The only constant in life is change.Heraclitus
No matter how much we may try to hold onto the stability of a state of familiarity, it’s impossible not to notice how much everything around us continues to change with the passing of time. Whether we are reminded by the aging of our bodies or the change of the seasons, the one guarantee of life is movement and change- whether we are ready for it or not.
We all go through many transitions throughout our lives, and they can cause significant changes to the daily life and routine and to our broader outlook on the meaning of our lives.
It can be natural to be uncomfortable with change. Whether change is pushing you into the unknown or pulling you out of more nostalgic times, noticing the movement of time can pull us out of our comfort zone and face us with existential questions.
Do you ever wish it wasn’t so hard for you to deal with change? You are not alone. Still, changes are difficult to manage because they involve loss: the loss of the familiar. Our brains naturally want to keep us in states of predictability, so we may experience emotional discomfort in response to big shifts.
The inability to deal with change can lead to anxiety, depression, and sleep issues, which can lead to physical health or substance abuse issues. Ineffective coping also has been linked to implications on relationships and people being stuck in their lives.
A therapist with a systemic mindset (I.e. one who looks not just at you in a vacuum but you in the broader context of your life) can help you process and understand the impact of significant transitions. This post will highlight what you can expect from working with a professional to guide you through major life transitions.
Life Transitions Therapy
Change and transitions are a natural part of life. Yet, significant changes can leave us feeling lost, unsettled, overwhelmed, and out of control. They can leave us feeling like we lost not only the past but also our idea of what the future would have or could have held.
From a mental health perspective, there are key milestones to navigate as we move through both the natural developmental changes of life and more specific situational transitions. Missing these milestones can leave people with emotional and mental distress.
An ego psychologist named Erik Erikson coined stages of development that individuals move through throughout the lifetime. His stages start in infancy and move through eight stages into older adulthood, describing key developmental milestones we must meet in order to move into the next stage in a healthy, effective way.
Notably, each stage involves some sort of conflict that must be resolved. The individual resolution of this conflict serves as an important turning point in their psychological development.
Some of the questions that an individual must answer throughout these stages include:
- Am I safe in my world?
- Can I do things on my own?
- Am I good?
- Who am I?
- Am I loved?
- Will I contribute to the world?
- Have I lived a full life?
If someone hasn’t figured out how they answer one of these questions, it is unlikely they will move on successfully to the next developmental stage.
Similarly, Evelyn Duvall is largely credited as a contributor to another theory of development: Family Life Cycle Stages. These stages are similar to Erikson’s in that they involve six stages with key tasks required for a family to continue moving forward in healthy functioning.
Some of the milestones from the broader family perspective include accepting new family members, shifting boundaries as children become more independent, and accepting role changes in younger and older generations over time.
Navigating transitions successfully is complex when you take all those pieces into account: 1) your specific situation that is causing you to face a change, 2) where you are in the individual life cycle and the milestones you are facing, and 3) where you are in a family life cycle.
Therapists can help you to piece together the key elements to navigate the transitions smoothly while providing you a place to express and explore the emotions you have related to the change, whether you are facing a shift in your relationships, job, or family life.
Types of Life Transitions
Starting new relationships
One of the most common types of life transitions are the start of a relationship.
New relationships, or changes to the relationship we are in, can require significant adjustments. Whether you are becoming acclimated to a new relationship with a partner, moving in for the first time, or getting married- all very positive steps- you may find yourself struggling.
You may not only have to adjust to new routines, but also have to figure out how to define your identity in the relationship while maintaining your independent sense of self.
Ending a relationship
Ending relationships due to break ups, divorce, or the tone of friendships changing over time can be incredibly painful. Losing friends and family is one of the most painful experiences we can face.
These experiences may require processing some of the emotional pain while also finding new places in your life to fulfill the parts of yourself that those relationships once did.
Moving to a new place
Living in different places can offer us with enriching experiences and wider perspectives which may feel very exciting.
At the same time, moving can feel lonely if you move somewhere new can feel lonely as you adapt to a new culture and form a new support system.
Whether facing loss of a job, starting a new job, or forging a new career path entirely, the change of career can lead to anxiety about finances and purpose or depression about feeling like a failure.
This change may result in instability where there once was security, which is heightened ever further if a sense of identity is tied to a job.
Navigating illness, grief, and loss
Grief and loss are one of the most difficult changes we face. Sometimes we guide family members through illness and end of life tasks, and sometimes we lose people suddenly.
In all cases, we must process the complex emotions that come up, create meaning around the loss and potential suffering, and develop a new community of support and support groups.
Family dynamic changes
Changes in the family system, especially where members are moving in and out, require focused attention. Many of us can relate to the feeling of a family system that has not adjusted and has members confused and in conflict about new roles or members. Some family life transitions include:
- Marriage and merging families
- Having a baby
- Inability to have children
- Launching children when they move away from home
- Death and loss (especially out-of-order or unexpected death)
All of these require emotional processing and a level of understanding about healthy ways to form a new normal.
Adjusting to broader system changes
Wars, acts of terrorism, social unjust, and pandemics are examples of bigger system changes that can have ripple down impacts on our individual psyche and level of adjustment.
These types of issues can be difficult to identify because we may relate to them differently than the people around us. Understanding how changes in the world affect our relationships and individual psychology is important as we navigate developmental shifts.
What Happens in a Life Transition Therapy
Understanding where you are
A therapist trained in psychology and systems can help you as you move through difficult changes in your life.
Primarily, a therapist can help you to take an intentional pause and observe your individual and family history, identifying places you may have been stuck in development in the past.
Life changes therapy can also help you to explore more broadly what stage of development you are in. This will help you to clarify the key milestones to consider as you navigate the change you are facing.
With a clarified narrative about your own story, the changes you have already overcome and what you are facing now, your therapist can help you lay the groundwork for healing and progress.
Clarify goals and values
Clarification of your goals and values is always a key step of treatment. However, when working with life transitions, focusing and developing your values will help you determine whether you are on the path you want to be on and how you can prioritize making decision that will keep you moving in the direction you want to go.
Goals are the objectives you’d like to achieve in therapy and in your life. Values are the core tenants by which you strive to live your life. Clarifying your values will give you clarity as you make decisions and deal with periods of transformation.
Changes in life can present a complex set of emotions. You may notice excitement, joy, sadness, anxiety, and guilt. You also may feel confused by feeling conflicting emotions at the same time.
A therapist will provide you a nonjudgmental space to explore the complexity of your experience, while guiding you to understand, process, and integrate your emotional experience.
Develop skills to support you in future coping
As we’ve established, change is constant. Therapy will give you a space to feel, to explore, to make sense of your situation, and to get you clear on the behaviors you’d like to take while you are managing change.
Therapy will also support you in developing coping strategies and coping mechanisms to regulate your emotions and continue staying clear on value driven action in the future as you face inevitable future periods of change and uncertainty.
Finding a therapist
We recommend using a google search or a directory like Psychology Today to find a qualified clinician in your area.
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