Storying transition

As mentioned in the introduction, you may be visiting this site as you are keen to explore your own transition challenges and interested in understanding what part your own backstory plays in that. To begin that process, let’s look at why any story is important, before moving onto the central importance of our own when navigating transitions in our lives.

Stories: communicating existence and transition

As children, we begin to learn and communicate by telling stories, and this tendency continues as adults. Whole industries are based on this most human of characteristics: we are surrounded by newspapers, books, comics, comedians, theatres, television, radio, cinema and adverts; all telling and selling us stories, and inviting us to buy, tell and sell our own.

Essentially, it through story that we attempt to understand our existence, and guide ourselves in life; and this is particularly the case when we are confronting periods of significant change, such as during military-to-civilian transition (MCT) and more.

These transitions, which can be experienced as significantly challenging disruptions in our lives, often cause us to instinctively review our current situations and even our whole lives. This review process can be subconscious or deliberate, but almost always takes the form of us piecing our live together in story form, and perhaps trying to bridge any perceived gulfs that unexpected events thrust upon us. If we can’t move on from these events, perhaps they don’t immediately make sense to us, then looking at them in the wider panorama of our life story can help to contextualise them and restore a some sense of continuity and continued momentum in the face of a transitional disruption.

Commanding the narrative during transition

Therefore, reviewing our life story and piecing together our experiences can be useful. To use a military-to-civilian transition (MCT) example drawn from my studies, a US veterans’ transition programme included narrative approaches to posttraumatic growth, as well as careers transition. The authors of research looking into it concluded that not only did these approaches enable physically and psychologically injured military veterans to develop ‘future-orientated career strategies’ that led them towards a renewed sense of ‘meaning and purpose through work’ (p. 501), but that success was also founded on a narrative review and repair process first guiding those participants in reconciling their loss of military career and managing a degree of physical incapacity and psychological conflict.

My life was narrated for me by others… It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.

Crucially, the narrative review, or ‘life story’ process this study explored was driven by the individuals concerned, rather than careers or other counsellors directing them towards work that the latter deemed suitable. It found that in exerting a degree of self control over the process, individuals tended to find that — as the experts in their own life — it was they who best knew where their interests, strengths and potential contributions lay. That is not to say that support in this process is unnecessary, but that assistance is better offered by helping an individual explore their own subjective backgrounds and potential directions, rather than driving them towards something far less emotionally satisfying based on an objective assessment driven by an external ‘expert’. This support is usually pivotal however, as it is rare that anyone feels entirely ready to piece together their own life review without some guidance on how to do so.

In a Canadian MCT context, another programme saw military veterans develop written accounts of aspects of their life story, beginning with ‘short autobiographical accounts on pre-selected’ themes. While exploring your life story does not need to carried out by writing, doing so can offer a degree of flexibility and control, rather than waiting for timed appointments and guided sessions (or friends and family’s willingness to listen). Writing down ideas and views can also mean they can be reviewed and developed at some point in the future, without relying on memory alone.

But how should we do this? As mentioned above, most of us need some guidance.

Structuring the transition story

Perhaps people like Dan McAdams can offer that guide. In his book ‘The Stories We Live By‘, he recommends exploring key life events, memories and concerns in as much detail as possible. This detailed exploration can be achieved by describing what happened, where, with whom and accompanied by what thoughts and feelings.

Given resolving transition issues often centres on a sense of disruption in a life, McAdams and others suggest that arranging these events, memories and concerns in the time order they arose in our lives might be the beginning to restoring coherence amid that disruption; a tendency that takes advantage of our human instinct to see lives a chronologically storied. By doing so, our considerations might also benefit from breaking our life story down into chapters, perhaps arranged as follows:

  • earliest memories;
  • other childhood, youth and adult memories;
  • high points in our lives (e.g. times, events, jobs etc we have really enjoyed);
  • aspects of our lives we haven’t enjoyed so much, and
  • turning points (or ‘light bulb’ moments).

Once these events had been explored in some details, perhaps by breaking the above down into a number of chapters, the next stage is to further explore the significance of these events as regards the current transition in the context of the overall life story. One way to do this might be to focus on what are considered the four S’s of transition:

  • positives and negative aspects of our current situations (situational assets and liabilities);
  • important aspects of our own self make up that might help or hinder us in our transitions (self assets and liabilities);
  • what support we might have available to us to help us in that transition (support assets), and;
  • what strategies we might employ to help us transition to where we wish to be (determined by the combined exploration of our life story and the previous three S’s. These are our strategic assets.

The purpose of this ‘4S’ assets and liabilities life review is not to dwell on the latter. This is not clinical therapy process, but a ‘4S’ educational process.

By acknowledging any ‘liabilities’, we need only recognise that there are events and other aspects of our lives we might need to move on from (and formal therapy might help in this). However, the chief purpose of a review of our life story is that it might enable us to pinpoint what (4S) self, situational, support and strategic assets we might have at our disposal to do so.

And these assets can come from any and all of our life experiences. We might recall what we enjoyed as children and rediscover motivating self-strengths, and these might indicate new professional potentialities. We might reconnect with childhood friends and look to family and former colleagues who can who can support us. We might discover plenty of organisations who can similarly offer us assistance in realising new goals; and we might encounter strategies to take us forward towards them.

If this sounds complicated, don’t worry. As indicated above, the process can easily be broken down and explained step by step.

If interested in pursuing this further, I have put together some easily accessible ‘modules’ to help you do this. Simply click on the button to access >