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Overwhelmed by Transition


My oldest kid will graduate high school in roughly fifteen months, and I’m already fielding questions about his future plans on a daily basis. If he’s feeling anxious at this point, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. But as for me, I’m starting to feel the tectonic plates shifting with each benign inquiry. Without realizing it, each conversation is turning up the temperature of stress. But rather than allow that stress to cause me to react emotionally—which wouldn’t help my son, I’m choosing to do my version of therapy: write about it here. 


There’s a touch of irony when something you do professionally turns around on you. I’ve been working with transitioning veterans for the past decade; transition is sort of my thing. Through hundreds of conversations with them, one thing remains constant: it’s not the separation from service that gets them; it’s all the emotions wrapped up in the transition. 


In William Bridges’ classic tome, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, he writes, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.”


Clarity gets chucked out the window when you’re going through a transition in life. Disorientation comes at you in many forms: fear of making mistakes, anxiety about what others will think and say, stress about making decisions in a timely manner, and the threat of shame or regret. 


Understanding the dynamics of transition and its inevitable emotional responses can help you manage the process more effectively. You cannot avoid fear, anxiety, stress, or pressure, but you can prepare for them and work with them. You start by naming them. 


Years ago, I attended a training event before traveling abroad for a service project. The trip had quite a focus on cultural exchange in addition to the service components, so the organizing leaders walked us through a simple framework to understand how we could best participate in the trip without insulting the people we were traveling to. Their point was simple: You will inevitably have difficult moments when you’re traveling. You’ll get tired, hot, cranky, and perhaps even ill. The food will be new and perhaps strange to you, and the language barrier will take its toll on your patience. In those moments, you’ll feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and perhaps angry—but you have a choice to make. Either be an ‘Ugly American’ and say insulting things, harmful gestures, or worse, or lean into the discomfort and allow the moment to change you. The most important thing they encouraged you to do was to share your feelings with a friend or leader on the trip. Their shorthand code was similar to a car’s dashboard: pay attention to when you were emotionally “red-lining”. When you’re feeling big feelings, pause, take a moment, and confess it to someone else. That, they promised, was more than half the battle. 


You can’t avoid having big feelings from time to time, but you can certainly make good choices when you do. 


That lesson about international travel is also true about transition. You can’t avoid the big feelings that come up, but anticipating them, accepting them, and listening to them can help you avoid making mistakes and not overreacting. The last thing anyone wants to do is transition poorly, especially when the stakes are so high. No one wants to regret making choices out of fear. No one wants to feel guilty because they avoided doing something they were anxious about. 


So, here’s my confession to you: I’m headed towards red-lining about the changes coming our way. But I’m going to take a deep breath, clear my head, and make choices out of my values and what I know to be good and helpful, and avoid at all costs subconsciously dumping my anxiety on my son. He doesn’t need them, that’s for sure!

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Do you know?

For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.  

They're uncommon sense ideas, really.

Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).

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