Thriving Through Life Transitions
“Thrive” means to grow or develop well or vigorously. Let’s demonstrate thrive strategies using a personal example of my transition in career. After all, mental health professionals are not exempt from the trials and tribulations of the human condition. We must practice what we preach to nurture our mental health and wellbeing.
As a therapist, I have many metaphorical ‘tools in my toolbox’. These coping strategies are outlined in the article, Coping Strategies: Is That All There Is?. I came to fully understand the difference between coping strategies and ‘thrive strategies’ while working at my previous job for a national organization. During a period of approximately seven months, I found myself checking emails and jumping into work as soon as I woke up in the morning. I worked well before my scheduled start time and well into the evening just to get the job done and without additional compensation. Ultimately, this resulted in poor sleep quality, dissatisfaction with my personal life, and casting aside other values of mine, including attending to my physical health, fitness, and putting any creative pursuits on the back burner. Little did I know these unfortunate consequences of burnout culture would inspire a major life transition of mine.
The Limitations of Coping Skills
Providing quality care to my clients has always been a strongly held value of mine. As a mental health professional, I am highly attuned to the symptoms of burnout and let me tell you, I checked off almost every one of them. When I recognized this, I experienced a brief phase of hopelessness and despair followed by what I would call, ‘determined-to-love-this-job-problem-solving-mode’. I used pretty well every coping strategy that I knew: guided mindfulness practices in the morning and night, proper sleep hygiene, face masks, movie nights, daily walks, journalling, self-compassion, voicing my concerns with people at work, FaceTime with friends and family, and yes, even attempts to incorporate more consistent exercise. I tried every coping skill that I could think of… and yet, I still found myself drowning in dread every Sunday evening. I was on edge and moody with the people close to me. I was irritable when others didn’t cherish the weekend like I did; I needed to make the most of it and live in those two days because there was no time for living during the week.
Once I took a step back to look at my life, I realized that I had become a person that I told myself I would never be: I was living for the weekend. I didn’t like who I was, especially to the people closest to me. I realized that most of my well-intended coping strategies were serving as escape strategies. I had been escaping the fact that many parts of my job were not aligned with my values and this mismatch was, in fact, contributing to my burnout. This initial realization planted the seed of an idea to transition out. The only questions were “How?” and “Where do I go from here?”
In my role as a therapist, I was helping people live according to their values to have a full, rich, and meaningful life, while dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings along the way. However, I was missing out on my own life most of the week. I knew that a different kind of change had to happen. It was scary! I had to take risks and tolerate uncertainty. The changes that I made were gradual, but as soon as I allowed my mind to consider the real changes that I could make, I experienced a surge of [fleeting] excitement. Slowly, I started to take action on things that were important to me, namely, moving into a position that allowed me the freedom and flexibility to be the therapist that I wanted to be for the people that I work with.
Onwards and Upwards
After a few months of planning and making room for discomfort, I quit my job. Did my fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and uncertainty go away? ABSOLUTELY NOT. In fact, they got worse for a while, as they often do through the instability of life transitions. These emotions continue to arise in waves and I suspect that they always will. My thoughts often tell me, “What are you thinking?!”, “You’re going to fail!”, “You’re not good enough to make it on your own,”… but one important thing has changed: I am able to quiet them. I can turn down the volume on these voices. Why? Because I trust that I am acting in the direction of my personal and professional values. A transition is not finite; it is an ever-evolving journey. By no means do I have ‘it all figured out’, but I feel more content and confident in where I am right now. I feel more like myself; more alert, more engaged, more invested in my work; and this journey has only just begun.
ACT Processes that Helped Through a Major Life Transition
In the example above, I engaged in the following ACT-based processes to help me through my life transition:
1. Clarified my values.
I took a step back to understand the root of my suffering and dissatisfaction. I reflected upon my ‘why’ and identified what really mattered to me in certain domains of life.
2. Committed to actionable steps.
I set SMART goals for making real changes and created action plans (i.e. short-term goal setting) for how I would work towards those changes. This included problem solving, research, and having conversations with important people.
3. Observing self and expansion.
I used mindfulness and opened myself up to make room for all of the emotions and self-doubt that accompanied the changes that I was contemplating. I reminded myself of my ‘why’ constantly, envisioned the version of myself I wanted to become, and leaned into uncertainty.
4. Returned to the present moment.
In the time between contemplating my decision, feeling overwhelmed with the weight of the unknowns, and working towards stability, I practiced mindfulness to bring my attention back to the present and shift my attention and energy into what I could control and accomplish in the moment.
5. Connected to my values.
It was the connection to my values that allowed me to experience intense discomfort and fear with uncertainty and continue working towards setting up my life in a way that allows me to be the best therapist, daughter, partner, and friend that I can be.
If the story outlined above speaks to you in any way, it’s possible that you have your own examples of #JustCoping and #Thriving. Thrive strategies do not claim to get rid of your painful emotions, anxiety, self-doubt, or problems in life, but they can help you learn to experience life more fully and engaged even when you don’t have it all figured out. At the end of the day, life itself is simply a process to be experienced.