Chapter 21 by Leia Francisco | Posted 9/17/22
"Writing about transitions brings a wisdom beyond just thinking and talking about them." —Transition journal of Leia Francisco, August 4, 2008
With your first breath, you begin a life of transition. You live in the continual ebb and flow of these interruptions. Significant transitions transform how you see yourself, a particular situation, or life itself. Even the most challenging transition offers you a new chapter, a new wisdom.
You have already lived life-altering transitions, and you may be in a transition as you read this. Maybe you are facing a change in your family (e.g., grandparenting, the empty nest, divorce, or loss of a loved one). Maybe you have a new job or career, or maybe you unexpectedly lost a job. And a difficult change in your health may point to a new direction in your life.
Every transition interrupts your life, often unexpectedly. A transition is how you respond to a change or event, how you feel, think, and act. These events seldom come in single file but often as a cluster of changes. I call these "pinging transitions" because each transition bounces off the others. Each requires time and energy.
Here is a typical example. "Emily" came to me for coaching, overwhelmed by transitions. Late in life, she found her marriage was falling apart, and at the same time, she lost her job as a sales manager. At the same time, her daughter moved back home due to her own job loss. How, Emily wondered, could she deal with all of this?
As it is for all of us, the key to Emily's navigating transitions was first understanding how transitions work. They consist of three fluid, overlapping phases: letting go, moving through the in-between, and creating the new role or situation — the new way.
Think back to your past transitions and the push and pull of each phase. As a young adult leaving home, you may have taken a job or pursued more education, but the process of being an adult pulled you between your old life and carving out your independence. When the economy takes a dive, people may lose a job or need to find a different type of work, which calls for letting go and moving from the old work to future work. Every transition is unique to you. Only you can determine how long it will take and how intense your reaction will be. No one else can tell you what your transition is or is not.
Over the years of transition coaching, I've seen how journaling supports transition in ways that talking and thinking about transitions do not. Transition journal-keepers mention discovering more parts of their transition, more possibilities, and deeper personal power. My clients and students continually express how much writing helps them see things — and new possibilities — more clearly.
My transition journal began when I left Washington, DC, for Texas in 2007. My journal was a structure and a nonjudgmental vessel for my feelings. In the roller coaster of transition, I could record feelings, thoughts, images, dreams, and questions about transitioning to a new place and way of being. Over time, those reactions were distilled into themes for redefining my career and lifestyle. I ended that journal by saying that I could see how all of us, even in the harshest climate, are "meant to bloom again and again."
In a big transition, you try to figure out how to manage the messiness of transitions. You may feel anxious, hopeful, fatigued, and excited. Your inside world and outside world are out of sync. Journaling regularly helps you see things from a different perspective and capture details you may otherwise miss. And you do not need to be a writer. Just be you.
Journaling sets the stage for the new chapter and offers a record of your transitions and your strengths in each phase of the transition. Pick the best time and journaling format to meet your needs at the moment. Date each entry. If you can, keep your journal flow by writing on a regular basis.
As you journal, you will want to know what you must leave behind, what no longer works for you — whether tangible or intangible. The military person returning to civilian life gives up a uniform and highly structured career and culture. A new widow may feel the loss of a partner, changes in her daily life, loneliness, and how she sees herself. Every change, even happy ones, affects us with loss. We grieve. Becoming a parent brings joy and releases parts of the old lifestyle. A promotion means recognition and more money but can also change work relationships and locations.
The emotional process of letting go does not take place all at once. If you did try to let go of everything at once, you would feel overwhelmed. As you journal about endings, your body and heart will tell you when you are ready for each ending. It is also empowering and comforting to journal about what you do not have to let go of, such as your values, friendships, dreams, skills, and passions.
As you go through your transition, you can reassess what needs to end or not. Only you, the transition traveler, can make that decision.
In your past transitions, you will recall that uneasy feeling of floating between the past and future, the old and the new, with boundaries and routines dissolving. A common expression of this phase is, "I am falling apart." It is as if the old structure has been dismantled, which it has. Journaling helps you identify the pieces and discover some new ones. This movement is sometimes called the "liminal" stage, the threshold, and it is a time of exploration and reintegration.
Here your journal is a strong ally, truth-teller, comforter, and creator. It's normal to feel a mixture of reactions: fear, anger, fatigue, confusion, but also excitement, curiosity, introspection, and hope. Here is where great transformation is also possible, as you may remember from legends and inspiring stories you've read. Are you a bit scared to get big and wild in your journal? Don't be. The old boundaries are gone, so you have a lot of space for play. Capture the possibilities and creative flights with your journal, even if they seem like fantasies now.
Take the whirling thoughts and shape them with your words. For tighter boundaries, try short writes or lists, and if you want to explore further, let your journal flow until you are spent. Whatever feels right.
Rather than using the term "new normal," think about a gradual emotional acceptance of the new way, role, relationship, or situation. One example is moving to a new house or town, which is often a big transition in your life story. When you move to a new house, it takes a while to get used to the light switches and layout to do things without thinking about them. Likewise, you shape the new way over time.
At this point in the transition, you begin to see how things could work out, and you are looking forward more than backward, journaling your hoped-for outcomes.
Try setting small, doable steps to ease into the new chapter, like introducing yourself to new neighbors, taking a class, or, as part of making yourself healthier, taking a daily walk. Research shows that if you write down goals, you are much more likely to reach them. Your journal is ready for your goals.
You might choose three goals for the next week/month. And if you do not reach them, write about what would have made a difference in reaching those goals. Use your journal to adjust how you reach your goals. Hold onto your transition journal, and after some time, read through it and underline phrases that hold special meaning or give you clues to the next chapter. You might also journal a couple of paragraphs about what you have discovered, the wisdom you will carry forward, and how you might celebrate your strengths in navigating your transition. One of my clients reviewed her transition journal and was delighted to see clues and synchronicities she had not recognized. She saw her determination, even in bleak moments, and she saw that her instincts were true. It was indeed time to leave her toxic job behind.
Journaling your transition is your history and a guide for the next transition. It is a permanent reminder that you are both the author and hero of your story.
A good way to start is by naming the change you are facing, just some way to refer to it simply, for example: Finding out Who I Am; Goodbye City Life; Living with Diabetes; or Finding Love at Eighty. You can rename your change as you go along. Along with the name, list some resources you will need for your transition, such as family, money, time, support, and faith. If you have several pinging transitions, focus first on the most important one. Naming the most important change will help you create a baseline for journaling and bring your other transitions into better alignment.
Journaling guides your letting go. You may be uncertain about what losses lie ahead. Try journaling a list of what you need to let go: the big elm tree in your backyard, your former coworkers, your tendency to take care of everyone, your hectic lifestyle? These two prompts are favorites with transition journal-keepers: What ending is my biggest challenge? What ending will be easiest? Reflect on what will make the ending easier for you.
Transition journal-keepers have found these prompts particularly helpful:
In writing about your new chapter, you begin to feel new energy. This is a good time to celebrate moving through your transition and imagine the outcomes you want.
Write a letter to yourself honoring the strengths and values that helped you get to this new chapter. And write about what you are grateful for and the people you want to thank for their help.
Write a "future story." What would you like to happen? It is one year from the date of your journal entry, and you are looking back at what you have experienced and accomplished. Describe what has happened.
Keeping a transition journal is a powerful self-awareness and self-help tool. I hope you'll start your own!
About the Author
Leia Francisco is a board-certified transition coach and author of Writing the Wisdom of Transitions: A Guide for Transforming Life Changes. She has taught transition courses for The Therapeutic Writing Institute, Journalversity, and the National Story Network and written numerous transition articles for newspapers and journals. She offers a certification program in transition writing based on her trademarked program Writing Through Transition®. You can reach Leia through www.leiafrancisco.com
This chapter is from The Great Book of Journaling: How Journal Writing Can Support a Life of Wellness, Creativity, Meaning and Purpose by Eric Maisel PhD (Editor), Lynda Monk MSW RSW CPCC (Editor) Conari Press (June 14, 2022).