Cultivating Resilience in Transition

I’m in transition. AGAIN.

When I was a kid, I assumed that adult life would be made of long periods of stability characterized by short periods of transition.

Admittedly, my assumptions about adult life were a product of a 1970s stable upbringing, good schools, married parents, and growing up in the house my folks still live in. And these assumptions themselves are a product of intersections race, class, gender, and an able-body. A career for most people used to mean working a single job for thirty or forty years and the promise of a pension at the end. For blue collar workers in manufacturing jobs, strong unions meant the possibility of attaining the American dream on working class wages.  (Of course, things were not stable or prosperous for a lot of people. The multiple oppressions and resulting movements of the 1960s and 1970s upended a lot of ideas about stable social arrangements.)

Fast forward to the world of work today, one so throughly changed by neoliberal economic policy that we can scarcely imagine the concept of stable employment. In today’s “gig” economy, precarity is the norm. People no longer have one job; we’re expected to juggle five temporary jobs at once. Even in those final bastions of job stability, such as tenure-track university professorships, neoliberalism has taken its toll. Contingent faculty is now the norm amid a shrinking number of tenure track jobs. In today’s world of precarity, chaos and transition now characterize people’s working lives.

I quit my job this week, so I’m in transition again. Like just about everyone, I hate change. Change triggers all of my fears at the same time in an alarming emotional circuitry overload. If I let my mind start running, I convince myself that transition can only lead to a dystopic future in which I’m destitute and alone.

I quit my job because I want to explore some new things. (As I often tell people, neither jobs nor relationships require crisis levels of drama to quit.) In the last year, I’ve dealt extensively with other people’s traumas. Although I’ve developed a deep understanding of the intricacies of serious trauma, dealing with it on a daily basis left me exhausted. In case you’ve ever wondered if vicarious trauma is a Thing, I am here to tell you that it definitely is. You can’t swim in other people’s trauma and not be affected by it in both small and profound ways. Sometimes not even heroic amounts of self-care could entirely ease my vicarious trauma.

Right now, I want to move away from the world of trauma and move towards the world of healing. I want to do more with my own writing (which much to my ever lasting surprise, people sometimes take quite seriously). I want more creative and engaging work. I want to build communities and relationships. I want to teach, but on my own terms. I want to live in Latin America again without waiting for retirement to do so. I want to be my own boss and call the shots.

So I started dreaming and planning and brainstorming.

The big dream, I soon realized, was that of being a writer in Mexico. I also wanted to start writing retreats centered around getting people through transition and/or helping heal from trauma.

So, people, I’m ready to do this. I’m jumping. However, no matter how well prepared or how wonderful the eventual payoff, jumping into unknown water almost always feels like the wrong thing to do. Sometimes the freezing temperature of the water makes it hard to breathe. Other times the water isn’t clear, but rather a muddy brown color. Sometimes the current flows in the opposite direction than we expect or threatens to drag us under completely.

Getting through transition requires us to cultivate resilience. If we’re not focusing on cultivating resilience, we’re probably cultivating resistance to change. Resisting personal transitions and life changes often leads to even greater emotional upheaval. However, getting through transition often requires that tricky art of “leaning in.” Yes, transition is often hideously uncomfortable, but it’s getting comfortable with discomfort that will get us through.

Here’s what I’m doing to get through this next transition:

  • Remember that your track record of getting through terrible things is actually 100%. I’ve been through all kinds of bizarre life and career transitions and have always landed on my feet. 
  • Assess your resources. Some of your resources may be material, but your greatest resource will be relationships. Your network can do amazing things. A lot of people don’t use their networks as effectively as they could, because they ask for vague things that no one can help with. (”Well, I’d sort of like a job that has something to do with teaching…”) People cannot help you if they don’t know what you need. When you do need to ask your network for something, you’ll need to be specific. If you need a piano, ask for a piano. If you need to talk to someone who works at the National Archives, ask people to put you in touch. Bumping up your networking will also open new possibilities and put you in contact with people who can help.
  • Feel the feelings about transition and change. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant and every cell in your body just wants life to go back to feelings of normality and safety. Fear is the natural companion of any kind of creative venture. It’s uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to prevent you from doing what you want to do in life. Meditate on just letting the fear be present, but without doing anything about it.
  • Identify foundations. What are you building on that’s already present? What is your foundation made of? How can you redirect just a bit? Identify what’s already working and figure out how to redirect a little bit in a different direction. In my case, I’m already writing, I have experience leading groups, I’ve lived in Latin America, I have oodles of experience with trauma and transition, and I’ve already done teaching and workshops. I just need to redirect slightly towards running writing retreats in Mexico.
  • Practicing self-care, even when (especially when) it feels like work. Pulling off what feels like a major life change is never easy (although it may be less than a major life change if you’re building on existing foundations, as described above). Pulling off a major life change from a depleted position is even harder. I’m ramping up my self-care, focusing on sleep, exercise, meditation, and healthy eating.
  • Assess what you need to learn. In my case, I need to learn more about marketing and running a business. No one is born knowing everything. Having a PhD doesn’t make anyone a successful business owner. Nevertheless, I think being self-employed draws on a lot of skills I already have. Maths terrify me, so I’ll need to learn to reach out and ask for help. The idea of marketing sounds perfectly awful, so I want to learn to do it in a way that feels authentic and real and not like I’m selling things.
  • You (I) don’t have to know all the answers right now.
  • Envision the future. What you see is what you get. I’m choosing to embrace a positive vision of the future in which I’m successful and happy.

Transition often feels like an ending, but they’re also the beginning of new stories, experiences, and adventures. Here’s to the next one.