There are times when an experience changes you profoundly, marking the end of life as you know it, and heralding a new way of being. These experiences can be as challenging as the sudden death of a loved one, a diagnosis of terminal illness, losing a job, and/or divorce. Or as exciting – yet equally stress-inducing – as the birth of a child, getting married, graduating from school, or landing your dream job.
Sometimes the effects are immediate and quite traumatic, especially if the experience is negative or forced upon you. Other times, the effects only become clear in retrospect, when you have some distance (time heals…almost always). And once clarity sets in, some of the experiences that at first seemed challenging can turn out to be the best things that ever happened to you (divorcing that jerk and meeting someone awesome, leaving a toxic job only to find something much better, getting sober, etc.).
Often, the time between your old life and new one can be riddled with challenges and cause a lot of stress, until predictability and structure are restored (Yay! I know what to expect!). We’re creatures of habit and don’t do well in the gray area of uncertainty because we’re hard-wired to avoid it, although uncertainty is thought to boost learning because it forces you out of your comfort zone and makes you think differently about solving problems (click here if you want a super-duper scientific version of the study).
In this sense, the IN-BETWEEN PHASE shouldn’t be thought of as a bus stop, where you feel like you’re waiting around for the next big thing to happen. It sometimes feels that way, but I believe there’s much to learn and explore during these so-called bus stops. Sometimes it becomes apparent in hindsight that you wasted time waiting (and waiting), leaving you to kick your own ass for worrying so much, not being present, nor enjoying the time you had to explore your interests.
I’ve had my share of in-between phases that I’ve treated like bus stops, where uncertainty looms and I’m just trying to get back to a routine free from chaos, vowing never to allow the bad experiences to happen again. But when change is thrust upon you, it’s God (or the universe) nudging you in another direction, helping you make course corrections that are long overdue. My experiences with in-between phases are best represented by a U-shaped curve. When I was in my teens and early 20s, I was more comfortable with uncertainty. I’m not sure if this was because I was too dense to recognize how bad the situation was or whether my faith was so unwavering that I just knew all would be fine (maybe a bit of both).
As I got older, I came to expect a certain level of stability, and was easily thrown off-kilter when God pulled the rug from under me (WTF?!?! Why?!?!). Now, in my 40s, my unsteady faith is often restored more quickly because I know that I’ll be okay and eventually land right side up (a bit bruised perhaps…but wiser and more resilient nonetheless). And as a result, I’m learning to deal more productively with the in-between phases, one that’s significant enough to detail below as a way to restore your faith and remind you that “there” is no better than “here” (Rule #6 of the Ten Rules); patience really is a virtue; humility is born of challenges; trust requires the courage to believe you’ll end up where you’re supposed to; and humor goes a long, long way.
The Mother of All In-Between Phases
April 2001 to August 2002 represents one of my longest in-between phases (or bus stops, if you prefer). During this timeframe, the following happened: I was laid off from the dot.com I worked at (as was everyone else); graduated with a master’s degree in psychology; lost my beloved maternal grandmother suddenly; ended my relationship with someone whom I thought I was going to marry; moved out of my apartment and into my parents’ house; applied and was eventually accepted into a Ph.D. program at my dream school; and went on a humanitarian trip to Kabul, Afghanistan (my birth land). It was one hell of a rollercoaster with more changes than I wished.
The death of my grandmother overshadowed all else since it was the first domino to fall, which appeared to trigger all the other events that followed. My company had given me a very generous severance package, which made it easy to put off any decisions related to my career. I was also at the tail-end of my studies and needed just a few more classes before I was done. Up until September 2001, I grieved, spent a lot of time visiting family, asked God a lot of WHY questions, and sat in my apartment living room blankly staring at the TV (sometimes it wasn’t even on). I was paralyzed by indecision because so many things had happened. Fearing the burden of having another thing go sideways, I decided not to make any major decisions.
On a subconscious level, I probably thought that all the decisions I’d made up to that point were all wrong (yes, I’m being hyperbolic), and God was punishing me for making bad decisions. But when my anxiety about being indecisive started to outweigh my avoidance of making decisions, I knew I’d turned a corner. I’d narrowed my choices down to two: stay in Silicon Valley and job-hunt or pursue a Ph.D. The latter entailed sacrifices I wasn’t sure I was ready to make such as becoming a poor student again, studying for entrance exams, and living with my parents, to name a few. But pursuing a Ph.D. was a goal I’d harbored since the end of my undergraduate studies. Back then, it seemed too far-fetched.
Making the decision to pursue my Ph.D. proved that I no longer believed it to be impossible. Once I got over the fear of failure, I committed to it, knowing that once I moved out of my apartment, there was no turning back. I had no idea how all of it was going to turn out, but I kept my focus on my daily to-do list and persevered (submit 30-day vacate notice, rent a moving truck, tell my parents I was moving back home, research Ph.D. programs, connect with my professors and request recommendation letters, etc.).
It took a little adjusting to be under my parents’ roof again. They were excited to have me home, but I wasn’t as excited (don’t get me wrong, my parents are wonderful). It was quite a humbling experience because moving back in with your parents after being on your own for so many years is hard on the ego (ouch!). I’d been away for almost a decade. But at least I no longer had to worry about rent and bills and could focus on applying to schools. And while there were no guarantees that I’d get into my dream school, it was the first time in my life that I had laser-sharp focus on a goal and the will to pursue it so intensely.
After months of waiting and agonizing over whether I’d get in – the envelope arrived. It wasn’t paper thin (usually signifying a rejection). Hands sweaty and shaking, I opened it carefully. Holy f*cking shit!!!! I was headed to my dream school (University of California Berkeley) to pursue a Ph.D. After jumping up and down a few times, I fell to my knees with my face cupped in my hands and started crying like a baby. All the anxiety, pain, grief, anger, uncertainty, sweat, and tears of the last several months had brought me to this moment: one of the happiest in my life. I did it! I pursued my goal with a vengeance, with nothing to guide me other than faith, and by golly, it all worked out (halle-freakin-luja!).
But before I started school (again!), I was offered another opportunity of a lifetime: to return to Afghanistan to do some humanitarian work with a group of other expats. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to return to Afghanistan – my birth land. My family immigrated right before the Soviet Invasion in 1979 when I was five. Obviously, I had no concept of why we fled, all I knew was that we were going to America to visit my favorite aunt.
Growing up, my parents would tell me and my brother nostalgic stories of an idyllic Afghanistan, one completely different from the nation eventually ruled by the Taliban. There were record stores, movie theaters, mini-skirts, platform heels, educational opportunities for men and women, and not a burka in sight. I held on to those memories, thinking that I’d never be able to return for a visit.
September 11th changed all that, and when the opportunity dropped into my lap, I didn’t think twice and immediately signed up to go. My dad was horrified at the idea; my mom, however, was very supportive. I emptied my savings account to pay for the trip (talk about throwing caution to the wind!). It was a life-changing experience for sure, details of which I’ll share in another post.
Lessons Learned & Learning Lessons
Among other things, I credit the Ten Rules for helping me gain clarity about where I’d been and where I was headed. Although plagued with fear and grief (but still trying to appreciate the good stuff), I trusted that I’d end up where I was supposed to, and learned some lessons that have stayed with me ever since. Admittedly, I still stumble and have to be reminded – via experiences – that things DO eventually work out.
“There” Is No Better Than “Here”
This is Rule #6 of the Ten Rules and includes the “if-only” disease where you set conditions on your happiness, leaving you to strive for another “there.” My in-between phases have taught me to be grateful for where I am, without projecting too far into the future. Of course, I have to continue to remind myself of this fact, but I’ve become a lot better at it, and in so doing, I’m less likely to be plagued by the “if-only” disease.
Practice. When you recognize that you’re plagued by the “if-only” disease, think about your in-between phases and recall the events that transpired. Did you land right side up? Did things eventually work out better than you expected? What did you learn from those experiences? The more you do this, the less anxious you’ll be about where you find yourself in the present. Also, you might want to practice the gratitude exercises I wrote about in a previous post.
Patience Is A Virtue … Really, It Is
This is one of my hardest lessons that I continue to struggle with, which I think has more to do with my Type A tendencies than the actual fear of doom. One of the character traits of the Type A personality is the “constant sense of urgency.” So if I’ve learned anything from my in-between phases it’s that I need to be more patient with myself and others.
Practice. Are you impatient? If so, what triggers it and how do you feel when you’re struggling to be more patient? Identify your triggers (mean people, delays, etc.), and ask yourself whether this – whatever “this” is – will matter in a year or five years. And when the answer is yes, push yourself further to question WHY it matters because sometimes it’s about the need for control. So if you’re a control freak, ask yourself why. As you identify your triggers, the significance of the thing that you’re impatient about, and whether you’re a control freak, you’ll inevitably calm yourself down. And each time you forget and wind yourself back up again, think through this process. The more you do it, the more patience you’ll exercise.
Humility Is Born Of Challenges
One of the most significant lessons from my in-between phases is humility. There’s nothing more humbling than challenging experiences that you weren’t expecting. Often, you forget that you don’t have total control over your life, and when God (or the universe) intervenes to remind you of that fact, it can be demoralizing. For me, being laid off, losing my grandmother suddenly, moving back in with my parents, and seeing first-hand how lucky I was to live in the U.S. (as opposed to Afghanistan), not only humbled me but also helped me cultivate immense gratitude. Being humbled by these experiences was actually a huge blessing because it helped me deal constructively with resentment, victimhood, anger, and sadness (because no one has time for that shit! Am I right?!?!).
Practice. Are you humble? That is, do you have a strong sense of who you are and what you’re capable of, in addition to acknowledging your limitations? Do you have a healthy sense of who you are in relation to others (how others see you versus how you see yourself)? Do you think you’re better than others? Do you gain satisfaction from the suffering of others, especially those you don’t like? If you answered “yes” to the last two questions, then humility is a lesson you need to work on. If you view life as a Ferris wheel of upward and downward spirals, then you know about the impermanence of all things. So if you’re in a good place and are happy that another is suffering, don’t get too smug because no one goes through life unscathed.
Holding on to anger, hatred, and/or resentment does more harm to YOU than the person(s) it’s directed at. So let that shit go, and be open to understanding who you are through others’ eyes. Ask family and friends for their honest appraisal of how you come across. This is the best way to learn about yourself and institute changes that make your relationships stronger, and cultivates self-awareness. It might not be easy to hear constructive criticism, but merely being open to it puts you on the path of cultivating humility.
Trust Requires Courage
Trust, among other things, is having confidence in your ability to judge right from wrong and make decisions in your best interest. Sometimes you have nothing to go on but faith, which requires courage. Often, the enormity of your courage becomes apparent in retrospect (it did for me). Every step you take towards a goal illustrates trust in your abilities and boosts your confidence to stay the course. Sure, the moment you experience a setback you might doubt whether your goal is possible or whether you’re of sound mind (what was I thinking?!?!?). And the more unsure you are of yourself, the more weight you’ll give to others’ input.
My parents were very worried that I was only applying to one school. Most people apply to multiple schools, reducing the proverbial risk. Not me, I was applying to Berkeley and by God, that’s where I was going. I told myself I’d reapply the following year if I didn’t get in the first time. I recognize that I had a strong support network to fall back on and some of you might not have this luxury, but if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way even if it’s juggling a day a job and working toward your goal on your own time.
Practice. Rule #9 of the Ten Rules stipulates that all your answers lie within, followed by Rule #10, which states that you’ll forget all of this at birth. Socialization or indoctrination into society begins at home and continues throughout life and the messages you receive from your family, friends, and society at large form the basis of how you see yourself and others. It also drowns out your inner voice. You have the capacity to access your inner voice and instinctively know what you should be doing. Sometimes this is described as a feeling or hunch (I get a bad vibe from that person and stay away from him/her, but I don’t exactly know why! My job is not fulfilling and I dread going into work.) In the scientific, proof-obsessed Western society we’re a part of, you’re likely to be labeled a New Age hippie who probably smokes a lot of dope if your reasoning for making decisions is solely based on hunches.
Quieting your mind to gain access to your inner wisdom can be challenging, but a worthwhile pursuit nonetheless. Meditation practices can help you improve “sustained attention” while mindfulness can help anchor you to the present and become more aware of your choices. Books such as Finding Your Own North Star include exercises that help you pinpoint your fears and reconnect with your “essential self” (I highly recommend it!). Of course, all this depends on how restless your soul is and whether it’s restless enough to actually prompt you to do something about it. The choice is yours.
Humor Goes A Long Way
If you take yourself too seriously and find it difficult to laugh at the absurdities of life, then you’ll be miserable and make others suffer with you. One of the best compliments someone can give me is that I’m funny. I love to laugh and love to make others laugh even if it’s at my expense. Studies show that it really does have positive effects. For example, humor can increase hope. Social laughter releases endorphins, “reinforcing and maintaining human social bonds,” and males and females alike find partners with a sense of humor more desirable.
Practice. Is it difficult for you to find humor when things look bleak? Instead of wallowing in misery and ruminating over how much your life sucks, why not try to distract yourself with activities such as watching funny movies, shows, or YouTube videos; hanging out with friends; and asking yourself whether your challenges are in fact first-world problems (seriously, ask that question.) I’m not trying to minimize your situation, I’m asking you to view things from the perspective of whether it’s a life-death situation, or whether you’re blowing things out of proportion. I recognize that horrendous events are no laughing matter. Experiencing a tragic loss or traumatic event can leave you broken to the point where you feel lost and/or don’t want to get out of bed. So you must give yourself time to process it, work your way through the stages of grief, and when ready, take the necessary steps toward healing.
After the challenging events of my 2001-2002 in-between phase, I found myself asking God if I was cursed, or if he had anything else to throw my way. Then I’d chuckle thinking how stupid it was for me to think that my life was ruined because I had to move back in with my parents (if anything, I needed to thank my lucky stars that I had such a great support system.) As I moved through my in-between phase, I was able to open up and hang out with family and friends regularly, indulge in a lot of romantic and dark comedies, and crack jokes at my expense.
Ultimately, the impressions you form about the experiences you have are subjective and not based on an objective weighing of the good and bad parts of an experience. The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic by which you attribute feelings to an experience at the peak point, which then determines the extent to which you deem it positive or negative. For example, although you got divorced and are in a much happier relationship or marriage, your thoughts/feelings about your previous marriage might be negative because the peak point included multiple screaming matches (or what you subjectively based your feelings on).
This is not surprising given that your view of the world and your place in it is highly skewed and filtered through a subjective guide or set of rules based on socialization and life experiences. Becoming aware of this fact helps you view things in a more practical manner where you remain focused on the lessons learned (what did I learn from this? What’s the lesson?); as opposed to how you were victimized and how justified you are in holding onto anger and resentment. At the end of the day, the latter will lead to a more constructive perspective that strengthens your resolve, cultivates forgiveness and wisdom, restores peace of mind, and helps you move forward in life.
Love, peace, and blessings,