A reader feels totally thrown by recent life changes and asks for help. Life coach Tal Fagin suggests looking back at how she overcame obstacles and looking ahead to a new her.
Do you have any advice for navigating difficult life transitions? I find myself struggling, much more than I would have expected, with some recent changes in my life. After a long, smooth, predictable phase, I feel jolted by a series of events, and unable to regain my footing. It’s possible that it is too many things at once—a perfect storm of family issues, career developments, and a minor physical injury I need to accommodate—but even so, I am surprised by the extent of my frustration and flailing. I usually pride myself on being capable, resilient and resourceful, but recently, with so much coming at me, I feel totally thrown. I keep reminding myself that change is always uncomfortable, that it takes time to adjust to new circumstances and that “this too shall pass,” but I can’t seem to find my rhythm. Instead, I have been short-tempered and irritable, snapping at everyone I love and unfairly annoyed at the world.
What do you suggest?
Lost in Transition
Dear Lost in Transition,
A few weeks ago, I added a puppy to my already Busy-with-a-Capital-B life. My kids had been pleading for years for a dog (don’t they all?), but I insisted we wait until I was ready. I had enough sense to know that despite all of their assurances of care and responsibility when it came down to it, puppy duty would be largely mine.
And so it is.
My meditation routine has been replaced by 5 am walks in the dewy grass. Both my coaching practice and my workouts—which sustain me— are essentially on hold, and I am totally sleep deprived. Most nights you can find me pajama-clad and bleary-eyed, patrolling the lawn by flashlight, wondering what unseen creatures lurk in the darkness or why no one ever told me how often puppies get sick to their stomach.
News of my puppy may seem off topic, but the truth is, your query helped crystalize my own sense of frustration. I have been pretty testy and irritable myself, lately, feeling haggard and housebound and, now that I think about it, a little lost in transition, as well.
Whether it’s a new puppy or a new baby, whether it’s a graduation, retirement, promotion, break up, illness, marriage or big move, every life is peppered with transitions. They can be terrifying or thrilling, draining or invigorating. They also tend to be trying and stressful and damn uncomfortable!
We humans love predictability and routine, which add to our sense of control. Intellectually, we know we have none, that anything can happen at any time, but we structure our lives to feed the illusion, and we allow ourselves to get comfortable in our seemingly safe, organized existences. Transitions remind us of life’s uncertain, precarious nature. They thrust us into the grey, despite our preference for black or white, and they tend to bring up a whole host of mixed feelings.
I am utterly smitten with my pup, and would no sooner reconsider his place in our family than I would any one of my children’s. I have the utmost confidence in, and excitement about, my furry, biting baby and this new infusion of energy and love in my life. That said, things feel pretty out of whack at the moment, as if I have been yanked out of my cozy, familiar existence, tossed into something awkward and not entirely my own.
So let’s find our way together, Lost in Transition. When it comes to navigating life’s inevitable in-between periods, I would invite you to try the following:
Practice Patience. As you said yourself, change is always uncomfortable, adjustments take time and everything does eventually pass. At the heart of most suffering is a belief that things should be different—right now. Impatience and irritability come from a stubborn refusal to accept reality as it is coupled with a subconscious but powerful sense that there is something to do about it. It sounds like intellectually you know you are in the midst of a journey, that there is a process at play here and you just have to be patient. Emotionally, however, you crave immediate results, a final destination. When you catch yourself feeling frustrated and “flailing,” try taking a deep breath, followed by another. Notice any signs of tension in your body, focusing one at a time on your shoulders, your neck, your head, your fists, etc. Try relaxing whatever is tight, releasing whatever is gripping. Start with the body, then do the same with your thoughts. Let go of anything that is causing you pain, and whisper soothing sweet nothings to yourself instead.
Summon Self-Compassion. Your query indicates a level of self-blame as if it is not just your circumstances that have you down, but a sense of disappointment in yourself for not handling it all more gracefully. Buddhists call this “the double arrow,” because the pain comes not from what is happening to you, but from your own self-imposed harsh judgment. Try extending yourself some compassion instead. What might you tell a friend going through similar difficulties? Would you attack him for his inability to just buck up and get on with life, or might you offer some kindness instead?
Feel Your Feelings. Somewhere along the way, our culture became obsessed with “happiness.” In the process, it has become almost unacceptable to feel anything but. We all know the correct answer to that ubiquitous “How are you?” (other than “busy”) is always “fine,” or even “great!” What about when you are not fine? What about when you are frustrated or in pain, beleaguered, distressed or otherwise far from “great?” They say what you resist persists, and I have found this to be entirely true in my own life. In your case, Lost in Transition, it sounds like you have a lot going on, both externally and internally. You might benefit first and foremost from simply sitting with it all, whether it’s fear, angst, stress, uncertainty or any of those common feelings we are all so desperate to avoid, numb or deny. Try feeling them, instead. I wouldn’t suggest getting stuck there, but taking a few moments to let it all wash over you might expedite the process and ease your sense of struggle.
Look Back. I am willing to bet you have faced and overcome tough times in the past. We all have. What did you endure? How did you manage it? What strengths did you draw upon to help you get through? You mention a general sense of pride in your abilities, specifically your resilience and resourcefulness. What else are you proud of? What qualities have buoyed you in the past? What might you have done differently? Reflecting on your past—your ability to handle challenges and emerge triumphantly, or at least learn valuable lessons—might provide a much-needed boost to your reserves now.
Look Ahead. We all favor definitive answers over the unknown, we all prioritize end results over process, but why? If I were to hand you a crystal ball, to assure you that your future is bright and that all would turn out well, how would you handle this time of uncertainty differently? Try closing your eyes and summoning some wise future self, one who is healthy, vibrant and secure. Feel the comfort and confidence of that future self. Inhabit it. What would she say to you about this time? Would she say the stress was worthwhile, the angst value-added? Or might she suggest a more relaxed approach? Can you feel the tension slip away? The calm settling in? Linger there as long as you need to. Luxuriate in it as often as you like.
Reframe the Pain. Transitions, as you know, give rise to all kinds of unpleasantness. You mention feeling uncomfortable, frustrated and “entirely thrown.” Other adjectives clients have used in describing times of change are “unsettling,” “disturbing,” “miserable,” “shaky” and “terrifying,” to name just a few. I say, what about “opportunity?” I have yet to meet a negative I can’t recast, at least in part, into a positive. When it comes to navigating transition, I would encourage you to do the same. What might you learn from this experience? What else do you stand to gain? When I hurt my back a few years ago, I had to take more than a month off from any physical activity. After a brief period of aggravation—where I tried to force my body into compliance by pursuing my usual routine, only to exacerbate the injury—I decided to make the most of my new reality. I doubled down on my commitment to coaching, took up meditation and have been forever changed by, and grateful for, the opportunity to grow.
Reach Out and Touch Someone. We humans are social beings. We thrive on feeling connected to one another, and we benefit greatly in times of pain from friendship and emotional support. At the same time, as a culture, we value strength, endurance, and self-reliance, making it difficult for us to express vulnerability or reach out for help. Back when my mother was dying, I heard some version of “If there is anything I can do for you…” from multiple people every single day. I truly believed they wanted to help. Still, I would lay in bed at night, my heart racing and my pillow wet with tears, desperate to talk to someone who cared but utterly unable to pick up the phone to call any of them. Now, whenever a friend is in a trying time, I always make the specific offer: “If you feel scared or lonely, sad, angry or otherwise in need, please call. If it’s 3 am, that’s fine. Just call.” A few have taken me up on that offer, and while I always hate to see a friend in pain, I am always honored and grateful to be able to help in some small way. When you find yourself feeling unsteady, I would encourage you to reach out—whether to friends, family or a professional—and seek the support you need.
If you can’t think of anyone, just call me. I’d be happy to coach you through, or if you prefer, you can just play with my puppy. He jumps and he nips and he gnaws on everything in sight, but he is delicious and delightful and, now that I think about it, quite the balm.