Transitions: On Breaking Open

One of the most common catalysts for starting therapy is the need for additional support during a major transition. A big change is happening, and you realize you cannot do it alone. It may even become a "dark night of the soul." And poof, you find yourself sitting in a therapist’s office. Perhaps that big change is a divorce, a move, an accident, a career change, a pregnancy, a return to school, or some other intentional or unintentional shift. Perhaps it is coming out as gay or queer or trans*. Maybe it is navigating a cancer diagnosis, or the reality of having a child who is Deaf* or hard-of-hearing. Some transitions feel bigger and more daunting than others. Sometimes multiple transitions are piled on top of each other, causing overwhelm. Some changes cause you to leave nearly everything you knew behind, like in Cheryl Strayed's Wild or in Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

[image description: Two fish bowls are side-by-side. The bowl on the right is empty. The bowl on the left has several goldfish. One goldfish is leaping out of the left bowl towards the right bowl. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: Two fish bowls are side-by-side. The bowl on the right is empty. The bowl on the left has several goldfish. One goldfish is leaping out of the left bowl towards the right bowl. Thanks Google images.]

In this state, we oftentimes just want to cope. Or for that "bad" thing to go away so that we can go back to how things were before. We would like the magic elixir that helps soothe the intense sensations in our chest as we are broken open. It can feel as though we are dying (because some old part of us, or old way of being, is ending). But what happens if we stay with it? What happens if we lean in? What happens if we honor the pain and the emotions that come with transition?

This process of self-discovery is not easy; it may involve suffering, doubt, dismay. But we must not shrink from the fullness of our being in attempting to reduce the pain.
— John O'Donohue, Anam Cara

Regardless of our degree of choice in the transitions happening, change has a way of inducing fear—even terror. Regardless of our ability to anticipate change, transitions have a way of confronting us with the unknown. We find ourselves asking questions like, “Who am I without my husband?” or “What worth do I have without my job?” or "How can I endure this experience?"

[image description: A multi-directional sign with arrows pointing different ways. Each arrow has a different word: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, Questions, Answers. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: A multi-directional sign with arrows pointing different ways. Each arrow has a different word: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, Questions, Answers. Thanks Google images.]

Big transitions are obvious, and sometimes sneak up on us. For example, we might feel the itch to change jobs for years before acting on that desire. Something holds us back for a while. We doubt. We question. We let the idea incubate. 

In reality, we are constantly changing, constantly experiencing transition. Our bodies change with time and with the seasons and with the cycles of the moon. Each day is different than the previous one and includes its own set of unpredictable factors and opportunities. We oftentimes overlook the pervasiveness of change, because we find ease in the familiar; we find safety in predictability.

We are always in transition. If you can just relax with that, you’ll have no problem.
— Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

When we find ourselves experiencing discomfort and fear in the face of a big transition, we oftentimes feel as though we are being broken open. We feel raw. We feel vulnerable. The things in which we sought familiarity and safety is no longer present and we feel a sense of pervasive risk. The good news is that this is a great opportunity. It is precisely through adversity, challenge, and change that we develop our strengths and our gifts.

Consider this selection from Hafiz, the 14th century Persian poet:

“The clear night sky tried to prepare me for
what it knew would someday happen;

it began to show me ever deeper aspects of
its splendor, and then one evening just directly
asked, Will you be able to withstand your own
magnificence?

I thought I was just hearing things, until
a spring orchard I was passing my days with
at the height of its glory burst into song,
about our—every human’s—destiny to burn
with radiance.

Still I felt my ears were playing tricks on me
until the morning came when God tore apart
my chest… needing more room to bloom
inside.”

-via Daniel Ladinsky

First your chest must be torn apart, then there will be enough room to bloom. Simultaneously beautiful and not at all comforting. 

Another way to approach transitions is through stories. Many of our favorite stories, movies, and myths follow this pathway. A period of transition is often recognized at a point which feels traumatic and devastating. The "call to adventure" (number 2 below) may be prompted after the death of a loved one. Or the "test" (number 6 below) may be after a period of smooth-sailing on your journey. Then character builds, obstacles are navigated, demons are slain, there is triumph, and the hero returns with new courage and new skills due to the experience. The hero’s journey. The heroine’s journey. The heroic journey. When reading, watching, or listening to these stories, we have awe, respect, and admiration. We repeatedly fall in love with these characters. Consider Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or Homer and the Odyssey. Or Elsa in Frozen.

[image description: A circular representation of the Heroic Journey. It includes four sections, each with details. 1. Call to Action. 2. Supreme Ordeal/Initiation. 3. Unification/Transformation. 4. Road Back/Hero's Return. Thanks Creative Commons.]

[image description: A circular representation of the Heroic Journey. It includes four sections, each with details. 1. Call to Action. 2. Supreme Ordeal/Initiation. 3. Unification/Transformation. 4. Road Back/Hero's Return. Thanks Creative Commons.]

However, when we, as Americans accustomed to instant gratification, receive a calling or a circumstance that catapults us into foreign territory, we oftentimes handle it less gracefully than our favorite heros/heroines. This brings us back to our desire for a magic elixir and the documented explosion in anti-depressant use. We aren't very comfortable with discomfort. We feel unsettled, confused, scared, stuck, hopeless, and helpless. We need support to move through the experience and develop our strengths and our gifts. Just like our favorite characters, we need mentors and allies--which may or may not include a therapist who is trained in the journey of transitions.

So, as you navigate life’s predictable and unpredictable changes, are you ready to bloom? When faced with the unknown and the crossroads between your old life and your new life, Will you be able to withstand your own magnificence?

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
— Maya Angelou
[image description: a compiled series of photographs combined. Along one stick, there is a progression from caterpillar, to cocoon, to butterfly emerging, to a full Monarch butterfly. Thanks Google images.]

[image description: a compiled series of photographs combined. Along one stick, there is a progression from caterpillar, to cocoon, to butterfly emerging, to a full Monarch butterfly. Thanks Google images.]