This post is part 2 in a series on navigating life transitions. In the first post of this series, I shared insights to help you process decisions about ending something big in your life (like a job or relationship) before you make the decision to end it. In this post, I am sharing thoughts on the painful struggle that often follows a significant personal or professional change. My writing on the topic comes out of some of my recent ministry and research aimed at helping Christian leaders experiencing a difficult transition. Though the needs and experiences of leaders are unique in certain ways, I have found that much of what I have prepared touches on the personal experiences of others who are navigating a difficult life transition, regardless of background or profession.
The process of moving on after a big change is what we call transition. Nearly everyone one of us will eventually encounter a serious struggle during a life transition in our career, health, or family. The hard thing about transition is that is usually involves experiences of personal pain, especially if the change affects something meaningful to us. Sometimes, the “pains” are multiple and long-lasting, and amount to what I refer to as a transitional crisis.
I like to compare the experiences of a major life transition to what some of my friends and I went through when we climbed Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks many years ago. To this day, it remains in my memory as the most exciting and rewarding outdoor adventure I have ever had. But it wasn’t a wonderful adventure the whole time. The hike up was a rush of adrenaline and excitement as we climbed higher and higher up the highest peak in NY State. It was also a lot of intense work. We enjoyed the team effort, and the feeling of sharing in something so amazing made the physical strain of the climb seem like nothing. During the long journey upward, we had only one thing in mind: reaching the top. Finally reaching the peak was exhilarating, and the views were incredibly beautiful. Talk about a “nature high!” When we started down however, the experience turned into three hours of painful, jarring knee-banging and slamming as we traversed around boulders and drops. My muscles took such a beating that I started to lose feeling in my legs. I became completely exhausted and I couldn’t wait to get it over with!
Major transitions in life are like this. They are often a bumpy, rocky, knee (and head) banging descent from a period of personal fulfillment. Most of the time, we’re only thinking about the work of the climb to reach a destination, and not the necessary (and difficult) process of coming down from it. Eventually, we all must come down.
Gaining more clarity about the pains of transition can help someone in a difficult spot move forward more confidently and intentionally. It helps to know that others have experienced similar pains while in transition because it means that we aren’t alone in our difficulty. It also helps to more clearly recognize the symptoms of our struggles, so we can more effectively care for our needs. I hope the following descriptions of transitional pain bring some of this clarity and confidence for your next step forward.
Common Pains of Transition
- Fleeting Euphoria. When someone begins a transition there is often an initial wave of euphoria. This is especially true when transition brings a sense of liberation from a problematic situation. In most cases however, euphoric feelings of freedom and relief from previous responsibility or commitment turn out to be short-lived, and hollow. Soon, the reality of what has taken place sets in, and relief can quickly turn to worry and distress. If you’re experiencing an emotional roller coaster ride after a big change has taken place, you haven’t lost your mind- you’re completely normal. Emotional highs and lows will likely begin to level off as soon as you start settling into a new routine of work and relationships. Of course, that takes time.
- The Pain of Loss. If I were to use one word to describe the pains of a transitional crisis, it would be the word “loss.” The losses a person experiences when moving on from a position, relationship, or other significant thing in life can be huge. There is a real grieving process over transitional losses that needs to be expressed with honesty and realness. Just because the loss did not involve the death of a loved one does not mean that it doesn’t mark you, or that it is somehow unfitting to struggle with bouts of depression or anxiety over it. These too are normal experiences of people struggling with the losses of a transition.
Here are some of the things that are commonly lost (and grieved) during a transition:
- Financial stability. This is perhaps the most obvious upset that can occur in significant transitions, and usually the first on people’s minds. Life must be financed, and a transition that brings an end to a source of income is unsettling to our life situations and puts feelings of uncertainty out in front of us.
- Close relationships. Whether its career related, or a major change in a family, transition usually means a break in close relationships. Some of these may have involved deep bonds built over many years. In some cases, it may mean losing the only close relationships a person (or family) has. Loneliness often dominates the feelings of leaders who have recently been in a transition, as leadership already tends to be isolating, and stepping away from a leadership role usually means the loss of the few (local) confidants a leader has.
- Home – both a building and a location. This is almost always the case in career changes that involve a move. Moving means we become a fish out of water, for a time. Moving for a homeowner also means leaving behind the most important material possession most people will ever own, a house. Sure, a new house can be bought or built, but the feeling of being “home” takes a long time to rebuild in a new location.
- Platform. Transition often means stepping away from a place of influence in people’s lives, gained through years of hard work, and the trust people give over time. This is especially painful for ministry leaders as stepping away from a role means the loss of the place where ministry giftedness (spiritual gifts, leadership gifts, etc.) was expressed on a regular basis. Unless the transition involves moving directly into a similar position, having no “automatic” outlet for a person’s gifts and talents means the person is going to feel frustrated and bored, and maybe even find himself or herself in an identity crisis. I’ve been there! Occupational “unfulfillment” is tough!
- Going from “Somebody” to “Nobody.” A person who lives, works, and serves others in a particular location or role begins to carry “weight,” or influence, in the lives of people, and in the organizations that he or she serves in. The more weight that is added to a person’s influence, the more he or she can move things, make things happen, and lead the charge! Leaving that place or position means leaving much of the influence and renown. Suddenly, it feels as though life purpose has been stripped away. I think this one alone (and maybe the “platform” issue too) are reasons that some people who actually need to leave a place or position resist doing so, because of the fear of losing one’s sense of meaning and purpose in the world. It’s scary to let go, and no one wants to become a “has been.” But let go we must, or we risk failing to open up and embrace new and changed influence elsewhere.
Things you can do if you’re feeling some of these pains:
1) Embrace the letting-go process. Easier said (and written) than done. The internal work of letting go of things we’ve already lost is an integral part of the healing process in grief. It’s also a requirement of readying ourselves for moving on to new things. Embracing the letting-go process means embracing the pain of a loss, this is why it’s so hard. Acknowledge the hurts you feel about your losses and the struggle you are in to release what once was. You must let go before you can truly move on.
2) Talk to someone. I make this suggestion in various forms whenever I try to encourage people who have found themselves in a tough situation. A caring and listening ear is a precious gift that prevents us from being totally alone in our struggles. You were made to live in community, and community can be a lifesaver.
3) Write about it. Writing about our problems is a helpful and healing way to process difficult times. This is true for the letting-go process as well. Buy a journal, or make a computer file folder where you can make entries about the things you’re feeling. Write a couple of paragraphs early in the morning or perhaps just before bed. Writing about problems is like letting an anxious bird out of its cage- it brings moments of freedom. If you’re like me, things have to get really bad before you’re willing to listen to this suggestion and actually take the time to do it. I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long before I started expressing my struggles in writing. Once I started, it seemed that the fog began to lift.
4) Talk to God about it. Something that has repeatedly brought me to a place of awareness of my need for God, and for his love and power in my life, has been experiences of personal pain. Being a Christian, and more specifically inviting God into the most personal areas of my life, has changed everything. I have found that bringing personal weakness to God through prayer and Scriptural reflection has led me to places of new and greater strength. The problem is that I have sometimes caught myself feeling ashamed for being in a place of brokenness before God. But the more I have learned to fully believe in God’s all-encompassing love for those who belong to him in Jesus, the more I have been released to walk with God by faith, with honesty and transparency.
Here are a couple of suggestions for taking spiritual steps during your struggle.
- Consider that God is mysteriously working things out in your life to accomplish good purposes for you, though for a time it all seems so unclear. Try meditating on Psalm 16:5-11 for a number of days (linked here). It’s my favorite Scripture passage for re-firing my faith in the loving sovereignty of God over our situations.
- Pray with complete honesty about the way you feel. Be specific about the situation, and allow yourself to “be yourself” in the place of prayer. Let it all out! The Book of Psalms, which is like the prayer book of the Bible, is filled with gut-wrenching honesty and expressions of distress. It’s also filled with declarations of faith and hope in God, who carries his children through times of trouble. An outstanding example of this and a great one for reading and reflecting is Psalm 42.
If you are experiencing a crisis of transition, let your struggle translate into an invitation to draw nearer to the One who has good plans for your future. God wants to use everything in our lives, including the unwanted losses, pressures, and delays of transition, to shape and mold us into people who have learned to orient all of life completely around him.
In Christ’s love, Nathan
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