How to Handle an Abrupt Transition

By on April 9, 2020   /   Leave a comment

I wrote Looming Transitions with known transitions in mind. But what the world has been experiencing recently is the exact opposite of a looming transition. Instead, it is akin to an abrupt transition and compounded by information changing on the daily, as well as layers of loss.

Probably most on the planet have had this experience:

This is not where you want to be. This is not where you thought you’d be. This was not your plan.

I get it. I have made three major transitions during my adulthood and only one of them—moving to China—was a desired transition that I initiated. Even when a change is initiated by you, staying connected to God and tending your soul can be a challenge. But when the transition wasn’t something you wanted and is very much out of your control, it can be even more challenging.

So, let’s talk about the pitfalls to you, your soul, and your relationship with God during transition, followed by 5 ways to connect with God.

Dangers and Pitfalls for Your Soul During Transition

1. A seed of bitterness can take root. If you have been treated unjustly—by a teammate, your organization, denied a visa, or abruptly had to change courses—feeling betrayed, hurt, confused, sad, or angry is a normal response. As the weeks and months go by, if you find you are not processing those emotions and instead are feeding them, you might be building a home for bitterness to live in you.

2. A seed of denial can take root. On the other hand, you could move to the other extreme. How many of us have seen cross-cultural workers who sound like the Black Knight in the Monty Python movie? After having both of his arms cut off (this was a comedy) said, “It’s merely a flesh wound!” and wanted to keep fighting. “It’s no big deal that we were expelled! It’s all for God’s glory!”

3. You undershare or overshare. Social media and newsletters are a wonderful way to stay connected with friends, family, and supporters. But they are public forums, and once you hit send can take on a life of their own that you did not intend. Your soul does not need for everyone to have a blow-by-blow of what happened; nor does it need to handle what you’ve experienced in isolation. You were not called to live in the extremes and bear this alone, nor with everyone. You need people who you can share with and to share with them. Share, not overshare to the masses or undershare to those who care about you.

4. You do not help your children process this transition. Understandably, transitions come with details upon details. In my most recent major transition I said, “I forgot how many babies details make in transitions!” and I am “good” at transitions. Sometimes with all that needs to be done, you forget to dedicate part of your bandwidth to help your children emotionally, practically, and physically process the change. If you don’t help your children, you’ll miss a vital opportunity to tend their souls and help them connect with God.

5. You move to autopilot and fail to navigate this transition as an integrated being. All of us are combinations of thinking, feeling, and doing. Everyone will rank these three from strongest to less strong. In times of transition, you are going to default to what God has made you good at. If you’re not careful, you’ll neglect the part of you that comes in number three. For me, I am strongest in doing, strong in thinking, and feelings are ranked a “three” for me. Of course I have feelings! But, in times of stress and transition, if I am not aware, doing comes naturally to me and I can forget to check in with how I am feeling about something. 

Maybe your order is thinker, feeler, doer and you have thought about this from every angle, but you have not actually done what you need to do. Pause each day and thank God for the strengths He has given you, but also check where you might need to engage with the weaker parts of you. 

Also note that teammates and family members will be wired differently than you; which is good, but can be annoying during times of transition when the doer in you wants to stifle the feeler who won’t quit emoting and start doing something. (Hypothetical example there, friends.)

Ways to Connect with God During Transition

Thankfully these pitfalls can be avoided and you can connect with God.

1. Be honest with God. Even if that means you are not sure what you are thinking or feeling, that is okay. While it is wise to not share everything with the masses, it is foolish to hide from God. God cannot begin to clean out the wounds, dress them, and start the healing process all transitions (even good ones) bring if you won’t tell Him how you really are. Maybe what you are feeling is so ugly you think it means you have failed as a cross-cultural worker. It doesn’t. But the only way your thoughts and feelings don’t become a cancer to your soul is to follow in the footpath of the Psalmists and be honest with God. 

2. Name your losses and gains. One of the most helpful things I did after one of my unwanted transitions was to list out everything I lost and everything I gained from the transition. When I actually saw my lists on paper I got what a big loss I had experienced. Until that point, I knew it was big, but externalizing it by putting it on paper moved the loss from this glob inside of me to something I could look at in front of me. It also helped me have compassion for myself. This might seem a strange way to connect with God, but the more we can connect with ourselves, it opens doors for us to connect with God.

3. Read scriptures of lament. If you’re not sure where to start, read through Job and skip the parts where Job’s friends speak. Let Job’s words crying out to God be your words. The Psalms include corporate and individual laments. While some of the Psalms might fall into multiple categories, there are roughly 15 communal laments and 39 personal (using “I” or “my”) laments. You are in good company. Communal Psalms include: 12, 44, 90, and 126; personal lament Psalms include: 3, 17, 22, 31, 41, 55, 71, and 141.

4. Return to familiar scripture. In times of transition and loss it helps to return to familiar scripture. Maybe you read Psalm 23 as a child and can picture yourself reciting it laying in bed. Familiar scriptures remind us that we have lived and are living a broader story than this current challenging chapter. 

5. Do something! Times of transition are probably not when you are going to spend hours journaling, in part because it is harder for your mind to focus. But when you sing, go for a walk, or do Pilates or yoga, the Holy Spirit often will speak and remind you of truths that can get lost in the noise of transition.

Bonus Tip: For more ideas see the chapter on how to stay connected to God in Looming Transitions. You can get the audio version and a workbook to process your transition here, or just the workbook here.

If abrupt transitions—especially abrupt ones—were easy, you wouldn’t need to be warned about the pitfalls, but they are hard. So, when you are in a season where the applecart has been turned over, remember to be kind to yourself; what you are doing is hard! Be on the lookout for the five pitfalls and try out these five ways to stay connected to God. This season won’t be forever; the way you navigate it now can have long-lasting ripples that we hope will have fewer bruises and more connection.

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