8 Strategies to get the most from painful or awkward life transitions

Get the RSS Feed
Given my current state of flux (4 days till baby is due and counting!), in this month’s ezine,  I thought I would share some tips for getting through the rough, uncomfortable part of major life transitions.  It can be a disorienting time, but it has its upsides too!

Here is the article:

These days, life doesn’t stay static for very long.  It seems like as soon as you get comfortable with where you are that things change and you are forced to adapt your schedule, your finances or your emotions.

But there are some life transitions that are truly life-altering, and put you in a state of extended discomfort, unease, awkwardness or even depression.  These can be things like:
  • Losing your job
  • Getting married
  • Having a baby
  • Moving
  • Retiring
  • Death of a loved one
  • Leaving a long-term relationship
  • Seeing your last kid off to college
  • Going from employee to entrepreneur

Some of you may have chuckled as you saw I included "positive" events like marriage and the birth of children as having awkward, painful or even depressive emotional side effects.  The interesting thing is that no matter what the ultimate benefit of a change, going from "what was" to "what will be" can be very unsettling.

One of the utmost authorities on change and transition, William Bridges, in his book Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes refers to the period between "endings" (your old life) and "beginnings" (your new life) as The Neutral Zone.  This term was first coined over 75 years ago by Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep who noticed that in most traditional societies, all ceremonies marking change involved separation, transition (which he called the neutral zone) and incorporation.
If you find yourself in this transition period, or neutral zone, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Low energy
  • Increased awareness of aches and pains
  • Heaviness in chest or pit in stomach
  • Light headedness
  • Inability to concentrate


  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Fluctuating emotions:  happy and positive one day, negative and depressed the next
  • "Spaciness"
  • Crankiness (just ask my husband about this, when the transition is pregnancy, and you have the added benefit of raging hormones in a time of great personal transition) 
To this day, many traditional societies mark significant changes with rituals that help with the transition process.  In my husband’s Navajo culture, for example, male and female puberty ceremonies are marked by four days of isolated reflection, sharing of wisdom between the young and elderly, time in nature, and disconnection from "modern conveniences" including electronics and all forms of media.
In today’s society, if we get slowed down by a significant life transition and can’t keep up a frantic level of activity and output, we ask ourselves:
  • What is wrong with me?
  • Why can’t I just get it together and move on?
  • Why is it so hard to get things done right now?
  • Will I ever go back to feeling like my "old self?"
The reality is, being in this awkward state of transition is an extremely creative and ripe period.  Here are eight strategies for getting the most out of this juicy time:
  1. Embrace it.  Instead of asking yourself "When am I going to get back to normal?",  be thankful that you are given an opportunity to reflect on your life and possibly come out with a new, improved, emotionally healthier you.  You may not want to do this in public, but repeat the mantra "uncertainty is powerful and liberating!" as often as you can, and you may just begin to believe it.
  2. Carve out quiet, reflective time.  I find that people who are in the midst of a career change feel extremely guilty for taking any time off between the "old gig" and the new.  But in fact, if you don’t take some time off between endeavors, you are much more likely to either choose the wrong vocation, or find yourself just as frustrated in your new situation as you were in your old one.  So don’t beat yourself up if you feel the need to just space out, take long walks, or cook good meals.
  3. Do something creative.  If you are a frustrated artist, now is the perfect time to break out your paints, or clay, or camera, and engage your creative senses.  You want to be more in a state of feeling rather than thinking, and creative pursuits are great for that.
  4. Ask yourself "What am I afraid of?"  Your fears hold lots of  information which can shape your new life.  If you are getting married, you may fear losing your independence, or your prized Hot Car collection, or your sense of spontaneous passion.  Don’t choke down these fears, look at them closely and use them as the basis for good, healthy discussion with your spouse-to-be about how you can design a life to incorporate the things that are important to both of you.
  5. "Try on" different scenarios that don’t fit the "old" you.  When you are working full-time as an employee, or raising teenagers, or whatever your "old life" consisted of, you can get set in a certain persona.  As you leave your familiar role ("I am the ultimate mother figure to my kids whose primary goal is to support and nurture") and move towards your uncertain future role, try on some new, totally different scenarios  ("I am a wanderlust-filled traveller whose only thought is how to indulge my every whim, dance on tabletops and eat exotic food.")  You may just find that the person you once were, or always wanted to be, is just waiting for you to step into her shoes.
  6. Tune up your health.  When I went through a slow period in my consulting business a couple of years ago, I used the free time as a way to get back into working out.  I took up yoga, pilates and kickboxing, dropped 20 pounds and found that my overall emotional well-being skyrocketed.  A time of great personal transition is NOT the time to indulge in drugs or alcohol as it will only drown out your creative voice and reinforce feelings of fear and anxiety when you wake up next to your empty tequila bottle.  Instead, eat healthily, exercise and breathe in as much clean air as you can and you will find that peace and clarity emerges from deep within.
  7. Cut back on obligations to ensure alone time.  You want to reduce as many obligations as you can so that your primary focus is yourself.  So just because you don’t have a "day job" anymore, don’t volunteer to chair the holiday food drive at your local shelter, or to watch the neighbor’s 3-year old quadruplets.  Once you are clear and moving in your new life, you can train for sainthood on earth again.  For now, clean out the lint from your own bellybutton.
  8. Clear out clutter.  A period of transition is a great time to clear out junk, boxes, papers, pictures, old clothes, moldy food from the back of your refrigerator and expired cans from the pantry.  A clean environment really does contribute to a clean mind.  I am also a big fan of rearranging furniture since it will get you comfortable with seeing familiar things in a new and different way.

The last thought I want to leave you with is don’t rush through the neutral zone.  If you utilize some of these strategies and engage your creativity, you will know when it is time to stop navel-gazing and get busy with your new plans.  Your "new improved you" will thank yourself for it!

Please share what you have learned about slowing down and savoring your changes!


24 Responses to “8 Strategies to get the most from painful or awkward life transitions”

  1. Another thing that helps when in the midst of the chaos of transition and change is to reflect on the pushes and pulls that cause the sense of fragmentation. Some of the pushes and pulls are external (new job, new baby, market changes, etc) and some are internal (fatigue, feeling loss and lost, fear of what’s next, etc). Identifying these can then lead us to making choices in the areas we can control and change.
    Cheers to you for recognizing your own experience! Rogene

  2. Andrea says:

    Great topic and one in which I can relate on a very raw level. I am 6 months pregnant, bought a house and moved 2 months ago and lost my mom very unexpectedly last month. I can deeply relate to the points you have made. I truly feel the neutral zone.

    Congrats and good luck with your little one!

  3. Mete says:

    Great article. The ones that fit me best are: “Embracing it” and “Carve out quiet, reflective time.” I also read self-help/philosophy books that help me put things in perspective. One such book is Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.

  4. Just Jobs says:

    This is great information, particularly for someone who has lost their job and is having trouble garnering the effort to begin a new job hunt.

  5. Tolu Adeleye says:

    Hi Pam:
    May I offer a big congratulations on the new addition to your family!
    Great article on managing life transitions! I relate very much to the awkwardness that accompanies career changes. I changed career in mid-life from a biomedical scientist to a people-helping profession! It is amazing to recollect what I missed most- data, graphs, and figures!!!
    An additional tip that I would include to your great list is learning to bring some aspect of your ‘old’ into the ‘new’ especially during those early stages of transitions. For me, it was as simple as generating graphs, data and figures from items in my new profession ( something unsual in that field).
    Marking significant changes with rituals is also a great idea. When we celebrate change by having official functions (such as the Navajo tribe), we are more able to see the good in the ‘old’ we are leaving behind and accept the oncoming ‘new’. For example if a family is relocating, the members may take some time off for ‘going away parties’ before the actual move. This will help them to ‘celebrate the change’.

  6. Nancy P says:

    Excellent article! I could so relate! I am in a job transition stage and interviewing like a mad woman. The problem… the positions will take me back to where I’ve been vs. trying something new! Why does money always have to enter the picture?? I listen to Hayhouseradio.com alot! It helps with the uncertainty of the future. Ester & Jerry Hicks are my fav…. Law of Attraction!

  7. Kelly says:

    Congrats on your new arrival!

    I am currently going thru a transition, and recognized the signs very well. I had left a jof of four years for a position closer to home, however the new position found me sitting in a basement in a sub standard size room – both height and depth, so I felt like I was working in a cave. I have SAD, so I needed to find another job, and did after 6 weeks. However, after the first week in the new job, I was let go “for asking questions the other person in the office couldn’t anwer”. She was supposed to be training me on their accounting system and basic proceedures. All, I had asked about was how they were filing the payroll taxes, as that was to become part of my job, and other person did not know. I also asked about a spreadsheet she had me working on- basically to find out what it was they were trying to accomplish. I have never before lost a job for being assertive and willing to learn new things. I am going on week 2, where I am out of work and I am still shell-shocked. I do not know if I somehow threatened the other person, or if there was a financial reason- I know the company had some issues paying bills. I am only looking for a permanent part-time position in accounting – I am a degreed accounant, and even have a CPA license, but this last experience has left me questioning what I want to do next.

  8. Life Changes — What Can You Learn From Them?

    Whether you like it, or not, change is a fact of life. How can change work to your advantage? Can you actually benefit from change?

  9. I think there’s some sort of withdrawal stage as a person shifts from one stage to the next. It’s interesting that you listed marriage and having a baby as examples of transitions that can put you in awkward situations. I understand perfectly. The “what will be” is certainly stressful enough on its own. Not knowing where to go from where you stand…

  10. Meg H. says:

    Excellent advice!
    Is the baby here yet? Thinking of you!!!

  11. Amy T says:

    Yes! It’s so easy to get jazzed up about life transitions–especially the ones we wish for and painstakingly plan–without properly assessing how those transitions will impact our well-being. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t leap toward our dreams, it just means that when we do, we should hold on tight!

  12. Hi Pam. I’ve been thinking about this very topic. In my blog today my post was about “Navigating the Stormy Seasons of Life”. A couple of months ago, I posted about “Transitions and the Skill of Moving On”. I think that transitions can be distinguished from storms. Not all transitions are stormy but all storms are transitions. What’s your thinking on this?

  13. QuestingElf says:

    The September 2007 issue of Men’s Health has one article that lists countries with the lowest amount of stress. (HINT: the #1 country would know what your ezine’s title “ganas” means.) That’s right, Spain!

    Spain was chosen as a country of very low stress particularly when it comes to doing business. Relaxation is deliberately built into the workday. And the entire month of August is considered a break too, where businesses deliberately shut down to come back with renewed enthusiasm.

    The example given in the Men’s Health article is that Spanish businessmen deliberately incorporate breaks away from the office to rejuvenate. These can be an hour at 3PM to meet with friends and/or business associates, knowing they’ll come back to fulfill their obligations and responsibilities. Such meetings are handled at other establishments, e.g., coffeehouses.

    It contrasted with the way many professionals in the U.S. nowadays use coffeehouses. The typical overworked American who’d dart out to a coffeeshop at 3PM wouldn’t think about enjoying it. Instead, he’d be obsessed with getting another shot of caffeine to take him to the next level (which many times doesn’t happen.) And forget about taking an hour to relax, enjoy the coffee, enjoy the scenery. Anything above 15 minutes is considered slacking, so s/he downs it.

    Thinking of Spain’s attitude reminds us of this observation: Americans live to work while Europeans work to live. Having a little Spanish in your life brings spice — that’s what I want . . . asi lo quiero!

  14. While some of these events we cannot control, we can manage others so that they don’t become too stressful. Specifically, when going from employee to entrepreneur, it helps not to wait until we are out of a job to figure out what to do. Most likely, there is already something we’d like to do be doing (our “calling”) but we put it off and rationalize it by pretending that “things will get better”. They seldom do. I suggest to start early, at least by spending some time to choose our niche, writing down a business plan, starting a blog to test the waters, etc. That way, when the time comes to pull the plug (or when they pull it on us) we will be already on our way.

  15. I can only comment really from the “learning” perspective as I have officially finished the day job. I took several days for silent and personal retreat & then had a fabulous vacation. Now this past week was week 1 of this “new life” and I can definitely say it is a roller coaster. What I am most needing to learn is how to pace myself, be kind to myself, not fall into my family’s dialogue (why don’t you just get gainfully employed instead of this business idea folly), and keep the faith.

    Great tips……and I may need to bookmark this & keep returning to it!

  16. I’m wondering if you’ve had your baby yet:) I remember the waiting for baby to come and my heart skips a beat.

    Your article is spot on. In my mid 50’s, I can honestly say that my life has been a lesson in living with transitions. Chronic illness can do that to you – makes it hard to know from day to day where the ground is. It led me to leave many jobs and eventually completely reinvent myself professionally. Having children and a loving spouse helped me to stay in balance when life felt off. But I’ve come to the conclusion that living in Transitions (I love Bridges’ book and give it to my clients) is inevitable. We need to learn how to embrace these difficult times rather than run from them. The neutral zone — there’s a lot of meat in that notion. Rosalind

  17. Nick says:

    Great article and it fit in well with the one that I was writing, which saved me several paragraphs. Thank you. I’ll have to read through your archives for more great posts.

  18. Surviving the Waterfall

    I recently took a trip to Yosemite with my son and we hiked up to the top of Vernal Fall. On our way up, we took a break at the base of the waterfall. It was purely majestic in nature that energized us for the steep climb to the top. It was a beautif…

  19. Hi there,

    It feels as your article had been written for me!

    I’ve had my 2nd baby 6 months ago. After taking a 3 years parental leave to take care of my kids, I am now ready to go back to work and I’m looking for a job.

    How exciting to have a social and professional life again! But how scary and awkward it can be too…

    My boy just started school a few weeks ago, my daughter is going to day-nursery in a few weeks, and I have solid leads for finding a job (I’m an engineer). So everything is under control, I’m on track, always on the run. However, it is stressful not knowing what tomorrow will be made of is a bit stressful.
    I’m looking for a part-time job, which, in France, is not so wide-spread for engineers or executives. I have to imagine and built a new image for myself. I used to be a young and very available project director, and now I come back as a young mother, very motivated for work, but for spending time with her children too.

    You’re right about taking time for yourself. There’s probably nothing worse than stepping into a new state (ex: a new job) without rebuilding yourself.

    To me, the strangest feeling is that even though I’ve imagined and dreamt what my new life will be like, I know that in the end, it will be different from anything I might have thought. I’m sure it will amazing, I’m confident I’ll be happy, but as always, I’ll certainly be surprised about how things finally turned out.

    Cheers, and congrats on your blog!

  20. Hi there – thanks for sharing – it was a wonderful read =)

  21. Maura says:

    I stumbled upon your blog today and wanted to say congrats on your upcoming new addition!

    I have lived through a few major life transitions in the past year…death of a loved one, diagnosis of a chronic illness, birth of a baby, and our oldest started college this year.

    While I think I am doing well coping with all the changes, sometimes I feel so fatigued. I am focusing on eating well and working out more.

    Thank you for this great post.

  22. Leisureguy says:

    Good and useful post. I imagine, BTW, that the transition from entrepreneur to employee is more awkward and embarrassing than the reverse.

  23. Patti Norris says:

    Great topic, Pam.
    When good things are happening for us it’s hard to understand why we’re not ecstatic.

    We had a long-awaited baby (our first), moved from Silicon Valley to rural Central Oregon, built a house, my husband started a new job (unplanned) and I tried to kick start my consulting business 500 miles away from my clients all in the span of 2 years (which also happened to coincide with the crash of the hi-tech market and loss of a significant portion of our “nest egg”).

    We were thrilled to be able to start living some of our dreams (baby, custom home, no more “rat race”) but I was surprised at what a toll it took. I was in a “funk” for the better part of 2 years and feelng guilty about it because I “should” have been happy.

    One strategy I would add to your list is:
    Re-connect with your core values. I strongly recommend “The Path” by Laurie Beth Jones to help you develop your personal “mission statement”. As with a corporate mission statement, the idea is to identify those core values on which you base your life. Using that as a touchstone when you are in transition can really help you look at your new situation through the framework of who you really are. It’s even better if you can define your mission BEFORE the transition, so you can easily see at least one thing in your life that hasn’t changed–YOU.

  24. Hey, Pamela, how exciting about your new addition…I remember the last night before my baby was born, I couldn’t sleep and I wrote her the most beautiful letter that she reads every now and again. A special time.

    And…your post hit right on for me, I just moved cross country, left behind and entire complete life and started a new job (kind of the reverse of escaping from cubicle nation, I went FROM my own biz TO a JOB.)

    My job is anything but a cubicle, as I am the manager of a wonderful spa in Provincetown, MA, but the transition on a personal and energetic level has been so intense!

    I was shocked to see “increased awareness of aches and pains” on your list as that is what I have been going through the last few weeks. I guess when you are out of the warp and weft of your routine, the unconscious anaesthetic torpor is wiped away, and even though on some level that is a GOOD thing, it can be so overwhelming.

    One thing that wasn’t on the list was a profound sense of lonliness in the new state/situation. Sometimes, I get so lonely it takes my breath away (literally).

    I honor and bless you and your family at the doorway to expansion.

    Remember, whatever you whisper to that little one at the moment of birth is a most powerful blessing on their spirit. Think on it carefully.


    Jessica from It’s Not About Your Stuff