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Making Sense of Transition: 8 tips to keep you moving forward

When one door closes, another opens.” Although this quote from Alexander Graham Bell rings true, it doesn’t do anything to explain or lessen the confusion, sadness, and anxiety that often accompany major change. It’s often not the opening and closing of doors that cause the angst, but the hallway in between. Whether it’s the stress and uncertainty of being between jobs, retiring, facing a major change in your health, the death of a loved one, or ending an important relationship, most of us will experience a significant transition at some point in our lives. During these times we live in this hallway of transition.

William Bridges, in his classic book, Transitions, introduced a brilliant metaphor to describe this experience. He said it is like crossing a street. You’re standing on the curb ready to cross and you can clearly see your destination - the other curb. As you step off and start walking, a fog starts rolling in. With every step it gets thicker and thicker and your destination starts to get fuzzy. You become less certain about where you’re headed. By the time you’re in the middle of the street you can no longer see the curb you’re moving toward. So, you turn to head back, but you can’t see that curb either. And there you are, lost… not sure which way to turn. A friend who is in transition right now described the experience as both scary and ‘floaty’. It’s a period of disengagement, disidentification and disenchantment. In another culture it would be called a rite of passage.

The key to coming to terms with transition is to understand that it is necessary and important. It sucks, but it’s vital. It gives shape to the endings and beginnings of our life. Think of transitions in nature. After leaves die and fall, there is a fallow time (Winter) and then a rebirth in the Spring. In the stillness and emptiness of Winter, the seeds of renewal, redefinition and reengagement are born. A new understanding of yourself and the world can begin to take shape though you may not fully recognize it for many months into the future.

Taking time to acknowledge and lean into the transition can help you understand it and continue to move forward. Here are a few ideas on how to move forward in a way that will help you cope while ensuring you walk out of it with new insights and strength:

  1. Use the time to reflect – Disengagement with your old life is important before you can reengage with your new one. Taking time to think through the pieces of your life, whether they be traditions, routines, perspectives, people, or actual physical items, can be healthy. What do you want to keep? What do you want to move away from? What do you want to add to your new life? You have an amazing opportunity to start fresh. Who do you want to be?

  2. Keep a journal – If you’ve not kept a journal previously, start one. If you have one, you may want to dedicate a new one solely as your transition journal. Keep track of your thoughts, ideas, concerns, and hopes as they occur to you. As part of my coaching practice, clients often complete recaps from one session to the next. They often feel a sense of astonishment and pride after several months to go back to the early recaps and reflect on how far they’ve come. Give yourself this gift as well.

  3. Seek support – Social support is one of the most significant things you can do to successfully manage change. Support from friends, loved ones, or others going through similar transitions can be a huge boost when you need it most. In addition to your family and friends network, objective and ‘safe-to-share’ outsiders like coaches, therapists, and mentors can be tremendously supportive in helping you feel grounded and moving forward.

  4. Express gratitude – A lot has been written on the value of feeling and expressing gratitude and being somewhat skeptical by nature, I didn't immediately embrace this idea, but lately I've become a believer. The past 14 months have been a period of transition for me personally and I started something new in January - a gratitude board. Mine happens to be a small white board but it could be anything that works for you. Every morning I take a post-it note and jot down one thing I’m grateful for. Then I put the note on the board. I've come to look forward to the the morning ritual of thinking through my life briefly with a steaming cup of coffee. And one unanticipated benefit is that if I'm ever feeling discouraged, I read through the notes on my board and by the time I’m done, I feel lighter and more optimistic.

  5. Learn to be comfortable with change – If you normally prefer stability and the status quo, begin to acclimate yourself to change with something small like the time you wake up, how you make your bed, or the steps in your exercise routine. When that gets comfortable, change something else, and then do it again. I had a friend who went to a weight loss clinic and the first task she was given wasn’t about diet or exercise. She was told to start folding her towels differently. She was told, ‘if you are someone who folds towels in thirds, fold them in half. If you typically leave them on the floor, pick them up’. The message – ‘if you can’t change how you fold your towels, how will you ever be able to change how you eat’. Start making changes in small, bite-sized ways. Shifts in how you do even small things can cause shifts in how you think.

  6. Practice mindfulness and meditation – During times of stress the amygdala portion of our brain can instantaneously hijack our brain functions, creating hormones and chemicals that can accentuate perceived mental danger and even send us into a state of fear and panic. A significant amount of neuroscientific research supports the tremendous benefits of developing a mindfulness mind-set, skills and practices, including meditation, to counteract this. Mindfulness creates a healthy distance between you and your stressful thoughts which can give you the time and space you need to put them in perspective and choose a productive response. A good resource on this topic is The Stress-Proof Brain (Melanie Greenberg).

  7. Remember previous transitions – Think about the difficulties you’ve faced in the past. You managed to cope before. You got through it. Write down what you did then that helped you most. And think about what you would do again if you had to do it over again. How can those lessons apply in this situation? Use this knowledge to inspire you and give you strength. Prior transitions may have been painful to deal with, but deal with them you did.

  8. Have a formal ‘closure’ ceremony – A client of mine, when facing an overwhelming change in her life, made a list of everything she was walking away from - all the things she would miss, all the things she was glad to be rid of, the emotions she wanted to leave behind, and all the changes that were outside of her control. She wrote one each on a strip of paper and put them in a container that was meaningful to her. She then went to the trailhead of a hike she liked to go on occasionally and buried the container. She wanted to be able to compartmentalize her old life to put it behind her, but in a way that she could visit when she wanted to reflect on her past and her progress. This was her way of finding ‘closure’. What’s yours?

If you have a strategy, ritual, idea, or practice that has helped you during times of transition, please share. I’d love to hear about your journey and what you found helpful so that we can keep learning and exploring together.


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