From the very beginning, this summer has been a pretty intense walk down Memory Lane here in Carrie-town.
It started in the technically-not-summer-late-spring, when I walked down the street and saw the shades up and a big “FOR RENT” sign near the front window of my first apartment in Philadelphia.
I pressed my nose against the glass and looked at the empty space.
Memories came flooding over me, in a clearer and more visceral way than they had in years. I couldn’t pull myself away.
I am someone who gets VERY attached to places—even places with crappy kitchens and water damage in the bedroom and bathrooms that I swear have legit mildew trolls living under the stall shower. I put the nostalgic in nostalgic. So leaving places—and revisiting my ex-places—really impacts me.
Several days later, I shared a meal with an ex I was with for six years, who was in town for a conference. While we talked and recalled old memories of our time together (including our aforementioned first apartment), we both laughed (and may have teared up just a little).
As we helped each other fill in the gaps of our remembered stories, we experienced the awe that comes with realizing that you and another person know and remember things about each other that you yourselves have “lost.” “Wow,” I observed. “You HAVE parts of my life.”
Then, a couple of days after that rendezvous, I returned to the school I taught at for 7 years before leaving to be a coach fulltime. I saw many of my former students and colleagues, and watched kids performing a play to share what they’d learned from the curriculum that had been my collaborative design passion project.
Watching children I’d never taught share a curriculum that is deeply etched in my brain and on my heart, I experienced a huge variety of emotions. I absolutely love being a coach and it was the right decision to make the leap, but making the choice to leave a good job is not easy.
This confluence of exes—the old apartment, the first long-term relationship, the professional home/community/career—got me thinking back to what it was like to leave each of them. About who I was at the time of the “breakup” and who I am now. And how I got through the transition.
How I became an ex—each time.
The process of what sociologist Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh calls “becoming an ex” is a necessary part of life and growth. The birth of your new self can require the death of your old self. Like a snake shedding its skin, or a phoenix rising from ashes, you must cast off the old story to truly step into your new life.
Becoming an ex may mean letting go of an identity that has structured and supported your life for a long time. So naturally, even if you are making a great decision, becoming an ex—whether it’s an ex-girlfriend/-boyfriend/-wife/-husband, ex-employee/-colleague/-service provider/-type of professional, ex-tenant/-resident, or something else—can be extremely unsettling and even painful.
Questions like “What have I done?” and thoughts like “I’m not finished with this yet” are common. No matter how “right” a decision is, it is normal to have these thoughts. They can be terrifying, because it can be so hard to separate out a natural reaction to endings and change from apparent “gut feelings” that we’ve actually made the wrong decision.
You can take steps to navigate the process of becoming an ex more smoothly. Here are 5 steps that can help you through this transition and identity shift:
1. Acknowledge the transition and treat yourself with compassion accordingly.
Consciously or unconsciously, most people experience increased stress during a transition. But people often expect themselves to go forward like nothing’s changing.
The change you’re undergoing may be making you physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. If you do not take care of yourself in the face of the extra demands on your energy and time, you will not manage the transition as effectively. A little bit of self-care goes a long way.
When you notice that you’re a bit off-kilter, acknowledge your feeling and the circumstances you’re navigating, and give yourself what you need to re-center. You may say to yourself, Of course I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m going through a huge change. What’s one small thing I can do to take care of myself right now?
Give yourself the extra kindness and compassion that anyone undergoing a transition needs.
2. Honor the ex.
Whether your ex is a person, a job, or a city, your ex played an important role in your life. Whether you’re thrilled to move on, fiercely struggling to let go, or both, taking some time to honor your ex can help. Even if you’re angry or grieving, even if you’re nowhere near “over it,” doing an intentional honoring exercise can help you smooth your transition from past to future.
If you have physical objects associated with the ex that you either want to keep or are just not ready to let go of yet, an exercise could be to collect the physical objects associated with the ex in a box, and tie it with a ribbon in a symbolic and literal gesture of closure.
Or perhaps you don’t have physical objects to store, but, rather, memories. In that case, you can use a metaphorical box: visualize putting those memories safely in a box and putting the lid on, to be taken off whenever (if ever) you’re ready.
If your “ex” is a city or home, you might honor that ex by taking a mindful walk around that place, appreciating that chapter in the book of your life.
3. Remind yourself of and focus on the constants.
When you “break up” with a person, job, or place, it feels like everything you know is in flux. If the career or relationship rug has been pulled out from under you (or if you’ve chosen to pull it out yourself), life is likely to feel pretty unsettled. You may find yourself questioning your whole identity—Who am I if I’m not ___’s girlfriend, or an employee of ___?
At the most fundamental level, remember that who you are is not what you do, who you date, or where you live. No matter what, who, or where you leave behind, you bring your core self with you wherever you go.
To balance things out in the “becoming an ex” period, spend some time inventorying what hasn’t changed. Your constants will differ depending on the nature of the change.
Once you’ve identified the things that haven’t changed, make sure to honor and tap into those constants. This could mean being extra faithful in honoring your morning tea-and-reading routine; it could mean scheduling regular dates with friends or trips to see family members or old friends who have “always” been there; it could mean going to your favorite park or coffee shop regularly.
No matter what, the smallest things that haven’t changed can be your anchors in the turbulent tides of transition.
4. Talk to someone.
Any transition can feel really lonely, and since becoming an ex usually means separating from or changing one or more of your core relationships, this type of transition can especially feed a sense of loneliness and isolation. Cluing someone in as to what’s happening can lighten the burden significantly.
In addition to comforting and “cheerleading” support, you may also be able to get perspective and insights you wouldn’t have on your own. Even if you’re a very private person, it is essential that you have someone you can talk to about what’s going on with you.
But this isn’t just about helping yourself. Sharing at least the basics (“I’m going through a huge transition right now”) can also help your friends and family understand that you might need a little extra understanding right now, or why you’re extra sensitive, touchy, cranky, etc.) Sharing can help you take better care of everyone.
5. Focus on the future—starting with the present.
After you’ve taken some time to acknowledge what the ex (place, person, or job) has meant for you, you can redirect your attention to where you are now, or where you’re going.
Find ways to emotionally, mentally, and physically shift your attention toward the future by taking action in the present. Get hands-on. Decorate the new apartment. Get out of the house and talk to new people. Roll up your sleeves and jump into your new professional responsibilities (or search) with gusto.
Find purpose in this new chapter of your life, and know that this painful time you’re moving through will have purpose for you later that only time and perspective will illuminate. I’ve worked with so many people who look back on challenging and even painful transitions as the greatest gifts of their lives—once they come out the other side!
I want to hear from YOU. What is the biggest transition you’ve been through, and how did you get through it?