How to master change when 'lifequakes' strike: Turning crisis into growth

We all experience events that disrupt our lives. Some of these become "lifequakes" that can lead to a life transition.
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/ Source: TODAY

Bruce Feiler was enjoying family life and a successful career as a writer when he was hit with “back-to-back-to-back” crises in his 40s.

First, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, in his left leg 12 years ago.

“I thought I was going to die and leave young children. It was a big long ordeal,” Feiler, 55, who lives in New York City, told TODAY.

That was also the year of the Great Recession, which led to serious financial problems. Then his father, who has Parkinson’s disease, became depressed and tried to kill himself six times in 12 weeks.

Desperate to help, Feiler started sending him a question about his life every Monday morning for what became years — queries like “Why did you join the Navy? How did you meet mom?” — until his dad essentially wrote an autobiography piece by piece.

“It got me very interested in how when our lives go through huge disruptions, we have to rewrite the story of who we are,” said Feiler, author of the new book “Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age.”

“Everybody had a similar story. We all have these moments in our lives.”

Lifequakes and transitions:

After traveling the country for five years to gather other people’s experiences, Feiler found:

  • Each of us goes through dozens of events that disrupt our lives, one every 12-18 months or so.
  • One in 10 of these becomes a huge life event, which he called a "lifequake" — a massive change that leads to a life transition.
  • We go through three to five lifequakes in the course of our lives and each transition lasts an average of five years.
  • About half of lifequakes, 53%, are involuntary, which includes events like having a spouse cheat on you, losing your job or getting a medical diagnosis.
  • About half, 47%, are voluntary, which includes you cheating on your spouse, you leaving your job to start a business or you choosing to move to a new country.
  • Lifequakes can be positive, including getting married and having children.
  • They can be personal — something that happens to you or your family — or collective, like a natural disaster, a recession, 9/11 or a pandemic. “In some ways, this is a massive involuntary collective lifequake. We all are going through this pandemic at the same time,” Feiler said. “But what’s already beginning to happen is that people are starting to ask questions like, ‘Do I have the job that I want to have? Am I living in the right place? Am I in the right relationship?' The pandemic is the lifequake but the life transitions that come out of it are just beginning.”

How to get through:

If a transition is to follow a lifequake, it must be voluntary — you must choose to enter the process, Feiler said. It’s natural to feel frozen and scared, but transitions work.

“This is how humans respond to a difficult life circumstance,” he noted. “Transitions are an effective means of navigating change.”

Here’s what Feiler wanted people to know:

It’s a process: Transitions have three phases:

  • The long goodbye, where you confront your emotions and say goodbye to the person you’re leaving behind.
  • The messy middle, where you shed certain habits and create new ones.
  • The new beginning, where you unveil your new self.

Transitions are emotional: When Feiler asked people what emotions they struggled with during a transition, the top three were fear, sadness and shame. “One of the most important things you can do is identify what emotion you’re struggling with and that will help you to accept it and move beyond it,” Feiler said.

When people are afraid, he recommended employing the three “downs”:

  • Write down: List your biggest fears on a piece of paper. Getting the fear out of you by writing it down can be incredibly helpful.
  • Compare down: Always remember it could be worse. You lost your job, but someone else lost their health. “There’s always a worse scenario out there and ironically, coming up with an alternative that’s more horrendous than the horrendous thing you’re facing can help you find a measure of calm,” Feiler said.
  • Buckle down: Often, the best way to get through paralyzing fear is to go back to work. Make another loaf of bread, finish a report or revisit a project.

Transitions are messy: Getting lost is part of the process. “Every great religion has a time in the wilderness, the desert or the forest that’s a part of it. Every great myth, fairy tale and story involves a period of getting lost and being concerned and afraid. You can’t discover a new land until you get lost from the old land,” he noted.

Transitions are creative: When the pandemic first hit, many people started baking, Feiler pointed out. Others started to paint, sing, dance and otherwise “begin to make themselves anew.”

Transitions are autobiographical occasions: You have to re-write your life story because a big part of it is no longer there — a spouse, a job or your previous address. “It’s a moment when you have to re-introduce yourself to yourself and to those around you,” Feiler said.

Transitions are essential: Don’t think of them as a pause until you get back to life. “These are not miserable periods to grit and slog your way through. These are huge opportunities to reconsider what gives you meaning,” he noted. “We spend 25 years, half of our adult lives, in transition. We have to look at these as essential times in life when we have the opportunity to tweak and calibrate how we want to spend our time and what gives us meaning.”