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Navigating Life's Transitions

An Essay by Janet Pelto, M.A., L.P.

Benjamin Franklin said there is nothing certain in this world but death and taxes, but he left out another certainty that everyone deals with throughout their life: transition. Some transitions are expected, such as getting married or having a child. It’s the unexpected transitions that can truly test a person.

Many major transitions occur as we age — the transition to retirement, the death of a spouse — that often turn your life upside down. It’s important to understand that transition is a continuous part of life, and each transition has a positive and negative aspect. They key is how you handle the transition.

William Bridges, an internationally known speaker, author, and consultant who helps individuals and organizations deal with change, explains the difference between change and transition. Change is a shift in an external situation, while transition is a psychological reorientation that has three phrases.

The first phase is the ending — of a job, a home, a marriage. This ending usually comes with a wide variety of feelings, including loss and grief, even if it’s a positive change.

Next people in transition enter the neutral zone, where they are ambivalent and unsure of what to do. Their future is in flux, ambiguous. While this time can be unsettling, it’s very important to the process of getting through the transition.

Toward the end of the neutral zone people tend to experience a new sense of creativity and feel optimistic about the future. At this time they enter the last phase of transition, the new beginning.

When going through a transition, there are four important steps to take, according to Nancy K. Schlossberg, a noted expert on aging and transition:

  • Take stock of the situation. Think about positive aspects of the transition and negative ones. What new opportunities can come out of the transition?
  • Take stock of yourself. What do you need to do to grieve? What resources are available for you to draw on? How have you dealt with other transitions in your life and what can you learn from them?
  • Take stock of your support. Who in your life can provide support — both emotional and physical, such as helping with errands and meals? Is there information or services that also might be useful?
  • Take charge of the situation. Explore your options, then develop an action plan. What can you do to move on?

As you prepare to retire and start to transition into that phase of your life, it’s critical to think beyond the financial implications of not working. There are many psychological challenges when you stop working, such as shifting how you spend the majority of your day, dealing with a change in income, and coping with potential health concerns.

If you are facing the transition of retirement or another major change comes your way, try to remember that transition is a normal part of life — and that every transition is an opportunity!

Janet Pelto, M.A., L.P., is a lifework consultant in the College of Continuing Education at the University of Minnesota. She specializes in working with adults on career transitions.

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