I know I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating, because our culture does a crap job of helping us understand and live through transition.
When I talk about transition, I mean any change that affects our sense of who we are. Becoming an assistant professor after years of being a graduate student is a transition. Becoming a parent is a transition. Leaving a relationship is a transition. Even moving is a transition. But leaving a career that defines itself as more than just a job? Definitely a transition.
There are three basic stages to transition. I’m going to list them linearly, but they often overlap and repeat and show up all higgledy-piggledy.
Stage 1: Grief
Even when the transition is something you want, grief is always part of the picture, because loss is always part of the picture. Becoming an assistant professor means losing the structure of someone else being in charge, the lovely linear pathway that’s all defined for you. Becoming a parent might mean losing those days when you could do nothing but sleep and watch Netflix. This kind of grief can be hard to recognize and admit to, because you can feel churlish or ungrateful feeling grief around something you want. We have a cultural story that grief only shows up around things you don’t want, so you might question whether or not you really want this thing. But good change and grief can coexist.
When the transition is one you’d rather not have, well, the grief can flatten you. All the manifestations of grief we’re familiar with from the Kubler-Ross model come out to play: denial (no, I can’t leave!), bargaining (maybe if I do X, THEN Y will happen), anger (goddamit, I did everything right!), sadness (but I loved it so), etc.
Stage 2: Destabilization
I’ve heard this stage called the dark night of the soul, and that’s pretty accurate. You’re no longer who you were, and you aren’t yet who you will be, so your sense of self, of who you are, is splintered. There are people who really love this stage, because they love the sense of endless possibility, but for most of us it’s just bewildering and overwhelming and kind of terrifying.
It boils down to one big existential “what the hell am I supposed to do next?”
Stage 3: Coalescing
In this stage, the new version of things is starting to become familiar. You’re starting to feel like maybe you’ll be competent at this. You’re starting to think things will be okay. There’s still a lot you don’t yet know or understand, but the ground is a little more firm under your feet and you basically know which direction to head.
All of this exhausts your brain
In the past few years, there’s been a lot of research on what’s called decision fatigue. Our brains have a finite capacity for decision-making (which includes the application of willpower). When we’ve used up our capacity, our ability to self-regulate, to make considered decisions, and to stick to choices in the face of temptations goes straight into the toilet.
During normal non-transition life, a lot of decisions are pre-made. Problems are pre-solved. You know how to get to the post office. You know where your pants are and which ones are appropriate for this workplace. You know who to ask about that project. You know what the weather will likely do. Habits can get a bad rap, but routine helps us preserve our decision-making powers for other things.
During transition, few decisions are pre-made and few problems are pre-solved. Where’s the post office? Who knows? What are the dinner options? Got me. What’s the right thing to wear to work? Who can help you get that data?
All of this means that your decision-making, problem-solving capacity gets used up really quickly. When you run out, you’re likely to be more emotional, more prone to either freezing or making rash decisions, and more likely to be clumsy.
This is why transition, even transition that seems small in the scheme of your life, can kick your ass. A friend of mine recently started a new job, and even though everything else in her life is the same, she’s coming home from work ready to go to bed without dinner. She’s just that worn out.
When the transition is bigger, or when transitions are piled on top of one another (as happens when we combine moving with new jobs or new careers), well, the flattening can be epic.
Self-care is the only thing that can blunt the edges of the flattening, but nothing can actually make it not exhausting. Unfortunately, the only way to get to not exhausted is to keep going until things become familiar.
So if you’re leaving or even thinking about leaving, know that it’s not only okay, but completely normal to feel grief, to feel unmoored and panicky, and to feel completely worn out by all of it. This, too, shall eventually pass.