Changing is inevitable, suffering is optional. Having relocated to London after living in Hong Kong for over two decades, I find myself facing challenging life transitions familiar to many. Not only in the form of adjusting to my new home, community, cultural nuances and surroundings, but also in terms of an empty nest as my children move into tertiary education; and not to mention negotiating and establishing a new work life as a trailing spouse once again. But what is it about life transitions that can make them so challenging?
Understanding Life Point Transitions and Human Development
In order to answer this question it is necessary to understand how change affects our development as human beings. As we age and navigate life, we go through systematic developmental changes which include physical, cognitive and psychosocial changes that occur between life and death. These changes across our life span are not unpredictable and fleeting. Rather, they tend to occur in a patterned orderly manner that can be organised into key life stages or periods, starting from infancy and progressing to late adulthood with several stages such as adolescence and emerging adulthood in between.
However, at any age, developmental change involves both gains and losses or differences from how we were before. For example, an adult who may be concerned about their career path becomes concerned about their ability to be a parent and the future of their children. Equally, development also involves continuities, ways in which we remain the same or continue to reflect our past selves. It is also worth noting that our development is also shaped by historical and cultural elements and how our lives play out in the social contexts and times in which we develop. Several studies today show how adolescent development is being changed by today’s innovations in digital media and communication technologies. Our development is multi-faceted and multiply influenced; it is the product of nature and nurture, the many interacting causes of both biological and environmental influences, as well as our capacity and ability to change in response to an experience. Therefore, it is the often unpredictable outcome of ongoing interactions between a changing person and our changing world that bring about life transitions.
As we move from one phase of life to another, we face inevitable change that may require behaviour change. There can be periods in life when relatively little change takes place, and then other periods that are characterised by dramatic shifts from one’s status or way of living to where our personal world is majorly disrupted. As we encounter these transition points, we can face profound changes to routines, roles and responsibilities which are on a different scale and can result in mental health challenges including stress, anxiety and depression. Transitions can be unexpected, unplanned and sudden, such as: losing a job, winning the lottery, illness, divorce, the loss of a loved one or moving to another area or country. Other transitions are predictable or ‘normative’ changes such as leaving home, becoming a parent or retirement. Often many transitions are a combination of several changes both unexpected and normative in nature occurring simultaneously. Thus, we often find ourselves caught up in coping with day-to-day difficulties and pressures without much respite as we are unable to address stress in terms of the broader perspective, allowing for clearer navigation of a transition from one life phase to another. So how can we make sense of our new situation and figure out what we can do to cope better?
Tackling life transitions
There are a number of strategies we can employ to help us reflect on our new situation in order to develop ideas of what action we can take to better cope with life transitions. A good place to start is to construct a timeline with both positive and negative times such as ‘when I graduated’ or ‘when my mother died’. This exercise is a useful means of reflection on the processes in our lives and understandings that have emerged from them and what might be missing. It is important to then use these memories and reflections to think about the future and what we would ideally like to happen next. If you prefer to pursue a more narrative version of a timeline you can consider writing an autobiography or memoire. Not all of us have the time, patience and resources to do this, however, thinking about ‘key scenes’ in our lives and identifying different ‘chapters’ in one’s life and giving each one a title can be a great way to identify different transition shifts over the course of life. This process allows for plenty of opportunity for reflection on the meaning of past events.
Another useful activity is to use a choice map. This is a powerful way to assess the choices we have made at previous transition points in our lives. In the same way as using memories and reflections from a life timeline to think about the future, we can view our current choice point in the context of fulfilling or self-denying decisions that we may have made in the past.
In addition, we must consider the cultural context of what a transition means to us. This can be very helpful to clarify what exactly we are facing. All cultures and sub-cultures are organised around beliefs and rituals to mark the significance of life-course transitions such as birth, marriage, death, leaving home, retirement etc. The cultural meaning of transitions affects us in many ways. For example, one may be troubled by the cultural meanings and messages of getting divorced or coming out as gay. Similarly, it may be that you are troubled by a transition because you have missed out on a valued cultural ritual. Throughout the recent pandemic several young adults missed out on formal graduations or being able to share these events with friends and family (‘I spent years working towards my degree and nobody seemed to care’). Based on this cultural understanding, sometimes devising a personal or family ritual can serve to create a meaningful and memorable experience that embodies your individual core values and beliefs about the world. A party is a form of transition ritual that is widely used; for example, I had a number of leaving parties with different social circles when I migrated. Rituals can also be far more idiosyncratic, such as burying running shoes when illness makes it impossible to continue to run marathons.
The good news…
Very often, being able to merely acknowledge that a transition is taking place is cathartic enough as the difficulties we are experiencing are firmly within a social-cultural perspective rather than a mental illness. This acceptance of a transition also carries a message of hope: yes, we may be feeling deeply troubled and in pieces, but this is a necessary and inevitable step towards a different role or life stage and an opportunity to cultivate resilience. All this self-reflection and meaning-making is hard work to do on your own, but help is always available. Seeking help from a trained practitioner can help ease the burden of negotiating life transitions and smoothen your life journey from one phase to another.
If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.
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