Reaching a significant milestone in our lives can leave us feeling bewildered and blue.
Olympic gold medalists frequently struggle with transition and depression after they receive their trophies.
When we have achieved our goal, accomplished our task, and reached a milestone in our lives, the purpose we have had and the routines we’ve been in suddenly become — irrelevant.
Leading up to our achievement (or goal) we were extremely focused on the steps we needed to take to accomplish it. Our goal may have been graduating from high school, publishing a book, or reaching retirement with a healthy golden egg in our nest.
Upon accomplishing any of these milestones, suddenly everything in our life changes. The familiar routines and structures are gone. Because our intense focus had been on accomplishing the goal, we may find ourselves in a state of emotional disarray and confusion now that we are at our destination.
If we are prone to depression this is a time when we are likely to struggle.
A Recent Example of Transition
When I launched this blog a few days ago I thought I had prepared myself.
I was focused on overcoming the many technological challenges that presented themselves; on the writing — and the introspection that went into it — and on attempting to dot every “i” and cross every “t.”
I was driven to get these things done.
When I clicked “send” everything changed. I felt relief — and fear, accomplishment, and apprehension. Would anyone read it? Would anyone care? What would people think of me? What would come next? What should I do now?
I was able to get myself re-focused on what comes next, re-focused on what I need to do now, by having my next goal in mind. I was able to move forward rather quickly.
This is a minor example of how having a clear vision of where we are going, and of what comes next, can help us overcome the letdown we may be surprised to feel after milestone accomplishments. We need not waste a lot of time saying “Is this it?” or “What now?”
Not finding ourselves in this kind of limbo helps to stave off depression.
Olympic Gold Medal Athletes Transition to the Real World
Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin spoke in a CNN interview of the transitions Olympic athletes go through trying to find their way in the ‘real world,’ trying to find a job, trying to figure out another passion for themselves after doing one thing for so long. Post-awards, elite athletes have huge transitions to make.
Life is a series of transitions for all of us; preparing for these transitions, and learning to negotiate them can help us to overcome our depressive tendencies.
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 23 gold medals. He has struggled for years with post-awards depression. In a TODAY Health& Wellness column Michael Phelps has spoken out about his depression, reminding us that we are all going through similar things together.
One of the ways Phelps is dealing with his post-awards depression is to become engaged in a new purpose. He has started the Michael Phelps Foundation which works to encourage children to live healthy active lives (the first step towards good mental health.)
The Washington Post reports Phelps is also using his influence to call on the U.S. Olympic Committee to help other athletes who also struggle with depression.
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Steps to Take to Negotiate Life’s Transitions Successfully
Our purpose identifies us; it is the reason we get out of bed in the morning. Our goals help us achieve our purpose and provide structure to our lives.
When we reach milestones in life, many of our previous goals and routines become obsolete and our identity transforms: students assume occupational titles, parents become grandparents, and elite athletes may become CEOs of non-profit organizations.
Envisioning what we want our life to look like after we reach upcoming milestones can be helpful.
In other words, taking the time to think about where we want to go in the next mile, and determining the direction we need to go to get there. This will help us to quickly embrace our new identity and to establish new meaning and new routines in life. It prevents us from lacking direction upon arrival at our desired destination.
We can expect a period of emotional adjustment and distress — but by knowing where we are going next — we will be able to transition through it. When the structure of our familiar life becomes irrelevant we can quickly find new relevance and new structure in our new identity.
Relationships and Transition
Relationships will typically change as we transition into new identities.
For example, high school friends tend to slip away when we graduate.
Family, however, tends to be long-term, and spiritual connections can provide purpose and continuity all the way to the end of life.
We need to nurture our relationships; keeping old friends when we can, but being prepared to make new friends who will support us in our new identity.
Some milestones are more akin to highway robbery than to a hilltop experience. These milestones may thrust a new identity upon us, uninvited. Instead of married we may find ourselves single, instead of employed we may find ourselves unemployed, instead of able-bodied we may find ourselves disabled.
By reframing these negative milestones, we can use many of the same tools that we’ve learned to use to transition after reaching chosen ones. We need to come to see our new situation not as a disaster but as a new opportunity. We need to find ways to embrace our new identity.