Are Transitions a Challenge for You?

Shifting gears and learning to juggle opportunities and tests.

Starting a new job? A serious relationship? Becoming a parent? Going to a new school? Or home? These are big challenges we face from time to time. Like so many other life changes, they trigger your natural response style and capitalize on skills you have developed for greeting what is new. 

Small changes can also make demands on our resources. How do you wake up in the morning, moving from sleep to encounter your day? How do you shift from an activity, like working, to one of maintenance, like exercising or eating? How do you interrupt what you are doing to drive a child to a practice or to run out for groceries or to invite friends to join you at the movies? 

How we deal with transitions may have roots in our biological temperament, especially the dimensions of approach-avoidance, adaptability, distractibility, perseverance. But our skills are also influenced by our environment in many ways.  Here are some examples of both.

From Within:

                Channel Space. What is on your mind? When you are in the middle of many projects or concerns, when you have much “unfinished business”, your mind can be cluttered, limiting the channel space you have available to shift attention from one initiative to the next. 

                Centering.  How organized is your body? When you do not have balance within your body, you know that you are “off-center”, unable to let energy and attention flow freely between topics that demand attention to your feelings and those that require an emphasis on thought. 

                Neurological habits. When we are young, we develop organizational patterns, especially in response to stress or trauma. An initial reaction of fight, flight or freeze will predict whether we are flooded with feelings of angeranxiety or collapse. 

From Without:

                Constraints. Limitations come from outside as well as from within. Clocks and calendars provide signals of when we “ought” to shift from one activity or preoccupation to another.

                 People.  Those who are close (like family members) as well as those who are more distant (like Influencers who operate through the media), can provoke a shift in flexibility or prevent it. Note whether or when you are more vulnerable to one source or the other.

From Within and from Without:

                Goals.  What you want and what you do not want will both influence gear-switching. They combine with your temperamental inclination to approach or avoid what is new. Your goals can push you forward or ambivalence can hold you back, sometimes even create sabotage.

                Competing demands. When we are young we develop automatic (thus unconscious) responses to conflicts. These habits can be hard to break.

Try this approach. When the ways you manage transitions interfere with your well-being or ability to pursue your goals, an approach worth trying is based on classic behavior modification. Experimental learning theories, especially those of Joseph Wolpe, B.F. Skinner, and Julian Rotter, were developed more than fifty years ago by giants in the field. They emphasize conditioned learning. Psychologists like Donald Meichenbaum, Albert Bandura, G. Terrance Wilson, Martin Seligman, Aaron Beck, and Michael Mahoney expanded on Rotter’s contributions and updated the principles in the 1970s to include ways in which we process all kinds of information. Social learning theory and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) were born. Key ways to change your targeted behavior — in this case, difficulties shifting gears when a transition is required — include:

1. Increase awareness of triggers:

       Emotional triggers: Does a strong emotion provoke in you an impulse to engage in an unwanted behavior? When you feel too much intensity — whether from a positive emotion like excitement or curiosity or a negative one like anger or guilt or sadness — are you're drawn off course? Does a specific emotion automatically lead to a reaction you learned long ago but no longer need? Did you once reach for chocolates or a cigarette or crave movement or stillness in response to a feeling?

       Cognitive triggers: Did memories spark your emotions? Are they often related to something that is unresolved — perhaps a task or conversation or plan? Do you worry about the future?  If so, can your current behavior affect it? Does your activity lead your mind to dysfunctional thoughts — perhaps fears of failure (or of success)? Does your inner critic jump in with a litany of ways in which you are reaching beyond your authority or capacities? Does a flood of thoughts threaten to disorganize your focus, derailing your attention and making it hard for you to continue what you were doing?

       Biological triggers:  Do you have a legitimate need that has gone unmet for too long? Are you tired, hungry, in pain, too cold or too hot, craving human contact? Does your energy feel blocked, in need of a reboot? 

2Identify alternative behaviors that could be goals:

       Ask if there are rewards that could help you continue when you do not want to shift gears at that moment — perhaps a glass of water, something to eat, a few stretches, some deep breaths, responding to a phone call or email? Whatever works for you, as long as you do not tend to get lost in the new activity, can help you stay on track.

       Ask what you are truly craving and reward yourself with a healthy version of it. Do you need new input? Take in something that nourishes body and/or soul — light a candle with a pleasing aroma; take a break from the screen and get some exercise; eat or drink something appealing and good for you; walk your dog if you are lucky enough to have one; work on a puzzle for a few minutes; set a timer and let yourself play the piano or strum on a guitar for a short while; meditate or take a nap. The key here is to identify rewards that work for you at that time in that situation and to allow yourself to indulge long enough to feel satisfied but not those that might seduce you into getting lost in the new activity, whether a distraction like computer games or social media, baking cookies, running for miles, or a constructive one like washing the car while ignoring the matter at hand.

3. Systematically “shape” behavior change by taking measured steps:

     Manage expectations. Do not expect yourself to quit “cold turkey” once and forever and then beat yourself up when you lapse or relapse.  Adjust your thinking to define what is possible rather than focusing on what is ideal, perhaps your end goal.

     Pause after you have been successful, take a few deep breaths and concentrate on the emotions you now feel. Move back to continue your activity or move on to the next one only after you can appreciate your accomplishments. Or simply acknowledge that you are taking a necessary break. 

4. Reward yourself:

     Reward yourself when you are able to do less of the habit you are trying to break. Consulting that list of rewards is critical.  If it is not working, make another list, a longer one, of experiences that bring you pleasure. 

      Avoid rewards that too easily become additive, for example, drugs and alcohol, excess food, electronics, even exercise if it has become compulsive.

      If you uncover an aversion to pleasure itself, working on that issue needs to become a priority.  We are hard-wired to embrace pleasure as well as to feel the pain that can accompany sustained effort or a lack of engagement.

Carry your successes with you always, so that you can remember them and how proud you are of them the next time you are challenged to address a behavior you would like to change. To quote one of my favorite mentors: “Declare Victory and move on!” Our behavior patterns are only habits and they can be modified through consciousness combined with effort!

Source: Roni Beth Tower Ph.D., August 24 2019;

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