It happens to all of us at some period in our lives. Our world is shaken, the support foundations that we depended upon crumble. Nothing is assured.
It feels like being knocked over by an ocean wave. As we tumble through the surf, we don’t know where or how to plant our feet. It feels endless, that we will never be able to find the sand again, for a few seconds, we wonder if this is the end. Our feet finally do plant themselves in the sand, and we stand up. But we are not the same, we are covered in sand, disheveled, disoriented and maybe sporting some minor scratches.
From now on, the ocean is never the same. The steel-gray blue, undulating swells are no longer beckoning. There is something dangerous, unseen. We now realize that these rhythmic rolling swells hide a deadly power and undertow.
We may take a while to venture back in, but if we do, we are mindful, this is not the same predictable space. We can no longer fully trust the seashore.
This is an analogy for life. We swim in those waves with the unseen danger lurking below, lulled by their predictability into a false security. We are confident that we can ride them. But after being tumbled, we know that these familiar waves hide a raw and deadly power; and we are no longer immune to them.
Transition periods hit us when we are least expecting them. We have been lulled by the gentle waves of life and our experience into believing that we have constructed a solid, predictable fortress and we have built strong foundations. Others may be vulnerable, but not us.
And then it happens. A death, a divorce, a break-up, an unexpected life change, an accident, an illness, losing a job or a friend; a family member who is struggling. This is our reckoning. The secure platform that we built was just temporary and maybe even an illusion. We are left with uncertainty, just tumbling, tumbling, tumbling.
But sometimes these periods are just caused by where we are in life. Sometimes we need a life correction. We need to re-evaluate our goals. While mid-life crises are well documented, it is beginning to be recognized that there is also a mid-twenties crisis. Newly “adulted” children who worked hard to get into their chosen colleges, or careers, or a new car, or life experiences and they wonder…is this really what I wanted? Is this the right path? Usually, the job is not what they expected, it may be dull. Entry level jobs can be tedious and rarely allow us to use our skills. And all that education…most of it is irrelevant. Young adults in trades must “bide their time” either as an apprentice or waiting until they can get their own clients and the resources to buy their own equipment. New adults recognize that choices come with consequences and there is no parent to fix them. (How disappointing it was for me to realize that I couldn’t eat ice cream whenever I wanted it.)
We wonder how it happened, how or where to plant our feet and sometimes blaming ourselves for missing the signs. And when we come out of one of these situations…we are forever changed. Our belief in our own invincibility is gone and our shattered confidence takes time to rebuild. While our scars and scratches may be invisible to others, they are not to us.
And in the moment when we are churning and rolling underwater, we will latch onto anything to get it to stop.
Curiously, this also follows the path of scientific discovery. Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, recognized that science doesn’t proceed linearly either. Usually a theory is proposed, scientists try to prove or disprove it, then a new theory or a new discovery occurs and science “jumps” to a new model. Progress in science is not an inexorable path to knowledge, instead it is a series of paradigm shifts. (Think how Einstein changed the paradigm of time and space.)
Most religions, philosophies, faiths, etc. tell us to treat this as a gift. A time to reshape our life. Before this event, we were too busy living our lives to see that we might be headed in the wrong direction. Or we got overconfident, ascribing success to our accomplishments, rather than good fortune. We didn’t recognize that we are cycling fast because the wind was at our back.
I like to refer to it as the universe telling us to stop, reflect, quit doing what I am doing. But I don’t know why the universe has to be so mean about it.
I did a lot of searches, have read a lot of books, taken courses, and have consulted with life coaches, therapists, friends, and advisors. And I have compiled a list of things you can do when you hit this period of uncertainty.
- First, grieve. Give yourself permission to wallow in your loss…not forever, but long enough. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut for grief, you can’t go around it, you have to go through it.
- Next, detach from your current direction. Human nature is to “double down” and do what we were doing more rigorously, instead of the listening to the call to stop.
- Reflect on how you got here. Was it something within your control? If it was, why did it happen? Was it something out of your control (death, firing, illness)? In this case, it will take more time to find out where to go from here. Ask…what is the universe (or God) trying to teach me?
- Mentally try out different paths but stay put. Remember this is an unpleasant time filled with anxiety and disorientation. The urge is to try to find the easiest, quickest way out of this. It only causes you to repeat your mistakes or make bad choices. (Running “from something” rather than “to something.) You are in this space, no matter how unpleasant, for a reason, to learn something about yourself.
- Remember to ground yourself. Your thoughts will scatter in irrelevant directions, making it difficult to concentrate and solve even simple problems.
- Ask yourself questions. What do I love? What am I good at? What will give me purpose? Often it feels hard to get answers to these questions, certainly some of them evolve. But sometimes, if we don’t believe that we know the answer, we really might, it is just that we don’t LIKE the answer. (For example, staying in a bad relationship.)
- Make a fluid plan. This is a journey and, as awful as it is, it will take a while; sometimes years, to find your path. And you will make many detours along the way. Your trusted advisor can help you before you go too far on the path.
- Create simple rules, baby steps and set reminders: For example, today, I am going to take a walk in nature.
- Meditate and ask for guidance.
- If you can afford it, get a coach or a therapist. They are trained to see patterns that may be obscured.
- Balance the need to stop making excuses and hold yourself accountable. At the same time, don’t judge yourself too harshly. Everybody gets here at some point in their life. For example, if it is an event over which you had no control (e.g., death, health); recognize that you did not choose this and don’t punish yourself for being lost.
- Find trustworthy people who love you and will be honest. Ask them for their advice. Choose people who won’t judge you or get frustrated with you for being lost. Their advice may be wrong, but they have your best interest at heart. And if you don’t agree with them, at least delay your decision until you are no longer anxious. Rely on trusted friends and family members over and over again.
During this period, you are most susceptible to predators, cults, malevolent people, and others who promise to have the answers. They don’t. How could they? They don’t know you. A move in this direction is very dangerous and can make a temporary existential crisis a permanent one.
And remember that this is something that everyone must go through. This is what can make life so difficult…but you will get through it, with the help of loved ones.
Henry David Thoreau, found his lost self in nature: “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand…and resolve only ever to be ourselves.”
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.