final analysis (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?). But it is the process of reflecting that is important. You are equipping yourself with important self-knowledge that is sure to help you through the current transition — and the next, and the next, and the next.