How to Navigate a Life Transition

I’m directionally-challenged, able to get lost in a semi-complicated parking deck. That’s why I think GPS is one of the best inventions ever. But no matter how strong my connection is, there’s one place that my smart phone can’t navigate – a life transition. We’ve all had them in our personal and professional lives, some exciting and joyous while others can be scary and sad. Sometimes transitions come with all of those flavors of the rainbow, to borrow a tagline from a fluorescent candy line. Whatever the case, you may want to check out some helpful advice from thought leader Jon DeWaal.

DeWaal serves as the executive director and life transition guide at Liminal Space, a nonprofit organization in Edmonds, Washington dedicated to helping others find the courage and means to navigate major life transitions. A TEDx speaker, he also hosts a weekly podcast called “Life Through Transitions,” which helps a national audience of listeners create forward momentum and personal growth. Here are five ways DeWaal recommends to effectively navigate a life transition:

1. Design your approach.

Rather than being reactive, take a methodical approach to a transition – similar to pointing towards the shore you want to reach, and then determining which ship is going to help you arrive. “Too often I think people start going down a path of transition by looking for the answer instead of considering and building the approach to the transition,” DeWaal said. “If you don’t have a clear understanding of what questions need to be asked, you might go through the discomfort of a transition without any real results, realizing that you actually just rearranged the furniture in the room.” His team has developed a tool called the Liminal Strengths Assessment that helps people build an effective approach as their first step. It looks at seven different dimensions of transition, including resiliency, planning, community, self-care, self-honesty, action, and faith to help an individual stay engaged, open, and curious in a transition.

2. Move from “Why” to “Now What.”

It is easy to get hung up on the “why” questions – why me, why did this happen, etc. That’s the place where people are prone to finger-pointing and blame, turning themselves into the victims of the transition. DeWaal says individuals should focus on the question of “now what” instead, which is the real struggle because we have this gift of choice to decide what to do with our life. “Why” is a good question to ask because it can usher in a process of grief and the work of letting go. But being consumed by “why” for too long dishonors your innate ability to create your life. That’s what “now what” is asking each of us to confront: our freedom to choose. Learning to lean into “now what” wholeheartedly is the work of transition. That can be a difficult place since deciding how to move forward is where the waiting and not knowing comes in – but it is essential in navigating a meaningful transition.

3. Create a coalition.

Getting support from others is key. DeWaal uses the analogy of one of his favorite film series, The Lord of the Rings, to illustrate this point. He notes the fellowship around the lead character, Frodo, where each individual served a particular purpose and reflected back the truth of what they see in your life. You might join an established group or consider bringing four or five people together to meet regularly over a designated period of time to help support each other through a transition.

4. Watch out for “transition thieves.”

DeWaal coined the term to identify things that try to steal away the positive growth potential from a time of change. For example, you might not want to invite others into your process, citing that it is inconvenient for their schedules or creates a burden in their lives. But what happens six months later when you’ve gone through a difficult transition and someone important in your life didn’t know about it? You could lose intimacy, connection, and the benefits of their wisdom and ideas because you didn’t ask for help and they wanted to be there for you.

5. Educate yourself.

DeWaal shared some of his favorite reads that may help with your transition. He lists William Bridges’ Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change for making sense of life during significant change. From a career and purpose standpoint, and tying it to your identity, there is David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. Finally, he recommends Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer.

How have you effectively navigated a career or life transition? What worked and what didn’t?

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