Transitions: managing change

It was 11 years ago this past January.

My best-friend lay dying in a bed at a hospice and I, along with a few close friends, sat and waited. We knew the time was soon.

A week before Tom, who was living with full-blown AIDS, had checked himself into the Wellesley hospital. He was worried about his continuous fevers and his inability to eat.
Over the last few months he was a regular at the now defunct AIDS ward at this downtown Toronto medical facility. He had spent the five years dealing with the shock of pneumonia, grandmal seizures, and lymphoidic cancer. He was well versed in hospital proceedings. Which is why I knew it was different when we spoke that last night. On the phone he was barely audible. While we talked for awhile, the only statement I still remember was the one he made after a long, long silence: “I’m scared.”

The reality is Tom died from his illness. He died among his friends, in the company of people who supported and loved him, and surrounded by those accustomed to the dramatic changes that occur during the death process.

Now, over a decade later, I know that Tom’s experience is not unique.

Tom’s last year on this Earth was all about change and transition – a state that all of us, even those in fantastic health, experience on an ongoing basis. This is because change and transition are natural states of the human life cycle.

According to Michelle Sangster, a therapist and registered clinical social worker in British Columbia, change and transition are part of the necessary evolutionary process.

“When you think of the change that has occurred in our society, transitions were integral to these changes. For example, women voting, black rights, slavery ending, unionized work places. Transitions lead us to a different place, sometimes by chance, sometimes by design.”

However, as Sangster alludes, change and transition are not the same. While the words are often used interchangeably, change and transition define very different aspects of our growth.

Typically change is a time-specified external occurrence. The death of my friend Tom was a change. It happened one Thursday night; it was beyond my control; and it altered my life. Other examples can include employment modifications, purchasing or selling a home, graduation, the birth of a child as well as getting married or divorced.

Transition, on the other hand, is a process. Transitions are marked by their internal nature; it is a shift in our internal being. Transitions can precede, proceed or work in conjunction with change, or they can happen in isolation (unprompted by any external factors that we can identify).

As such, therapists, such as Sangster, often attempt to delineate between change and transition. It is useful to differentiate between the two as the results and impact may be different for each, says Sangster. She describes that an internal transition, such as coming to terms with the death of a loved one, or your sexual orientation, or finding God, can often lead to new places mentally, emotionally, even spiritually.

This is because any change that prompts transition – whether involuntary or not – assists us in identifying strengths and weaknesses in our personal philosophy. “Saying goodbye to one state of being and hello to another, while wading through emotional muck is a process of self-understanding and personal awareness,” says Sangster. It teaches us about ourselves – our strengths, weaknesses, our level of resilience, and our values and beliefs.
Sangster likens this process to getting a new pair of glasses. For the first time, in a potentially long time, we are able to see the fine print.

This is exactly how Joanne P. Pike would describe her recent employment transition. Until recently, this esthetician and sales representative spent many years accepting career positions that were unsuitable and, at times, detrimental to her emotional health.

“Losing jobs in the past – and I means jobs not a job – forced me to examine what was going on,” says Pike. “I realized that in most of these positions I was always trying to force myself to be heard. I would stay in unhealthy employment situations for too long, telling myself that I needed the money or that I couldn’t risk a change.” Just before Christmas last year something big happened – Pike lost her job of four years. “All I could think is ‘what is wrong with me? Why do I keep finding myself in these situations.’ I felt so jaded.”

Pike did not see the benefits of this last termination immediately. Instead she got stuck in negative self-talk and low emotions and despaired of finding a career position that would truly satisfy her.

“In time, however, I began to see that I was not responsible for other people and how they live their lives or conduct their business,” explains Pike, who found out a few months later that the spa went under. “I started to see that all I can really do is suit up and show up and that perhaps money wasn’t the most important factor in choosing a position.”

Because of a change – her job loss – Pike started a transition to examine what she truly valued. The result was her calling an up-and-coming spa in Toronto’s mid-town in January. Five months later she was offered her first full-time position with the company after months of patiently and methodically working contract positions.

“For me environment is key,” says Pike. “If I feel safe, if I can be myself and I can communicate and contribute I will be happier and more productive and that’s what counts.”

Despite the tremendously positive outcome from change and transition, most of us spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prevent these growth stages. For many of Tom’s long-term friends, the process of watching him die was too much. They often neglected him as a friend and avoided his presence in an effort to ignore the inevitable – their loss. The primary reason for this behaviour, says Sangster, is fear. “Fear of the unknown and the unpredictable can shake our sense of confidence and disturb our emotional equilibrium,” says Sangster. Since change and/or transitions can be messy, scary occurrences fraught with uncertainty and marked with few guarantees we often attempt to avoid the entire process.

Since avoidance does not work, Sangster suggests that we work to minimize the impact of change and transitions – regardless of whether or not these occurrences are deemed good or bad. “Transitions are essential to our growth however doing what we can to make them meaningful and successful for ourselves will go a long way to helping us be more open to change, and more of an activate participant in it,” explains Sangster.

In general, Sangster suggests a three-step process when dealing with any type of transition or change.

1. Normalize.
Sangster emphasizes this aspect to her clients over and over again. By realizing that change, all change, is a normal process of life, we begin to relinquish the idea that we have somehow done something wrong (and are either being punished or rewarded). “This normal process of life helps us to grow, evolve and become the best we can be,” says Sangster. “Without transitions we would stagnate emotionally, physically, spiritually and even cognitively. We are better people because of transitions” even if they do prompt pain and fear.

2. Remember: there is no formula.
While there is a process to change and transitions, no two people or two circumstances will ever be the same – so the progression of growth will never be the same. “Transitions are never a straight line, nor formulaic,” says Sangster. “The process and results will be unique to each person. They can be messy but the end result always justifies the means.”

3. Don’t rush.
Too many people want the change – the one aspect that will alleviate all other growth in a particular area. Plain and simple: that’s not how life works. Rather than focusing on how long a particular change or transition is taking, focus on what you are learning. Examine what thoughts, feelings and beliefs arise and then determine if these help or hinder your personal growth. Examine how you dealt with prior transitions and also ask yourself what isn’t changing (and maybe should?). Pretty soon there will be enough to concentrate and work on and little time left for ruminating. As Sangster puts it: You can’t rush a transition – it is a process, not an event!

For Pike, the process of finding the best possible employer for her skill set and attributes took many, many, many years. “My past employment terminations taught me that I am not responsible for them and that I can only do my best that day. [Through the transition process I learned that] sometimes a girl has got to know her limitations. It was about learning to be honest – with myself.”

For me, the transition from spending time everyday with my friend Tom to not having him around was hard to make. Over a decade later I still miss his laugh, his zest for life and his quirky sense of humour. The difference, though, is that the hard change of losing a loved one has long past while the internal transition of learning to live without this person continues. Still, I would not have traded my time with Tom for the world. The reality is no one can avoid change and transition all we can do is learn from it.

Originally published in Check UP! Magazine in 2007