“How you revise, rethink, and rewrite your personal narrative as things change, lurch, or go wrong in your life matters a great deal.” ~Bruce Feiler
It’s happened to all of us.
Just when life is going smoothly, a big, scary event comes along that threatens to ruin everything.
A frightening diagnosis, a relationship breakup, the death of a loved one, a job loss, or the COVID-19 pandemic.
Your life gets turned upside down when you least expect it.
I don’t know about you, but my life has been full of significant life changes over the last ten years: my husband’s retirement and chronic lymphocytic leukemia diagnosis within a month of each other, the death of a beloved old pet, and my husband’s six months of chemotherapy. This was followed by him breaking his back plus having heart surgery only a few months later.
After that, we spent a year going through a highly stressful move. And then the pandemic started. Earlier this year, we had to move my parents into assisted living after Mom broke her hip and Dad had to stop driving.
I’ve come to the realization that learning to master these types of daunting challenges may be the most crucial skill we need, regardless of our age.
So I’m always on the lookout for helpful advice.
Bestselling author Bruce Feiler spent five years talking to people about the most significant transitions of their lives. Spurred on by a series of personal crises, he traveled the country, gathering the life stories of hundreds of Americans from every state.
He then spent a year combing through those stories, unearthing patterns and insights that can help us all handle challenging times more effectively. His efforts culminated in his excellent book Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.
Feiler learned that massive life disruptions, what he calls lifequakes, strike us at the core of our being. We feel scared, overwhelmed, and stuck, leading to a “meaning crisis” (a feeling of meaninglessness). But a transition is what helps us break free and move forward.
A lifequake can come in different forms—a choice we make, like leaving a bad marriage or starting a new venture, or something that happens beyond our control, such as losing a job or facing illness.
Regardless of how it comes about, the key is that the transition itself must be voluntary. We must work to turn our fear and anxiety into something positive and life-affirming.
“As long as we all have to go through these tumultuous periods; as long as we have to experience all this stress and distress, heartrending and heart-mending; as long as we have to readjust our personal narratives; why do we insist on talking about these periods as something dire and defeating? As long as life is going to be full of plot twists, why not spend more time learning to master them?”
Based on Feiler’s research, here are five tips, with examples from my own life, to make the transitions you experience go more smoothly.
Use Your Transition Superpower and Get Help with Your Kryptonite
Feeling all over the place or stuck in one spot during significant changes is normal. But Feiler discovered there’s actually some order to these times.
Transitions can be broken down into three phases. There’s the long goodbye, where you leave the past behind. There’s the messy middle, where you stumble toward a fresh identity. And there’s the new beginning, where you embrace your new way of being.
But these phases don’t always happen in a straight line, and the order is different for everyone. Also, they rarely begin and end in a clean way. We go in and out of them in highly unique patterns. And it’s easy to get stuck in one phase for a long time.
Each person has their own strength in one phase (their transition superpower) and may struggle with another (their transition kryptonite).
For example, I’ve noticed that my husband’s superpower is the messy middle of things.
He has trouble with goodbyes and letting go of the past. But when he finally does, he demonstrates tremendous patience and perseverance in dealing with the ongoing chaos of the messy middle.
For instance, when his leukemia flares up every few years, it requires more frequent visits to the oncologist and treatment for as long as it takes to get back to the desired state of remission. I think he handles the uncertainty and discomfort of this relatively well.
My husband’s superpower is my kryptonite. The messy middle of things always feels never-ending and draining to me. I am frequently impatient and must work hard to keep my energy up.
Over time, we’ve learned how to help each other through transitions. I give him extra support with his goodbyes, and he’s a caring cheerleader through my messy middles.
Accept and Balance Your Emotions
Feiler asked everyone he interviewed about the most potent emotions they struggled with during their transitions. Fear was the top emotion, with 27% of people feeling that one the most. Sadness and shame were also common reactions.
People dealt with these emotions in different ways. Some wrote down their feelings, while others threw themselves into new tasks to keep busy.
But nearly eight out of ten people turned to rituals to cope. They sang, danced, hugged, got tattoos, and skydived. They changed their names and went to sweat lodges.
These rituals are super effective, especially during the long goodbye phase. They serve as statements to ourselves and others that we’ve gone through a change and are ready for whatever comes next.
Supporting my elderly parents through their decline and suffering this year has been a new life stage for me. In many ways, the experience reminds me of the demands of parenting. Selflessness, on-the-spot problem-solving, patience, and resilience—all constant requirements.
And the emotions have been intense. One of the rituals I use is my early-morning journaling practice. Over the last several months, writing my truth about this has helped me reach a state of acceptance, reducing my fear and sadness.
Let Go of Something
When we reach the messy middle, we start getting rid of things—like old ways of thinking, bad habits, false beliefs, and even dreams that no longer suit us. It’s like animals shedding their outer layer to grow bigger or prepare for their next life stage.
When Loretta Parham, a librarian from Atlanta, lost her daughter in a car accident and took on the responsibility of raising her granddaughters, she had to let go of just indulging them and become more of a disciplinarian.
When I was in the middle of that season of one health scare after another with my husband—it went on for sixteen months—I had to let go of how he used to be.
He had been hale and hearty, “large and in charge.” Making our life work had been a 50/50 partnership, but he only had maybe 10% to give, so I had to step up and provide 90%.
This shedding process allows us to do away with what no longer serves us and make space for a new reality.
Do Something Creative
Many people Feiler talked to during his interviews found comfort in being creative during times of change. They turned to dancing, cooking, painting, writing poems, thank-you notes, and diary entries.
When faced with chaos, their response was to create something meaningful.
After leaving her husband, Khaliqa Baqi set up a sewing room in her home and “started making beautiful creations with fabric.”
Gayla Paschall started building hand-painted birdhouses after getting caught up in a faculty scandal at Emory and losing her research position. Soon, she was selling her creations at a gallery.
While accompanying my husband to the cancer center for chemotherapy years ago, I saw the nurses bring out warm, hand-made throw blankets for the patients who were feeling cold. The nurses said the patients loved them and they could always use more.
So I dusted off my crochet skills and made throws to donate to the center. I enjoy the meditative nature of crocheting and love giving my creations away. Other creative practices that help me through chaotic times are coloring mandalas and nature photography.
This desire for renewal through creativity has been a part of humanity since the beginning of time. It’s as if we instinctively know we can find a fresh start by creating something new.
Compose a Fresh Story
Going through a life transition is like writing a new chapter in our story. We can find meaning in our lifequake and the resulting changes we go through.
Whether our experience was positive or not, we can choose to end the story with positivity and hope. One of my favorite teachers, author Martha Beck, calls this writing into light.
I now make sense of lifequakes by viewing them as spiritual practice and asking, “What can I learn from this?”
We have the power to shape the stories of our transitions. Feiler says that instead of seeing them as tough times we must struggle through, we should view them as healing periods.
They give us a chance to mend the frightening parts of our lives, helping us move forward in renewal and growth.
We all face those moments when our world turns upside down, and the road ahead seems uncertain. But it’s during these very times that we discover our inner strength, resilience, and creativity.
We can embrace change as a chance to rewrite our story, shed what no longer serves us, and dream a new dream.
May we all have peace of heart as we go.