I’m about to head into a big career and life transition. It’s something I’ve been working towards for many years and now it’s finally happening.
Full disclosure: it has something to do with becoming a brand new therapist here at Real Campus, after being a clinical social worker with a bunch of organizations!
I figure, who better to riff on new beginnings than someone who has found herself smack dab in the middle of one?
I’m not someone you might think would fear change. I love novelty and adventure but over the years I’ve found that no matter how adventurous your spirit, change can still hit hard. While humans are complex and we all respond to situations differently, we’re mostly wired to feel safe in what is familiar and predictable – even when it’s not “good” for us.
I find because of my love for adventure, I often underestimate the impact that a drastic change in my life will have on me. Over the years, I’ve learned to slow down and surrender to the process—to radically accept that I’m not immune to the difficulty that change can be for a species that craves familiarity.
Here’s a road map for navigating change. It can be applied to starting a new job or going to a new school, to moving in with a partner or to have a child. All types of change deserve your attention.
Grieve the loss of what you are leaving behind
This often gets overlooked. Especially when we are moving towards a change we are excited about, or when leaving a situation that isn’t healthy for us. It’s easy to brush aside grief in our excitement or relief. But even if we’re leaving a situation we weren’t happy with, it is inevitably something that took up a lot of space in our lives. And especially if it was challenging, we likely learned things about ourselves and our resilience that are integral to who we are today.
Maybe we found our voice to speak up against crummy conditions. Maybe we learned about our strength and capacity to stretch ourselves. Maybe we learned how to affirm our worth by saying goodbye. Almost every situation has value, even if it wasn’t pleasant to experience. Regardless of the conditions I leave, I know that bypassing grief only to focus on excitement has always made my transition more difficult.
To tap into your grief, try writing a goodbye letter to the situation you’re leaving. It doesn’t have to be all sunshine and kittens. If you have harsh truths to voice, voice them. Give voice to your whole experience. If you’re happy to be saying goodbye, say why. Towards the end of the letter, explain what the situation taught you and why you might be grateful that it happened. After you’re done, rip it up or find a safe way to destroy it. Letting go is important.
If you’re leaving behind a situation that was lovely but you outgrew it, then in addition to the letter, you might want to find a happy way to honour it. Try making a memory book of your favourite pictures to honour your memorable moments. Share your memories with the people you love and trust.
The important thing is to give space to grief. No matter what the situation was like for you, it played a role in making you who you are today and it deserves a forum. By no means will one letter or memory book rid you of all your grief but it’s a starting point and a reminder that your feelings are valid.
Adjusting to something new takes time. You won’t have all the answers right away. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll say the wrong thing. You’ll feel scared. You’ll feel uncomfortable. The good news is that this means you are a human being and not a robot! It’s important that you are kind to yourself as you navigate this new situation.
Write down five things you would say to your best friend if they were navigating this exact situation. Things like “It’s ok, you’re still learning” or “It takes time to adjust” or “I admire your courage”. When you start to feel discouraged, say those things to yourself. If you want greater impact, put your hand on your face or on your heart when you say them. Self-compassion is not just about what you could say but also what to avoid saying: if you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, don’t say it to yourself. Period.
I know it’s tempting to fall into thinking that we have to have everything figured out on day one but that’s impossible and it leads to anxiety. What you have found yourself in is one of the most glorious grace periods in all of adult life – when people expect you not to know anything! When they expect you to ask questions. When saying “Oh I didn’t know that” is actually totally legit. Instead of taking it as a sign of your own inadequacy, enjoy it! It’s a beautiful phase that’s time limited! There will be lots of time to expect yourself to know what’s going on. This ain’t it! And thank goodness. Be a scientist. Be an anthropologist. Study your new environment with genuine interest. That way, when you discover something you didn’t know, you can be fascinated and curious instead of internalizing it as inadequacy.
Be gentle with yourself
Change is tiring. You may find you need more sleep. You may need more downtime. You may need more time listening to Bon Iver with your eyes closed. You may need to spend more time alone. You may need to pack a quick lunch instead of preparing your usual extravagant meal.
But listen, you’re using a lot of energy re-learning things you used to do with your eyes closed. Your energy reserves are going into processing and storing all this new information that will be so totally straightforward soon enough. But for now, everything takes an immense amount of effort. Try to be cool with pulling over to put gas in your tank as often as possible.
We’ve all heard the only constant is change. We don’t have to love it and we don’t have to sugar-coat it, but it certainly helps to be prepared for it. While the world around us spins, it‘s possible to be grounded in kindness and understanding for ourselves. Change will happen regardless, but our attitudes and the way we treat ourselves through it can change our relationship to it.
Here’s some wisdom from a 32-year-old on a second round as a university student:
It’s really hard.
Not exactly a revelation, I know, but hear me out. Completing assignments, keeping up with readings, and managing time – we all know how challenging this can be. What I want to highlight instead is that the hard work isn’t always the hardest part. For me, trying to figure out how to get to bed early enough, how to wake up and make it to class on time, how to keep my bedroom from looking like a junkyard, and how to resist daily temptations is really hard. While others seem to be worrying about making time for self-care between classes and work, I’m sprinting to class only to find I forgot my notebook. Sometimes it’s the stuff that is supposed to be simple that ends up being really— you guessed it— hard.
It can feel like there isn’t much sympathy out there for those of us who struggle with the day-to-day stuff. If someone hasn’t done laundry in two weeks, it’s easier for people to judge and label them lazy than it is to try to understand why they find it difficult. We’re all guilty of passing quick judgment – and this has its consequences. In my case, people often presume I’m either carefree or careless. A friend told me years back that it seemed like I have no passion. It felt awful to be seen that way. For a decade I almost believed that story about myself. I often felt like a let down, both to myself and to the world. I worried I’d never grow up to be someone I could respect. None of that was true.
The First Round
With that mindset, completing my first degree somehow seemed like both a miracle and barely an accomplishment. I didn’t find the schoolwork very difficult. I loved learning, I made it to class, I paid attention, and for the most part, I got good grades. But I spent the majority of my six years as an undergrad (that’s right, six) procrastinating. I wish I could say I spent all my time partying and enjoying myself. Mostly I agonized about how much work I had to do instead of just doing it, or I beat myself up because I didn’t feel I was trying hard enough. I knew what I needed to do, I just couldn’t seem to do it. I always felt like I could do better, or like I never gave it all I had. At graduation I knew I was smart enough to be handed that degree but somehow I felt like I hadn’t earned it. Now upon reflection, I see I gave it everything I had at the time. I earned that degree Sinatra-style— I did it my way.
We rarely hear this sort of student story. Ever notice in the movies how college students always look like they’re having the greatest time of their lives? They’re winning trophies, getting laid, and going on spring break holidays. How do they make time to have all this fun? They’re never studying, working their asses off to afford tuition, or staying in because they can’t afford to party. The message is that our college years are supposed to be all fun all the time. I’ve done it twice now, and I call bullshit! If you can relate, you’re not alone. I’d say we’re the silent majority.
The Second Round
This time it’s different. The same simple stuff I found difficult ten years ago is still hard and it probably won’t ever be easy for me. I have grown though. I’ve slowly adopted some better life skills (so much more to go), a lot of patience with myself, and the pièce de résistance, I’ve developed a who-gives-a-shit swagger – a gift of confidence that seemed to arrive right around the time I turned 30. Much to my partner’s chagrin, my room is still a pig stye, and I still struggle to hand papers in on time. But my world isn’t collapsing around me. I’m imperfect, and that’s fine. There are a lot of us!
These days I juggle a job, classes and a co-op position. I never thought I’d be able to do that much at once. For the first time in my adult life, people say, “Wow! That must be so hard to manage!” about my life. The irony is, in a lot of ways, it used to be harder. It’s harder to wake up in the morning when you have three or four chapters to read on your own time, two assignments due in a week, and instead of doing any homework the night before, you smoked a joint with your roommate and stayed up watching cartoons. That is stressful. That life is never free from the anxiety of having too much shit to do. Now, waking up groggy to get to my co-op placement after a late night at work is easy in comparison. It would be even easier if I could just decide to go to bed earlier, but at least I have a better excuse for being late.
Each of us struggles with different aspects of the transition into adulthood. Moving toward my mid-30s now, I realize that the development period is actually never finished. You never wake up to find you’re all done building yourself. But you do get better at it.
I wanted to write all this because I wish people had recognized and acknowledged ten years ago that even when I didn’t look like it, I really cared. To everyone living in that eternal awkward phase, I’m right there with you. I know you care. Keep at it and take all the time you need.
Are you an international student who’s been struggling to find your place in Canada? Have you been feeling overwhelmed with the changes and have been finding it difficult to adjust?
If so, you’re not alone! Adjusting to change is hard, let alone starting over in a new country.
You’re probably going through different emotions and trying to establish yourself in a place that doesn’t really feel like home. If that’s the case, you’re probably going through stage 2 of your cultural adaptation journey.
Let’s look at these stages in more depth:
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period
The honeymoon period is sort of like the beginning of any new experience, such as starting a new job or going into a new relationship. You are thrilled about all these exciting changes and are looking at things from a positive lens. You are probably intrigued by both the differences and similarities between the new culture and your home culture and you have lots of interest in learning and motivation to meet new people. You sort of feel like a tourist and can immediately imagine yourself staying here long-term…until stage 2 kicks in.
Stage 2: The Cultural Shock
By now, the excitement would’ve worn off a little and you’re starting to miss your friends and family back home. You’re likely putting a bigger emphasis on the differences between the two cultures and possibly thinking about how much you were taking things for granted when you were still back home. You may be starting to feel irritated and frustrated with having to constantly change your habits to adapt to these new norms. Little do you know, you start to search out your Canadian friends and focus on connecting with people who share the same values, language and probably the same taste in local foods and music. These new friends remind you of home and this becomes your new comfort zone. At least you now have a support system to go back to when you’re out exploring the Canadian context and little do you know, you find yourself in stage 3.
Stage 3: Adjustment
You’re now pretty familiar with the context and although you may still be experiencing the occasional lows, you’re starting to feel little more hopeful and optimistic. Cultural cues are now easier to read and you’re beginning to feel more integrated into the new environment. You may see your sense of humor slowly return and find yourself enjoying activities outside of your comfort zone. Since you’re now past the “emotional stages” of cultural adjustment, you can now enter a stage of “deeper learning” and enhance your understanding of the world. You may even start to question some assumptions resulting from your own culture and begin to look at things from a new perspective. Next thing you know, you’ve reached the final stage.
Stage 4: Acceptance
Welcome to the final stage where the “new” culture is no longer new but is starting to feel like a second home. You are now focused on reaching your full potential and may be thinking of staying here long-term and planting some roots. You probably don’t want to go back home as much anymore and instead, you’re encouraging those back home to come visit you. You’ve finally reached the stage of biculturalism and have found your place between the two cultures.
A Last Thought
Can I share a piece of advice? Don’t rush it. Try to find meaning in every stage and know that each one has its own time. Be cognizant of the different stages and explore where you locate yourself. Know that if you’re feeling “foreign”, it won’t last forever. There’s probably thousands of other international students walking on this same path trying to find their place. And you will soon find yours.
If you missed this week’s webinar “Stranger In A Strange Land” on integrating in a new culture, make sure to watch the rerun here!
Many of us have a list in our minds of the things we want, and most of us go through life trying to get these things. Sometimes we rely on our beliefs as a roadmap on this journey –follow these rules and you’ll be enlightened, be happier and have healthier relationships. I used to think that there was a secret recipe to life, and when things are going great, I do tend to think I have it all figured out. However, reality eventually sets in when we realize that’s not always the case, and when that reality hits, we turn inwards and think that something is wrong with us because if nothing was wrong, we’d be getting what we want. Right?
When life isn’t easy or when we are dealing with a major transition we often look for the ‘bad guy’ and sometimes blame ourselves or our partners instead of turning towards each other or asking for help. An all-too-common negative dialogue emerges where we think, “I must be a bad person or a failure because [insert reasons here].”
That ‘looking for the bad guy tendency arises during periods of transition when we are overwhelmed, scared, or uncertain. However, I want to remind some of you that transitions are hard because they are opportunities for growth and growth is hard.
“Life opens up opportunities to you, and you either take them or you stay afraid of taking them.” — Jim Carrey
Marina Keegan wrote a wonderful article on her perspective of what her university experience meant for her. Although graduating university, much like starting university, can be a difficult period of transition; it is both natural and expected. It should, in fact, be something we aim for.
Some transitions are marked as natural development for many of us unless interrupted and then problems can emerge with some sort of pathology. Some transitions happen unexpectedly: loss of child, being diagnosed with Cancer, losing one’s job. Then sometimes that “find the bad guy tendency” arises and we need to deal with it.
No matter the type of transition you are struggling with, I find it helps to take a moment to breathe and reflect on what is happening before moving forward. Whatever that new you or situation looks like: Stop, Breathe, and, Reflect. By reflecting we help clarify how far we have come and it helps to recognize our own strengths and areas of growth and future growth. Reflection can also allow us a time to see if we are moving in a direction that corresponds with our values. Many of us fail to reflect and end up having a life based on being reactive and non reflective vs living life inline with our values.
Some tips to help navigate transitions and avoid ‘finding the bad guy’ tendency:
1. Go back to get to the future
Sometimes we need to think about passed struggles we have dealt with and how we overcame them. What skills or resources you’ve used that helped or didn’t help you. And then think about your current situation and see if these same character strengths or skills may help you deal with your current situation. Con with this technique: some people keep using the same strategies and don’t try to develop new ones.
2. Remember to ABC which means: Always Be Curious.
Things that help us be curious is having an open mind. Another thing that helps us to be curious is asking ourselves questions that force us to think about alternative solutions and ways of doing things. Noticing emotions and really questioning where they are coming from and what they are telling us may help us deal with the current situation. Con with technique: Overusing this technique so that you end up navel gazing and it prevents you from taking the leap or making a choice.
3. Learn to ride the Wave
You may not be able to change your course or whatever event you are dealing with and you may need to grab onto some coping skills and hold tight. Some may find learning mindfulness or learning to connect with the support system as 2 ways that help people ride the wave when dealing with a particularly hard transition. Con: Some people will ride the wave and end back at the same place they started at. When dealing with transitions sometimes we have to accept things will not go back to how they use to be.
Moving from one of life’s milestones to the next can be exciting, but if you are struggling with it, remember that it is a normal reaction and there are ways of managing it. For example, if you are unhappy with your job and are thinking of taking a leap to something new, you may be interested in Barbara Hagerty’s article here that talks about the upside of making a mid-life transition. If you like the article I would suggest you read her book, Life Reimagined. Instead of relying on finding the bad guy try one of the above techniques, read Barbara’s article or book and see if it helps or perhaps considering booking a session to process your life transition in counselling.