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Febuary 2013

By Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.

When faced with a life transition, such as graduating from school, needing to change jobs or entering older age, we often forget three important factors:

  • Many times before, we have successfully made transitions we never thought we could accomplish.

  • After an adjustment period, we have found areas of satisfaction in the new changes.

  • Each transition period we go through offers opportunities for personal growth in addition to the scary changes.

Certain life changes are very difficult, and we experience a lot of pain. However, as we deeply review the past, we can recall gains and enjoyment as well as the pain. It is critical for our well being that we do not forget to discover the pleasures and growth opportunities in the changes we face, and it is even more critical that we do not lose ourselves in the pain.

Let me begin with two personal examples you probably can relate to:

- When I was 5 or 6, my mother took me to camp and I did not know anybody. The counselor came out to greet me, and I began to cry and held onto my mother's dress. She coaxed me to go to the counselor. I began walking, turned back to look at my mother, began crying again, and ran back to her. After much encouragement and support (much, much more than the counselor or my mother had desired to give), I joined the new group, with minor sniffles. Thinking back, we may laugh as we remember such experiences. We forget how traumatic and critical in our lives they actually were at the time -- no less so than any transition we are currently experiencing. The reality is this was a major transition, beginning the ever increasing separation from my mother and leaving a degree of connectedness I would never have again. However, I made new friends, learned how to play sports and get along, stayed in this camp for about six years, and began the process of growing up. This very painful experience began my discovering who I was, enabled me to develop a successful career, and helped me in the process of facing painful changes. And remember, this was at age 5 or 6! Take a few moments to think back and you may also remember similar experiences.

- This second example reflects our human propensity when we meet difficult developmental tasks to forget our previous successes. I was no exception! This one was so traumatic for me (along with many others) that I didn't remember my prior success until 15 years later when I was training graduate students. To obtain a Ph.D., a graduate student must design and complete an original research project with 4 faculty members’ approval, usually after competing 4 years of courses. This project is so traumatic for many graduate students that somewhere between 25% to 35% of them never complete it. This means they never get their Ph.D., even though they have now spent 5-7 years in graduate school (which isn't exactly cheap, either!). They have a special title for it -- "ABD"-- "All But Dissertation" (all requirements completed for the doctorate but the dissertation). This problem has been so pervasive that Psychology developed a new degree--Psy.D.--Doctor of Psychology. The main difference between the Ph.D. and Psy.D.? No dissertation!

In the early 90's the University of Southern California was trying to reduce the number of "ABD's" and began a unique series of presentations to graduate students to facilitate their obtaining their Ph.D.'s. I was invited for several years to present the psychological component. While preparing I gained a tremendous insight. As background, the dissertation can be in any area of your field of training and is typically in an area you have already studied. My insight was: comparatively, I had done a much harder project in my senior year of high school! Before 4 years of college and 4 years of graduate school! My senior English project was "The Abolitionist Movement between 1850 and 1900." Before I wrote this paper I had no idea "abolition" related to the end of slavery, had never gone to a major library outside my small town, never made a bibliography, never needed to quote or summarize a large series of books, and never had to incorporate all of this into a long paper. Also I was not as free to choose the topic but had to select from 25 different topics the teacher listed. I just did this project because their was no choice, no "ABEP" (All But English Project). It was something I had to do, that everyone completed. Afterwards it just laid in the back regions of my memory. Compared to accomplishing this at age 17, the dissertation at age 25 should have been a breeze!

Unfortunately, as mentioned before, we have this propensity to forget our earlier achievements in view of our current dilemmas, and we succumb to the mythology of the extent of difficulty in adult tasks. Layoff and job changes--how many different jobs did you get as a kid--with no prior experience? Increased illness and stress--I can remember in high school breaking my finger during a wrestling match, having the coach tape that finger to the next, and being sent back to complete the match!

Clearly as we get older, consequences are greater, layoffs affect supporting our families, which most of us did not have to do as kids. Illnesses take longer to recover from than a broken finger and have greater consequences. But as we get older we have built a wealth of knowledge and success experiences we did not have as kids, which with some effort we can turn to our advantage and grow as individuals.

Hopefully this discussion and examples will help in feeling less overwhelmed when facing a significant life transition, and you will remember challenges like these you have faced and overcome in your past.

Please go to February 2013 Psych Bytes for a discussion of transitions in middle age.

Dr. Miller is a Clinical Psychologist in practice in West Los Angeles and Torrance. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Contact Dr. Miller at 310-822-8898 or

Copyright 2013 by Malcolm Miller, Ph.D.


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