I remember the moment like it was yesterday, even though it happened many years ago. I was sitting with a client who was in the midst of a complex life transition. She was feeling lost, confused and disoriented.
In the middle of our conversation she looked up and said, “If you could take my hand, lead me down the hallway, open a door and say, ‘Here’s your new life,’ then I would willingly walk through that door.”
Of course I didn’t possess that kind of magic, but I certainly understood my client’s longing and have felt it myself too.
Haven’t we all wished for that magic at one time or another? Hasn’t some part of us asked: How can I make this next passage of my life easier?
However, the truth of life transition, as author Rick Jarow notes, is this…
When one door closes another opens, but all too often there is a long hallway in between.
Would you like to hear me read this to you?
I think there’s more to it though. While you may not be able to find a short-cut through that hallway, I believe there are ways to tend and care for yourself a little differently when you’re dealing with life transitions.
In fact, you can begin by deepening your self-care approaches to meet the moments of transition.
But first, you might be wondering: What is life transition and why is it so hard?
Well, life transition usually begins when something ends in your life. Most likely, that ending will involve some sort of relationship or role or life structure. Or maybe a change or shake-up in your world view.
Sometimes the ending will be shocking, perhaps an unexpected death or job loss. And other times, you’ll know it’s coming, like when you reach a milestone birthday or the kids leave home or you retire from work.
There are other examples of life transitions that happen when nothing appears to be changing in your life externally.
In fact, things might seem fine on the outside but on the inside, not so much. For reasons unbeknownst to you, your internal GPS seems to be going through some crazy gyrations. You may feel directionless, longing for something you can’t quite name or touch.
Furthermore, you can actually enter into a transition when another anticipated life transition doesn’t work out. For instance, let’s say you expected to achieve something by a certain age, maybe a particular career or buying a house or being married. But when that anticipated event doesn’t happen, the sense of loss can run as deep as any other kind of transition, leaving you with an experience of ambiguous grief, a type of grief that is unresolved, where circumstances lack a clear conclusion or closure.
Then there are ambiguous times of transition like we’re living through right now.
These are times when the world and the constructs of our lives as we know them are hurtling through transition. During times like these the ground under your feet may feel like its shifting and you can’t quite get your bearings.
But no matter what kind of life transition it is, you can count on this: there will be an ending, actual or metaphorical.
So life transition is hard because endings almost always bring loss and grief of some kind.
Even if you don’t expect the ending to be difficult, even if you’ve planned for it, you’ll probably experience some of the emotional repercussions of loss during a life transition.
And what’s fascinating about life transition is that this pretty much always happens.
In fact, this familiar sequence happens to almost all of us:
- Life transition begins when something ends, either clearly or ambiguously
- We’re called to process the ending, no matter how hard that may be
- We enter a foggy in-between place, wrapped in a blanket of ambiguity and uncertainty
Author William Bridges called this in-between place of transition the “neutral zone.”
If you’re a Star Trek fan like I am, that term, the Neutral Zone, might conjure up episodes when the Romulans were making further incursions into the boundary space (the Neutral Zone) between different planets. Perhaps Bill Bridges was influenced by Star Trek, but we’ll never know, right?
That said, I’ve recommended Bridges’ first book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, many times. Although it was written decades ago, I’ve continually been drawn back to it because it is both deep and simple, written long before the current style of self-help that often focuses on advice giving and fixing.
And many times I’ve sought out my own dog-eared copy to find solace and hope during personal losses and life transitions.
By the way, there are other names for the Neutral Zone too.
Here are just a few:
- Liminal Space
Whatever you call it, the in-between space is very real.
Just recently I learned a new name for it: The Unbounded Space.
It was described to me this way…
Imagine you’re on a ship and you’ve sailed away from the shore. You’ve gotten far enough away from solid ground that you can no longer see where you started. In other words, you’re in the middle of the ocean and you can’t see where you’ve come from. Neither can you see (yet) where you’re going to.
I quite like the idea of the unbounded space, perhaps because there is a sense that your ship is moving towards something, but you can’t make it out just yet.
And in this unbounded space of transition, your self-care needs might be very different.
William Bridges says it’s a time for being rather than doing. It’s definitely not a time for rushing forward, as much as you might like to.
Instead, it’s a time to make space to comfort yourself and love yourself up, perhaps in ways you haven’t considered before. It’s a space to tend to your deeper needs by paying attention to the following five things.
Life Transition Self-Care: Five Ways to Fill Your Cup
1. Give yourself time to mend and restore.
We’ve established that this unbounded space comes on the heels of a loss of some kind. So the time is right to recognize your deep need to heal from this and give yourself permission to recuperate, whatever that looks like for you.
Know that your path to recuperation and restoration doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. It’s okay if it veers from common self-care advice. In fact, during times of significant transition, you might struggle with traditional self-care activities like getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising.
Early on in your journey through the in-between space you might need something entirely different. For instance, during a personal transition last year I discovered that what I needed most in the world was to hang out in my big comfy bed snuggled up to my cat George, streaming absurd TV comedies. While the behavior felt kind of rebellious and mischievous, it lifted my mood in ways I couldn’t have imagined. When I remember it now, it still makes me smile.
2. Understand your body’s willingness to help you.
When you feel stuck in an in-between space you might also be stuck in over-thinking, continually searching for more information and replaying the same questions over and over.
You’re probably familiar with that tape in your brain that catches in the same place, either rehashing the past or rehearsing the future (or both). It’s set up to keep you worrying and trying to control what’s coming. For a lot of women this can look like catastrophizing, or obsessing about worst case scenarios.
These days we know so much about how our bodies help regulate our nervous systems, making room for our brains to shift out of overdrive. So it’s a good time to literally get out of your head by opening up to the wisdom of your body.
I always encourage my clients to start with the simplest, most basic things, like breathing and movement and stepping outside. But your body is the expert on this, so trust its wisdom and give it the opportunity to help you out here.
3. Listen to the Seeker/Wanderer within you, and her need for freedom and space.
The unbounded space often brings with it a deep yearning, a sense of longing. But it’s usually amorphous and hard to put into words. You don’t quite know what you’re yearning for.
Yet yearning, in and of itself, tends to activate the archetypal Seeker/Wanderer within you. And more than anything, this part of you needs to roam, get lost, explore. This is the way it gathers insights, hunches and ahas.
So now is a good time to do some actual physical wandering if you can. Perhaps you could take meandering drives on the back roads, letting yourself get lost a little. Or stand at the apex of a broad vista and linger there for a time. Or walk along a wide expanse of beach or meadow.
Obviously, these options aren’t available to everyone. The next best thing, in my opinion, is to watch a movie or read a book about a Seeker/Wanderer, preferably one that contains big vistas.
While I’m no expert on the subject, some classic Seeker movies that immediately come to mind are: Nomadland, Contact, Field of Dreams, Thelma and Louise, The Matrix.
4. Drop down into the wisdom of your senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting) to feel revived.
Spending time in-between comes with a desire to attach to something, to come to terms with the attachment that you’ve lost and move toward transforming it in some way. This can be difficult and confusing, because you may feel depleted and numb. But the good news is your senses carry a wisdom about this.
You may not understand why you can’t get enough of the scent of lavender or why touching a certain something brings you close to tears. But you don’t need to understand it. You just need to turn towards it and let your senses take over and attach to it, even if just for a moment. In fact, you can learn more here about the benefits of aromatherapy for life transition.
And while you’re opening up to your senses, it’s also a good time to raise your awareness of a few of your other senses, the ones you probably don’t think much about or even know about: imaginal sensing and heart sensing.
Here’s a brief introduction to them, from the book Forest Bathing, by M. Amos Clifford:
Imaginal sensing is cultivating the capacity to listen with the whole of our imaginations, especially in the presence of nature. We listen with a loose attentiveness, avoiding being carried away by our own skepticism or hopeful projections. In this way of listening we consider that it is possible that some of what arises in the stream of our minds was generated not from within but from without.
Heart sensing, also called the “felt sense of the present moment” is the unique ephemeral quality of the here and now. No two moments are the same. No two places are the same. The location of this sense is in and around the heart. Our hearts are incredibly sensitive and intelligent. We each omit a measurable energy field that extends from our hearts well beyond the boundaries of our skins. This field is constantly interacting with what is around us. Explore this sense by pausing from time to time to feel into the question, “What is it like?” Each moment offers its own experience known by your heart.
5. Finally, open up to your creativity’s need to partner with you.
When you’re in the Unbounded Space you may notice a faint stirring, a desire, to put words down on paper. Or your hands seem to be itching to make something, anything. But it doesn’t really make sense to you.
That’s okay. Let yourself love your creative urges, whether they make sense or not. You’ve probably heard this before: anything that opens the conduit to your creative/imaginative self is healing and nurturing.
And remember what Carl Jung said: Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. This is never more true than when you’re in the midst of a life transition.
Probably the hardest part of being in the in-between space of life transition is giving yourself over to it.
Allowing yourself the time to just be here may not be easy. Too often we turn our backs on that. Somewhere along the way we learned that we should be stoic in the midst of loss and life transition, and just get on with it.
But as many wise ones have said: The way out is the way in.
The Neutral Zone provides access to an angle of vision on life that one can get nowhere else. And it is a succession of such views over a lifetime that produces wisdom. -William Bridges
This post was originally published on 2/1/2017 as How to comfort yourself during times of life transition. It was updated and republished on 7/28/2022.
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