Living Through Transitions
SpeEch to the Psychology Foundation of Canada annual breakfast, November 16, 2006.

By Sharyn Salsberg Ezrin

I am honoured to join you this morning at the Psychology Foundation of Canada's annual breakfast. I would like to salute the work you are doing at the Foundation, in building resilient families through your programs for children and parents.

I also want to acknowledge with special appreciation the role of Dr. Eric Jackman. For the past 20 years, Eric has made it his mission to take psychology to the broader community, for the benefit of people in their daily lives. In many ways, my recent work on transitions is intended to do just that. Thank you Eric for your inspiring leadership.

I actually have been rehearsing for my debut as an author and public speaker since an early age. You may be surprised to learn that I was a folksinger from the age of 15. I loved the thrill of singing songs in a group the four of us all played guitar and sang. Through high school and university we performed the songs of the folk-music legends of the time Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Pete Seeger. We felt these songs resonated for our audiences they spoke about both angst and hope in society, in the '60s.

All these wonderful musicians and songwriters introduced me to the world of deeply moving lyrics as a human cry for consolation, hope, and understanding. And the themes in the world have not changed much since then. My decision to write a book was really an extension of my life as a folksinger, since the words and sentiments of my book are very much intended as a message of hope and renewalÉ. To go full circle, I plan to write a song about my book's message some day.

I have been a workplace-focused psychologist since the start of my career as a management consultant at Price Waterhouse's Toronto office in 1982. My life of consulting and coaching has always been jam packed with work and community volunteer activities.

One day 6 years ago, I had the most difficult unplanned transition of my life. My body rebelled mysteriously and dramatically. After sitting in movie screenings for 10 days at the Toronto International Film Festival I bought 30 tickets for the first time ever I recall having a really stiff neck. Didn't think too much about it then.

  • During the fall, I began to notice pain in most of my joints
  • The inflammation and stiffness did not subside in fact, it got worse.
  • After 6 months, my rheumatologist diagnosed chronic psoriatic arthritis, and I learned this condition could never be reversed.

No one is prepared for this kind of news. Even though it was comforting that my illness was not life threatening, I had to start to rethink how I was living and working. I have tried many traditional medical and alternative therapies over the past 6 years, and I am now a new woman in more ways than you can imagine.

I am living my life very differently now.

  • I have new daily routines to help my body stay strong and flexible
  • I'm fortunate that I live a relatively pain-free life
  • I also found meaning in all the challenges and triumphs I have experienced.

This transition has been a unique chapter in my life. I believe it became an end in itself instead of a means to an end.

One of the earliest healing conversations I had, once I got some relief from the pain of my arthritic flare-up, was with a dear friend and colleague, Ester Cole. She is a psychologist and therapist. She helped me understand the value of narrative therapy, and how to benefit from it.

Narrative therapy allows someone to share his or her own story through a therapeutic dialogue, and discover how healing that process can be.

Over the years many of my clients have wanted me to help them plan a career change. Some came to me to rebuild their career after losing their job; others wanted to rethink both their work and life situations.

In looking back, it struck me how my clients were asking me the same questions I was asking myself after my flare-up. So I decided to write a book for my clients about my personal experience because I thought it would help them.

I talked to 75 baby boomers about work and life transitions they remembered well. As I talked with more and more men and women about what they experienced, I noticed some common themes emerging through these interviews. My book idea began to take shape.

I define transitions as the time between one crossroads and another.

With each interview I discovered how much people learned about themselves by retelling their own transition story. They were pleasantly surprised that recalling the circumstances the challenges they faced and the supports they found gave them a new and positive perspective on their experience.

The themes of my book Living Through Transitions are meant to guide the reader through work or life transitions in a new way. I emphasize the differences between planned and unplanned transitions, and how to think about work and life changes holistically, and with a new perspective.

Let's first think about how it feels at the start of any transition. This is what I wrote:

"If people's transitions are prompted by unplanned or unexpected events or circumstances, it is their heart that feels the impact first.

Unplanned transitions, whether life- or work-related, usually have abrupt beginnings. When your transition begins unexpectedly, it is your heart that reacts. Your heart reveals how you truly feel. What helps you move beyond the initial shock, despair or sense of confusion is courage of the heart. Ultimately your heart becomes a source of hope and strength. We all show courage of the heart when we talk about how we feel and rediscover our own resilience.

When a transition involves choosing a new direction or setting new priorities in your work or personal life, you require courage of the mind. This means you need to develop a strategic plan that maps out the steps required to bring about the desired shift. Courage of the mind gives you the fortitude to stick to the path and brings you to the end of the transition feeling rejuvenated. Some of the individuals I interviewed for this book had specific expectations that provided a focus for their efforts. Others were simply moving away from a situation they could no longer tolerate. Planned transitions can, therefore, be either proactive or exploratory."

The two kinds of transitions, planned and unplanned, have very different starts, unique phases and very different ends.

In my research I came across many different transition stories. Here are a few examples. One is about a planned work transition and two others were unplanned. Each transition story has a title that refers to how the individuals drew meaning from the lessons they learned during these chapters in their lives. Their names and some of the circumstances have been changed to protect their privacy.

Here is the first story about career change and relocation. The title is "When you seek an opportunity, there is a price".

Charles and Heather were lucky to find new and more satisfying positions throughout their careers. With each new job, they stayed in their home city. But when Charles was offered an international posting, they agreed it suited them both, and accepted the move enthusiastically. The position offered great personal rewards career-wise. And the move would also benefit their young children, and give the whole family a time for exploring and traveling together.

After five years away, though, the lure of jobs closer to their aging parents finally drew them back to Canada. Soon after they returned, their best-laid plans began to unravel. They had a serious car accident and Heather's father died unexpectedly while they were settling into their new home. In other words, their first year back was very difficult. Their deliberate and well-planned work and life change hadn't followed the pattern of earlier transitions. They both experienced more downsides than upsides during this transition. Charles explained it this way, "At a certain point, life presents a bill." They saw this transition as a difficult but very important chapter in their lives in which they learned to cope with the unexpected. They are less likely to plan such a major shift again for some time.

Here is a story about a business closure. The title is, "The universal lesson of defeat".

James's transition was unplanned. He had been managing the Hong Kong offices of a Canadian company and was suddenly asked to close them. He was very upset first, because he believed this was prompted by factors back home that were beyond his control. And he also did not want to leave Hong Kong he and his family had become part of a vibrant community of friends and colleagues. James eventually recalled how he had received some very powerful advice from his grandfather about accepting defeat in a political campaign. The advice was this simple yet memorable statement: "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger."

For James the most significant challenge was accepting the emotional impact of the business closure. At first, he felt confused and betrayed. He knew he had to rebuild his career in a new and different way so that he could let go of his bitterness over what he had lost.

Thanks in part to the advice and support he received from his friends and family, he ended up staying in Hong Kong, becoming involved in a very different kind of work with the help of some of his former clients.

Here is a final story about building new routines during a transition. Title is "Choosing to work where you see the results of your labours".

Larry was downsized from a high tech company just before the summer began. He decided to spend the next six months getting back to routines he had enjoyed early in his life. He had always loved being outside, so he spent the summer as a landscape gardener, and then worked in the winter at a ski resort, rediscovering an early job as a ski instructor.

Larry looked back on this chapter in his work life and described the lesson he learned this way: "You return to the good things about yourself, and the things you like about yourself." After his experience of regained confidence and physical renewal during his transition, Larry found a new job in the high tech industry that fits his new sense of himself.

As you imagine your own past transitions, you may identify with many people I interviewed. Many began with expectations that were very different from how their transition actually unfolded. For some, the transition seemed to take on a life of its own. For others, the transition included both planned and unplanned events or circumstances.

Planned transitions are deliberate. They may not always be logical or sequential steps along a pre-determined path. However, they do usually have a desired end or result. For example, if someone decides to change their work life, or job situation, for whatever reason, many know why but they may not know how. If the change is not urgent, and they are prepared to spend time reviewing a range of options, this process becomes its own journey.

The experience of a planned transition often includes finding opportunities that were not evident before you begin. Being open and spontaneous, and allowing the plan to emerge usually leads to pleasant surprises. The concluding phase of these transitions brings a sense of accomplishment that the journey was worthwhile, no matter how it ends.

Unplanned transitions, on the other hand, start with the unexpected. We are caught off guard, and often paralyzed by an event or circumstance, usually distressing or painful, in our lives or at work. Most of these unplanned transitions have difficult starts. However, I believe people can find meaning in these experiences by living through the transition as an end in itself. By living through a change fully, the experience will become a foundation for the next crossroads and transition.

There are not always positive experiences along the way. Often there are unexpected barriers. People described to me how discouraged they often felt, and how they were not making the progress they had expected. However, most of the people I interviewed, who faced their unplanned transition with courage and determination, did find benefits and positive aspects from the experience of getting through it.

With each kind of transition experience, I believe there are some unique phases that will help make you feel you are spending the time you need to make it worthwhile. Ideally, if you find the transition does become a meaningful chapter in your life, you will use it as a foundation for the next phase.

Change gives us a window onto ourselves. This window tells us about what matters most and reminds us of the people who are really interested in our lives and well-being. It's good to learn about these things. You will be much better prepared for the next transition with this kind of understanding of yourself and who will be there for you.

I believe most people experience five phases during an UNPLANNED transition, whether the transition is work-related or a life or family situation a business failure; diagnosis of a serious illness; death of spouse; or unexpected job loss.

From a psychological perspective, the skills acquired in these phases are also keys to personal growth:

  1. accepting the emotional impact of an unexpected work or life event
  2. getting the support you need to rebuild your confidence
  3. building new routines as you explore new options
  4. giving back to people who have helped you
  5. finding meaning in your transition and moving on.

When I coach people through PLANNED transitions, I encourage them to follow four main steps. Some of my clients have asked me to help them change jobs by moving into a new work field; or guide them while they are taking courses to retrain and consider new work opportunities; or changing their work situation to gain more autonomy.

These are the four main steps:

  1. deciding to make a work or life change
  2. defining your transition experience
  3. telling people about your transition plan
  4. building new routines and new prospects for work or life

In every transition, whether planned or unplanned, there will be times of great progress and times of sideways detours or serendipitous happenings. Take all as they come along with the grace and patience that you would if you had no other responsibilities. Some days will feel very productive and fulfilling. Others will feel slow and discouraging. In the end, if you add up all that happens from one crossroads to another, there is usually some balancing of ups and downs.

Most of the baby boomers I interviewed said they found their lives were very different after their transitions.

The most startling statistic came from answers to the final question I asked everyone I interviewed: Are you living your life differently now as a result of the transition experience you had recently?

  • 89% of planned transitioners said YES
  • almost 100% of unplanned transitioners said YES

Research shows that we are all living longer and staying healthier. If most of us choose to remain actively engaged in our work through our 70s then we will all NEED TO be learning these transition skills.

I would like to leave you with some final thoughts.

With each transition experience, the unique phases help make you feel the time you spend is worthwhile. Ideally, if you find the transition becomes a meaningful chapter in your life, you will be able to use it as a foundation to the next phase.

My key message for you today is that a transition should be experienced as an end in itself. The process may be more important to you than how it ends.

And remember your own transitions are not just individual experiences. They are shared experiences among the people in your work and personal life who spend time with you and care about you. Their perspectives will help you understand what changes seem to be helping you, and what changes you may want to give up.

Life is a continuous experiment in finding out how far you can stretch your limits. You will always remember your stretch chapters as your finest hours. They will define who you are.

Thank you.

Buy the book - Living Through Transitions

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