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Loneliness of the Long-Distance Transitioner

Loneliness is a taboo topic. We are taught, "If you're lonely, it's your own fault." Needless to say, I disagree.

Psychologists recognize that bereaved and divorced people are lonely. Few people acknowledge the parallels with career change and relocation.

Why does transition often bring loneliness?

First, your identity affects the way you socialize. If you've socialized as a couple, you need new friends to socialize as a single person. If you've socialized as "corporate person" you need new friends when you become "self-employed person."

In her book, Trespassing, Rebecca Parker reports, everyone's eyes lit up when she introduced herself as a corporate lawyer with American Express. When she said, "I'm a writer," their eyes glazed over.

Second, when you're in the middle of a transition, you have a thin identity and people don't know what to say about you.

"But you don't really write, do you?" someone said to me, when I was writing my first book proposal. "You just write things for your job."

Another friend introduced me as a professor at University of X. I pointed out that I had left University of X and legally could not claim an affiliation.

She was genuinely puzzled: "Then how can I introduce you?"

"Say I'm writing and consulting," I suggested.

"Then they'll think you're unemployed," she argued.

At least these people were speaking to me. Often people stop calling and the person in transition is too self-conscious and too tired of hearing, "How's the job hunt?" or, "Is your business making real money yet? It's been a whole month!"

Third, the newly-divorced person comes to a date shaped by the experience of marriage; those new to a career or a community will be shaped by their former lives. They ask questions that seem bizarre or that get taken out of context. They may find it hard to relate to new colleagues or neighbors because they feel different.

If you are very lucky, you will have supportive friends and family who will remain with you through the transition. Typically, you can expect isolation and sometimes hostility from former colleagues and neighbors.

Some people feel threatened because they wish they had the courage to leave a job or city they hate. Others simply fill the gap created by your absence.

There is no easy solution, but people often are relieved to realize their experience is universal. I encourage transitioners to appreciate solitude: enjoy the opportunity to read, go for walks, and spend quality time with the dog.

Find places where you can be with others but not feel lonely: a bookstore café, a health club, a neighborhood hangout. Present yourself in a strong, positive way: "I'm looking for a job, but meanwhile I'm taking the opportunity to work on a book."

If you have a friend who's transitioning, be proactive! Call and send e-mails. Don't push the question, "How are things going?" Don't give advice.

Instead, share your own news. Share lunch, coffee or a movie. If your friend can't afford the time or money, offer to stop by for a visit, and bring something to nibble on while you talk.. If you're too far away, surprise your friend with a phone call or newsy e-mails.

Above all, remind your friend that you care and that your friendship will last well into the future.

Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D. is an author, career coach, and speaker. She works with mid-career professionals who want to make a fast move to career freedom. Visit her site http://www.movinglady.com or call 505-534-4294.


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The obstacles you overcome