Major life transitions typically destabilize your life and leave you feeling you no longer know yourself or the world around you. If you take the time and energy to work through the transition consciously, you can come to know yourself better than ever as well as find a more authentic and satisfying way to be in the world. In a major transition, it is normal to feel a jumble of many different emotions because things really are different. I’d like to share two brief case studies that address the experiences one can have when dealing with life transitions. The names used are not the clients’ real names.
Florence came to her therapy session in turmoil. “I’ve got this awful burning sensation in my stomach, and it’s not acid indigestion,” she said. Flo looked agitated and weary. “Can you tell me more about that burning sensation?” “Well, it’s not just that. I feel like I’m going to burst, just explode. And I don’t know what it’s about.”
Florence lived a busy, stressful life. Her family and her job of several years took a lot of energy. She had an autistic son and older parents who would soon need to be moved out of their home of 51 years. She loved both her family and her job, even though she sometimes felt overextended. Flo tried to resolve these issues by exploring her conscious feelings with no relief. She understood everything about her life situation except what was causing the burning sensation in her gut. It didn’t make any sense to her.
I asked Flo if she recalled any dreams since our previous session. “I did have a troubling dream. I saw this huge bonfire. And in the middle of it I saw a person, a figure, and it looked like it was eating somebody, shoving a human body into its mouth.” Flo shuddered.
Cautiously I asked her to talk more about what was going on in her current life, and notice the sensations that came up. (I was wondering where she might feel both “burned up” and “devoured.”) By the end of the session, Flo had begun to recognize that her beloved family and her satisfying job didn’t leave her much time or energy for herself.
In the course of further work, Flor and I realized that she had put a few strong interests on hold to address the needs of others. “Devoured,” she realized, was a good way to image the demands she felt from many sides. In moments when Flo was not focused on job or family, thoughts about those neglected interests flitted through her consciousness. Those interests were “heating up.” They were the “fire” that was “burning up” the all-consuming obligations — the devouring figure in the dream — that Flo had taken on.
Over the course of several months, Flo came to see that the balance between obligations she wanted to fulfill, and nurturing and cultivating personal needs and interests was lopsided. It was difficult for her to make choices that did not immediately respond to other people’s needs. She needed to set boundaries to allow herself time for the things she loved: spiritual reading and pottery. As she chose more consciously and deliberately to nurture herself, she experienced less and less stress and the burning sensation in her gut gradually diminished. Flo began to be more satisfied with her life.
Roger worked hard at his job managing the shipping and receiving department of a local business. He was efficient and conscientious, generally liked by his co-workers, but his interactions with them were usually rather shallow. When I asked Roger about his interpersonal communication, he said he joked around a lot and didn’t feel he could relate to anyone very deeply.
Roger had been married for 11 years. His wife worked as a pharmaceutical rep. Roger’s wife told him she wanted a divorce. I asked Roger to tell me how he felt. “I’m coming apart at the seams,” he said. “I don’t know if I can hold it together.” Roger’s world— the structure by which he and his wife had lived for most of their marriage—was indeed dissolving, and Roger’s feelings clearly depicted what was happening.
“Yes, Roger,” I said, “the day-to-day world you have known is indeed breaking apart. So it feels like your world in fragmenting.” “The structure of your life is changing. This is one of the ways people feel when they’re in the middle of a major transition. It doesn’t feel good, and I know what I’m saying isn’t much comfort.” Roger didn’t look very reassured.
“You can get through this and come out the other side in better shape than you are now. What you will have to do – and I’ll be there to help you stay afloat – is, first, remember that there really is important structure in your life. You’ve got your work, and you’re good at it. Second, we’ll find ways for you to deepen your personal interactions so you are not emotionally isolated.”
Roger looked frightened. “I don’t know how to do anything but joke around!” he protested. “Yes, that’s probably part of what went wrong in your marriage, Roger. People need deeper connection than joking around. You can learn new skills that invite people to share themselves with you in a more satisfying way. And you can find ways of showing others more of who you are. Transitions can lead to something better—but you have to be willing to do the necessary work to make that happen.”
Over the course of several months, Roger and I met weekly. I suggested various materials he could study and we discussed how he could apply what he was learning. We explored ways he could be more authentic and invite people into deeper conversations.
His wife followed through with the divorce. It was hard on Roger. Yet at the same time, he recognized he was learning to engage people in more meaningful ways. Roger is still in transition, but now he feels that he is rebuilding his world in a more satisfying way. He’s getting his feet back on the more solid ground of his authentic nature.
Florence’s burning sensation in the belly and Roger’s feeling that he was falling apart are two of the several experiences people can have when their status quo is beginning to change. When your life has been too narrow, the life force in you challenges your limited range. Both Florence and Roger had been living inauthentically, which restricted their lives.
Many people feel as though they are being confined, imprisoned, restricted, tied down. As they explore their lives in therapy, they begin to recognize that for all the freedom they have experienced they don’t feel very substantial or grounded. Their lives are provisional. A transition is one of many life experiences that can cause our lives to feel less than we desire. We all go through transitions. It’s part of the natural life process. Whether or not these transitions lead to a fuller, deeper, more mature life depends on how we deal with the changes.
Dec, 2016 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL. To schedule an appointment, contact him at 608.217.5184.