Coping with Life’s Changes


Most coaches have a specialty or niche (or maybe a couple). For example, some coaches specialize in working with executives on leadership challenges. Others focus on health and wellness issues. One of my niches is working with clients who are navigating some form of transition.

Our lives involve alternating periods of stability and change. None of us can avoid dealing with change, but some kinds of changes shake us to our very core, challenging our sense of who we are. These kinds of changes are either the result of or the catalyst for a transition.

Let me explain. Change is situational and external.  It’s the thing that happens to us. The closure of a favorite grocery store is a change, for example, and if that happens to us, we’ll have to find a new grocery store and learn our way around its aisles. If your employer installs a new software system that requires you to revise the way you do your job, you’ll have to adjust your daily work habits to the new software. Both changes are a pain. Both create stress. Most changes—like learning new software or adapting to a new grocery store—don’t create deep inner turmoil. 

But some changes are profoundly unnerving. The death of a loved one, a divorce, losing a job—these are changes that are deeply unsettling. Even positive changes that we seek out can be disquieting. A new job or a new marriage can cause you to question your skills, your ability, and even your very identity. Change is external, but it can initiate an inner process of reorientation and self-redefinition. That inner process is a transition.

Sometimes, the transition comes before the change. It may begin with a sense of unrest. It may be hard to put your finger on just what is wrong, but you feel that something has to change. That happened to me before I decided to leave my job as a college professor. I spent months grappling with the disconcerting sense that something was not right with my life, even though at first, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what that was, and I made several false starts in trying to deal with it. But with time and a lot of inner work, I came to see that I needed a change in career and indeed in the entire way I organized my daily life.

Transitions often begin with the discovery that roles and/or relationships that once felt right are beginning to pinch and bind. Transitions are about disengaging from an outdated way of being and living—outdated for us—and fully engaging in a new way of being and living. Change is often quick while transition is a process, and it takes time. One shift can trigger radiating waves of change. Death and loss often do this. A loss may make us more aware of our own mortality and begin some inner growth and shifting, for example. Or sometimes, our lives seem a perfect storm of externally imposed shifts that trigger major transitions.

Transitions are part of the natural human developmental pattern. It is not healthy for people to stay the same all our lives. It is healthy for us to relinquish old dreams and generate new ones as we grow up and grow older. It is healthy for us to grow spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. That growth requires us to find ways to navigate the uncomfortable transitional periods. And yet, sometimes fear paralyzes us when we are facing a transition, and the hardest part of the process can be facing and then moving past that fear.

In his book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, writer William Bridges notes that transitions serve several purposes. They can help you come to terms with change. They facilitate personal growth, and they can help us move closer to living lives that feel most authentic to us. As Bridges puts it, “Transition does not require that you reject or deny the importance of your old life, just that you let go of it.” Transitions leave behind people who are different in some way and see the world differently.

Many clients come to me for help in navigating transitions. In some cases, they need to make a career shift, but they don’t know how to do this or how to find their way to a new career. In other cases, they have faced a loss. And sometimes a client has taken on an exciting new challenge and then begins to second-guess herself. Clients in transition often feel lost or stuck. By starting with where they are and reviewing the lessons they have learned from past transitions in their own lives, we can begin to find a path forward. Last fall, I facilitated a group coaching workshop series for people in transition. Five women came together to explore their lives, their hopes and dreams, and their fears. They listened to each other, encouraged each other, and cheered each other on.

If you find yourself with the sense that something is amiss in your life, you may be in the midst of a transition. Or perhaps you’re facing a big change: a promotion, an empty nest, a major move. If you’re in transition, you are not alone. You might want to reach out for support. Spend time reflecting. Think about past transitions and how you made your way through them. Take a look at Bridges’ book. Find some friends who will listen and support you through the transition. (One of my clients calls these friends her “ladderholders.” I love that metaphor.) You might even reach out to a coach or a sign up for a workshop. (I’m offering another Navigating Transitions series this spring. See the story in the January Heyday newsletter.)  Most of all, remind yourself that transitions may be painful and frightening, but they will lead you to growth.

There’s a quote attributed to John Lennon that seems apt for people in transition: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end.”

(A note on the image with this post: my husband took this photo of a section of the Berlin Wall outside the Imperial War Museum in London. I’ve probably used the image before because it’s one of my favorites. I keep it on my desk, and when I was struggling through my own transition, the image became deeply meaningful to me. After all, who can understand more about transition and change than the young people who tore down the Berlin Wall in 1991.)