Posts Tagged 'Transformation'

Navigating Transitions: What We Never Learned in School

Change is the one constant in life. And yet, we are often surprised when it comes. Parents reward us for mastering routines of hygiene and self-discipline. Our educational system grooms us for progressive levels of security, reinforcing the belief that skill mastery yields the predictable comforts of a settled life. As we age, we are measured by our gains, not our losses, our stability, not our vulnerability.

That’s why so many people are devastated when the temple of their familiar world is shaken through unemployment, divorce, disease, death, and similar forces of upheaval.  We believe in change as long as the wheel of fortune spins in our favor. When change defies our expectations with unpleasant results, a lifetime of conditioning can become suspect, unleashing the dark designs of our imaginations.

Throughout the centuries, philosophers, theologians, and psychologists have attempted to illuminate the nature of change, from the ancient hexagrams of the I Ching ( the Chinese Book of Change) to the stages of loss identified in the last century by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D., who describes a non-linear progression through denial, sadness, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. One of my favorite frameworks, however, was written by a little-known English professor whose last name is practically synonymous with change – William Bridges.

In his 1980s groundbreaking book “Transitions,” Bridges maps out the cycle of change into three discrete stages that is at once counter-intuitive and overly simplistic. According to Bridges, every transition begins with an ending and ends with a beginning. In between endings and beginning is a discomfiting neutral zone that most people would rather avoid but is essential for personal growth.

Why begin with the end? Writes Bridges: “Divorces, deaths, job changes, moves, illnesses, and many lesser events disengage us from the contexts in which we have known ourselves. They break up the old cue system that served to reinforce our roles and pattern our behavior.”

Within the rubric of “endings,” he identifies five fundamental tasks one must master in order to successfully move to the next chapter. They are disengagement (separation from the familiar), dismantling (letting of what is no longer needed), disenchantment (discovering that certain things no longer make sense), disidentification (reevaluating one’s identity) and disorientation (a vague sense of losing touch with one’s reality).

Once endings are complete, people progress to an uncomfortable but growth-filled neutral zone which Bridges describes as “an empty in-between time when…everything feels as though it’s up for grabs and you don’t quite know who you are or how you’re supposed to behave.”

Most people would prefer to skip this stage. However, by attempting to leapfrog past the neutral zone, they may miss important insights and gifts, putting them at risk of poor decision-making in the future. Bridges explains that, not unlike the concept of meditation or the Sabbath, “only by returning to the formlessness of primal energy that renewal can take place. We need it just the way an apple tree needs the cold of winter.”

As the neutral zone is discomfiting, beginnings can be anti-climatic. Usually, there are no bells, whistles, or red carpets, just a “faint intimation of something different, a new theme in the music, and a strange fragrance on the breeze.” Although some individuals may feel invigorated by beginnings, often it takes time to become adjusted to a new identity or situation. Even a beginning considered positive by societal standards – like getting married, having a child, or getting promoted – can be extremely stressful as those affected become attuned to an unfamiliar landscape.

Although no one can escape life’s inevitable transitions, people’s coping styles vary depending on a variety of factors from biology to their family of origin. Talking to a trusted friend or mental health professional can be helpful if you or someone you know shows signs of depression and anxiety. Reflecting on Bridges’ framework, however, may help demystify transitions so they don’t seem quite so scary or overwhelming. Liberated from our fears, we can dance courageously with the unknown, mining important life lessons from every little step.

Stay tuned for information on my “Coping with Transitions” workshop at the JCC in Manhattan this winter.

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Reclaiming the Authorship Rights of Our Career Narratives

When I first moved to San Francisco in the early 90s, I was frequently pegged for being a New Yorker, and it wasn’t because of my barely detectable accent. Within seconds of meeting a new acquaintance, I would inevitably ask “What do you do?”

More often than not, I received responses I didn’t expect: “I paint,” “I windsurf,” “I’m training for a biathlon,” or “I help at-risk kids.”

I wanted to know what they did for a living – they told me how they lived.

Granted I was young and most of the people I met were 20-somethings who didn’t have mortgages to pay or families to support. But this broader paradigm has given me the flexibility to navigate career transitions that would have been difficult had I remained too firmly attached to the letters after my name (MSW, LCSW) or the size of my writing portfolio.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s hard-earned status and credentials. But glomming on to titles that complete sentences like “I am a ________________” (stockbroker, lawyer, etc.) can trigger an identity crisis when confronted with precarious life circumstances like, say, a recession.

One of the key factors in determining emotional resiliency is what social psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” A locus of control, which can be either external or internal, is a belief about our power to effect change in our lives. Those with a dominant external locus of control believe their destiny lies beyond their sphere of influence. Consequently, they often feel victimized. People with a strong internal locus of control, on the other hand, believe their decisions hold sway over their future. While they may be unable to avoid natural disasters, the death of loves ones, economic downturns, and similar such crises, they feel empowered because they can choose their response.

Personally speaking, an internal locus of control has helped me remain true to my calling during periods of professional upheaval. Several years ago, I took a detour from my social work career, accepting a position as a development writer at a large philanthropy because I needed a job that paid decently and gave me flexibility to care and eventually grieve for a terminally ill loved one. I had been an unfulfilled journalist before obtaining my MSW and earning my clinical license at an outpatient addiction and mental health counseling center in Maryland. But as a newcomer to New York City, I was in no position to start a private practice and all the social work jobs either paid a pittance or had client quotas that would have impeded my care-giving responsibilities.

Some wise person once said “if you don’t love what you do, love why you’re doing it.” The job worked for me because I was able to support myself and care for my family member. Yet, whenever I gave out my business card with my job title “Senior Development Writer,” I felt a sense of betrayal. I had to constantly remind myself of who I was, why I was there, and where I wanted to go.

Because I remained true to my inner compass, I gradually found my way back. When the cues presented themselves, I spoke with colleagues about my professional background and interests. Eventually, I was invited to serve on committees where my experience as a clinical social worker was recognized by peers and experienced clinicians, leading to connections and opportunities that helped me complete the transition. Today, not only do I have a growing private practice, but I have also taught therapeutic writing workshops (combining my love of writing and psychology) at such high-profile venues as the 92nd Street Y and the JCC in Manhattan. This September, I will try my hand at academia, teaching master’s level Psychopathology at Long Island University’s School of Social Work.

I offer this neither as an invitation for praise nor as encouragement for taking the road less traveled, but rather as an alternative paradigm for job-seekers who may need to temporarily suspend their attachment to their professional credentials so they can reinvent themselves in an “any job is better than no job” economy.

In my workshop, The You Behind Your Resume:  Writing from a Novel Perspective When You’re in Career Transition, my primary goal is to help recently unemployed individuals tap into their internal locus of control and remember that they are much more than their last salaried position.

Most participants are Baby-Boomers. The very same generations that challenged the Vietnam War, broke with social convention and achieved unprecedented levels of affluence now find themselves depicted as hapless victims of an economy that favors youth over experience. These world-weary job seekers tell me they are tired of having their stories told to them – “I’m sorry but you’re over-qualified” – or about them – “Longer Unemployment for Those 45 and Older”  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/us/13age.htm.

The first question I pose to the group is “Who would you be if you weren’t________________?”  I instruct them to fill in the blank and answer the question, writing continuously for four minutes. By inviting participants to see themselves as multi-dimensional characters whose sum total of life experiences – as mothers, husbands, sons, rebels, artists, epicureans, caregivers, environmentalists, athletes, survivors, lovers, etc. – subsumes their resumes, participants can reclaim the authorship rights of their lives as they become reacquainted with their larger storylines.

In another exercise, I ask participants to imagine their lives as novels. I instruct them to assign a title to the current chapter of their life story and write a brief summary in the third person narrative.

A 60-something woman from Park Slope shared the following:

Sprung Like Athena
After 35 years with the same company, the only transition she had to make was from one side of the door to the      other. Without ever acknowledging the albatross that was around her neck, suddenly, with two steps, it wasn’t.

Empowering participants to tell their stories from a perspective that is personally meaningful instills them with a sense of well-being that may not only impress a prospective interviewer, but remain with them regardless of whether they are offered a job.

The Difference Between a Monologue and a Dialogue

Once in a while, when a conversation with someone I care about takes an unexpected turn that is not to my liking, I am tempted to stand up and yell “C-U-U-U-U-T!”

“Excuse me,” I imagine myself saying, leaning over the person’s shoulder, megaphone dangling at my hip. “But you are not following the script. Your lines are, ‘Yes, of course, you are right. I agree wholeheartedly. I will do (such and such). Anything to make you happy.’”

“Oh,” they respond, slowly emerging from a daze. And they repeat the lines I have fed them. “Great, that’s more like it,” I reply. “Now say it with feeling.”

Of course, my fantasy conversations are usually just that – fantasies. And they’re not dialogues either; they are monologues…between me and my ego.

Although a monologue is technically defined as a “prolonged talk or discourse by a single speaker,” conversations between two parties who are not really listening to each other are essentially monologues masquerading as dialogues.

Most people spend their time vacillating between monologues and dialogues – the latter being far less frequent. At least, this was the theory postulated by early 20th century existentialist philosopher Martin Buber in his signature work “I – Thou.”  http://buber.de/en/

Buber described the difference between monologues and dialogues as an “I – It” vs. “I – Thou” dynamic. In each case, the “I” represents the self – essentially, the totality of our feelings, values, and perceptions that comprise our personal daily universe.

According to Buber, the essence of existence lies in how we interact with others. The “I – It” relationship is about objectification. We relate to people as “its” every time fear and self-interest interfere with our being able to fully experience the exquisite reality of another human being. At its worst and most obvious, “I-itting” is responsible for all genres of human atrocities – genocide, homicide, domestic violence, racism, and sexism. In modern terms, “I – it” would perhaps best describe the paralysis between Republicans and Democrats, Israelis and Palestinians, gays and fundamentalists.

In our intimate or collegial relationships, however, “I-itting” can be much more insidious. Monologues can easily creep into and potentially corrupt the most innocent of conversations, often unintentionally. This usually occurs when we ignore other people’s boundaries, focus too much on making a good impression, or engage with someone based on our perceptions of how well they can serve our personal needs.

Over time, “itting” can lead to feelings of alienation. Most people turn to psychotherapy either because they feel someone else is “itting” them or because they are “itting” others. Perhaps they’re feeling tuned out by a spouse, engaging in empty sexual relationships, neglecting their children, or living as strangers (“its”) to their authentic selves. Even as a therapist, I must monitor my own tendencies to “it” my clients by imposing my values, judgments, expectations, or need to feel competent.

That’s why authentic dialogue, not dueling monologues, is the healing aspect of the therapeutic relationship – or any relationship for that matter. To experience the full-bodied richness of an encounter with another person without motive or guile is what Buber describes as the “I-Thou” relationship.

The “I-Thou” relationship is about letting go of agendas. It’s about authenticity, mutuality, witnessing, and truth-telling. It respects differences and embraces separate but equally valid realities, which requires the courage to take risks and trust the process.

Of course, letting go of appearances and attachments to outcomes is often easier said than done. “I – Thou” thus requires a fully present “I.” What does that mean? A wise friend of mine has the same birthday wish every year – to have greater intimacy with himself. Without that, he explains, he cannot be intimate with anyone else. Such is the “I – Thou” ideal.

One of the hardest things we can ever do, and the greatest act of love, is to put aside our own agendas and really listen to another person.  That’s why my fantasy monologues are never quite as satisfying as real-life dialogues, when the mutual exchange of feelings and perspectives can deepen, heal, and cement the bonds of friendship, partnerships, and familial relationships.

So while I may be tempted to redirect conversations that make me nervous, I know what I must ultimately do – put down my megaphone, toss out the script, take a deep breath, and say, “yes, I am listening.” And mean it.

Step Back from the Same Old Story….and Check Out the Landscape

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Imagine walking into a neighborhood bookstore and discovering a novel with a familiar picture on the cover. Flipping through the pages, you are struck by the eerie sense that you’ve read this before. As you begin to recognize characters and scenes, wincing at some and smiling at others, you realize this is the story of your life.

Would you feel love and compassion for the main character, or would you think “what a schmuck?’ According to the latest psychological research, you are likely to view your life more favorably at a distance than up close.

A 2005 study reported in the Journal of Psychological Science illustrated that people who described previous scenes in their lives in the third person narrative (“he” did this and “she” did that) spoke about their past with more confidence and optimism than those who recalled similar scenes in the first person (“I” did such and such).

The study was described in a May 2007 New York Times article entitled “This is Your Life (and How You Tell It).” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/health/psychology/22narr.html
An excerpt from this article illustrates that, not only are human beings natural storytellers, but also that how we tell a story influences how it unfolds:

“Psychologists have shown just how interpretations of memories can alter future behavior. In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing moments. Half of the students re-imagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person.’

‘Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth. And their behavior changed, too.”

In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to write about the current chapter in their lives in the third person voice the way an author would sketch a main character, freeing them to see beyond their usual point of view. The third-person gives them an elevated perspective on their personal narrative, as if the were watching their lives on a movie screen, reading their story in a book, or having an out-of-body experience.

While some participants give me strange looks when I ask them to describe a chapter of their life in the third person, the results are always affirming. Everyone is always surprised at how much easier it is to express themselves.

Why is this technique so effective? Our challenge often lies in getting past our ego – the big “I.”  While a good, healthy “I” gives us a sense of our place in the world, which is necessary to successfully navigate changes, the very letter itself oozes subjectivity and creates the illusion of permanence.

When we begin a sentence in the first person with “I am this” or “I think that,” we become automatically attached to the descriptors that follow. This can be potentially problematic. Statements like “I am a rich, successful stockbroker” or “I am a professional athlete” may evoke powerful emotional attachments that, if challenged by external circumstances like the market crashing or getting permanently injured, can trigger an identity crisis.

In psychological terms, writing in the third person essentially sneaks past our defenses by tricking the censoring ego into thinking that we are describing someone else’s life, even though we’re describing our own.

Being able to see our stories from an unfamiliar perspective can open our eyes to new insights that can transform ingrained behaviors. From the perch of the third-person narrative, we can step out of our stories, check out the landscape, and determine whether the roads we’re taking are navigable or need to be rerouted. And from there, who knows what we’ll discover?

Character Development: The Heart of Any Story Worth Living

A friend of mine who’s had a disproportionate number of struggles in her 45 years on earth, bristles whenever I try to comfort her by espousing the virtues of character development. “Great, another f-ing personal growth experience,” she says.

While I completely empathize, I sometimes wonder whether we can ever really know how much character-building is too much. From Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Jung, to the Vilna Goan, many philosophical and spiritual luminaries have subscribed to the belief that adversity cultivates character, challenging the forces of  inertia so that we may face a fear, strengthen emotional muscle, eradicate self-defeating thoughts, or break an unhealthy relationship pattern.

Personally speaking, character development is why I became a psychotherapist. It is also one of the reasons I go to the movies or pick up a book – I want to witness personal transformation, and be transformed in the process. I want to help the chronically timid woman discover previously untapped reserves of strength and courage. I want to read about the political refugee who finds salvation in friendship and small, meaningful acts of humanity.

Unfortunately, character development doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Life typically presents us with circumstances that bump up against our rougher edges. These circumstances, which we might call conflicts, present us with opportunities to refine these growth edges or run the risk of becoming, well…even edgier.

Of course, no one ever consciously desires conflicts. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid them, the fight-or-flight response being hard-wired into our DNA. However, in the world of novels and film, not ony do we expect conflicts, but also we recognize, consciously or not, that they are an important part of any story worth telling.

As many of us recall from high school English class, conflict is a basic element of a story that results from the interaction between the protagonist (the main character) and the antagonist, typically a person (boss), group of people (government), situation (hurricane) or personal shortcoming (addiction).

Conflicts in novels and films shape the plot and move the story forward, presenting the main character with opportunities to overcome inner obstacles, potentially leading to epiphanies, life lessons, and psychological rebirth.

Just like in novels, the chapters of our lives often present us with opportunities to strengthen areas within ourselves that haven’t been fully developed. In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to explore through writing character traits that might be cultivated through a conflictual encounter with an antagonist in a recent episode of their personal narrative.

I tell participants that “conflict” can be interpreted literally as a person who is giving them grief, or as loosely as ambivalence about making an important decision. Once they have identified their antagonist, I encourage them to imagine how the conflict with their antagonist might help them develop personal strengths in areas where they haven’t historically felt so strong.

For example, a successful executive with a history of being judgemental about the less fortunate may, upon losing his job, find himself developing a greater degree of compassion for himself and for others. Similarly, a newly divorced woman who took a passive role in her relationship with an alcoholic spouse may need to become assertive to move forward in life and secure the welfare of her children.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we accept that our antagonist has something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems of of the situation whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. Suddenly responding to conflict with anger and resentment or, alternatively, with  introspection and empowerment, becomes a conscious choice. This new awareness can transform our personal narratives into paeans to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, reminding us that character development is not only the heart of any story worth reading, but also worth living.


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