Transitions are a big deal.
We remember beginnings and endings far more vividly than middles. (This is such a well-known psychological phenomenon, in fact, that there are labels for this: the “primacy effect” and the “recency effect.”)
Transitions require adjustment. They require us to shake out of familiar patterns, for better or worse. They require us to evaluate and revaluate where where are; what we’re doing; what our goals are; what direction we’re heading.
All of which is to say: transitions are tailor-made to stir up all of our issues.
If we have doubts about our ability to handle new projects and move on to new goals, transitions will inflame those doubts.
If we have insecurities about the direction we’ve chosen in our lives or relationships, transitions will poke those insecurities with a sharp stick.
If we’re anxious about our ability to continue functioning at the level to which we’ve become accustomed, even when some of the variables are switched up, transitions will light a fire under that anxiety, and stoke it to a roaring inferno in our heads.
Why do transitions get to us like they do?
On the surface, it doesn’t necessarily seem like transitions should be as hard as they often are. In fact, a great many transitions that happen to us are things we’ve chosen or worked toward. A promotion, the beginning of a new relationship, the successful conclusion of a course of therapy— all of these things are “good,” yet we often experience them as stressful and triggering.
Our brains are curious mechanisms. On the one hand, there is a marked tendency within the human nervous system to prefer novelty— to get enamored of new, shiny, interesting objects on the horizon, and prefer these shiny objects to the same old, same old that we’ve become accustomed to.
(The reason for this, from a neurochemical perspective, is that novelty stimulates the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is the brain chemical that gets us interested in and moving toward stuff we think will be rewarding.)
On the other hand, however, our brains are also wired to perceive novelty as inherently threatening or intimidating. This is largely an artifact of evolution: our cave person ancestors who avoided unfamiliar stimuli and stuck to their well-worn daily routine were far less likely to get eaten by roaming saber-tooth tigers than our cave person ancestors who went to investigate every new rustle in the tall grass.
So, our brains are both wired to seek out novelty, i.e., to move toward transitions; and to be wary of novelty, i.e., to resist transitions. It’s in our chemical and evolutionary neuropsychology; and, as a result, nearly every human being experiences transitions (even the “good” ones!) as at least somewhat stressful.
Moreover, transitions almost always involve loss. And human beings, as a rule, don’t do well with loss.
Think about it: is there any transition of any kind, “good” or “bad,” which doesn’t entail loss?
Transitions may entail the loss of a person; the loss of a job (even if we’re talking about getting promoted); the loss of a routine; or perhaps the loss of an obstacle or goal you’ve been working to overcome or achieve. While it’s true that some losses entail losing things we surely won’t miss, it’s also the case that losses of any kind require us to revise our approach to the world— a world in which we no longer have the reliable presence of something or someone to help guide our behavior.
When we talk about loss, we often need to talk about mourning— that is, taking the time we need to adjust to the new world that lacks the person, thing, or circumstance we’ve lost.
It’s a sad reality that not many people take the time to acknowledge their need to mourn losses— or, in some cases, even recognize that we need to mourn.
It may seem odd to “mourn” the loss of something you’ve emphatically wished would go away, but remember that mourning doesn’t just mean “to feel sad about.” Mourning is a process of realigning ourselves with a new reality; taking stock of our reactions and needs; and, in the case of successful mourning, honoring those needs with the respect and compassion that we’d extend to anyone who we valued.
Remember: it’s not silly to experience transitions as stressful, or to need to acknowledge and mourn the losses that accompany transitions.
In fact, to experience transitions as stressful, complex experiences and to require time, space, and patience to get your head together after a transition is very normal. Very human.
The best thing you can do when you’re coming up on a time of transition is to be patient with yourself.
EXPECT that it’s going to be stressful.
EXPECT that you’re very likely going to have mixed feelings.
EXPECT that you’re going to become acutely aware of the losses involved in even the most hoped-for and welcome transitions.
EXPECT that you’re going to need time, space, and self-care during periods of transition.
And whatever you do, don’t fall into the (also very human) trap of allowing your anxiety or sadness about transitions convince you that transitions are somehow to be avoided or hidden from. Transitions are an unavoidable part of life. Living in denial about them solves zero problems and creates, well, all the problems we’ve discussed on this blog that denial always creates.
You’ve survived transitions in your life.
You have the tools, both to survive the process, and to thrive on the other side of it.
Be mindful, patient, and compassionate with yourself as you come up to your next transition.
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