Making a life change also changes our self-concept

self concept

Discussing the ‘self-concept’ is so complex that it cannot be summarised into a single short blog. For the moment, let’s just have a quick look at the impact of a significant life change, like a job or relationship, on our self-concept.


According to an American national survey conducted in 2010, most of us will make an average of 10 major job shifts during our working life. That is work only. In Australia, with a divorce rate of about 43%, many of us will also change spouse at least once, if not more. There are also many other changes that we will all make in our life, each requiring the relinquishment of a role that we play socially (e.g.: from ‘worker’ to ‘retiree’). These transitions can be relatively painless, but more often than not, they aren’t. We might also know that we want to exit a role or a situation that is untenable or unfulfilling but we do not necessarily know what to do next.


Helen Ebaugh, author of “Becoming an Ex”, and psychologists Alysson Light and Penny Visser, from the University of Chicago, have found that leaving a social role that has great significance in one’s life, being work-related (e.g.: redundancy, retirement) or personal-related (e.g.: becoming an ‘ex’, ‘empty nester’) will likely be traumatic, often lowering the clarity of one’s self-concept and self-esteem. Depending on its significance for the individual, a role exit might even lead to depression. To make matters more complicated, role exits often trigger other social role changes. For example, a young mother who just divorced might have to find a new job to support her family. She might also have to move house, neighbourhood, community, support system and so on.


This complexity is due to the fact that the roles that we play, the meaning that we give them, and the people that we play them with, all inform our self-concept. In our Western societies, we also invest heavily in our careers and on what to “do” rather than on how to “be”, says James Hollis, author of “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life”. We can only think of any social gathering where people ask us: “What do you do?” I will not debate whether or not we should ask this question, but we often do, and each time that we respond, reinforces how we define ourselves.


Even though we are much more complex than the roles that we play, our self-concept and our life story plot are ‘thickened’ by our routine interactions with others. When we play the role of ‘parent’ for example, we might wake up the kids in the morning, prepare or have breakfast with them, drive them to school, help them with homework, and so on. All these daily activities and interactions will confirm our role of ‘parent’. They will also validate some of our personality traits as being caring, organised and punctual – or not!


So, with regards to life changes, it is helpful to understand that if we sometimes feel confused or experience low self-esteem, it is not only because we are stopping to do this or that, but more importantly because we are breaking ties with some of the relationships and routine interactions that were informing our self-knowledge. These broken ties can therefore trigger insecurities. A parent whose children just left home no longer shares breakfast with them, no longer drives them to school, no longer helps them with homework, and so on. There might be other tasks that he or she might be happy to relinquish. Yet, the children’s absence from ‘home’ will undoubtedly leave a void.


In my case, I left a human resources corporate role where I managed a large team and interacted with many colleagues and employees on a daily basis. I typically received over one hundred emails per day, dozen of phone calls, attended several meetings and responded to some form of crisis or another. All of a sudden, I had nobody to manage, no colleagues to interact with, no emails but spam, no phone calls except for charities requesting donations and no more ‘fires’ to extinguish. A major chunk of my life’s purpose of over 25 years had just vanished. I’m not surprised that some of my peers who had attempted to go “solo” had returned to a corporate role within months or a couple of years. I decided to stick it out, but I have to admit that it was much more difficult than I anticipated. What helped me was my determination to find out who “I” was at a deeper level than my socially cutout role. My spiritual endeavours, volunteering, meditation and mindfulness practices where also critical to my journey. They still are. Below are some suggestions to help you with a role shift.



  • Make a list of all the roles that you play outside the one that you are leaving. It will give you some perspective that you are not only ‘one’ thing. Here are some roles: spouse or partner, closed friend, parent, grandparent, brother or sister, god-parent, aunt or uncle, pet owner, worker, retiree, student, caregiver, neighbour, receiver of care, member of club or association, member of spiritual or religious organisation, volunteer, amateur artist, craft lover, musician, amateur of sport, and so on.


  • Acknowledge the many ways that you are contributing to this world through each of your many roles.


  • If you are unsure where to go next, consider temporarily ‘thickening’ any of your other roles, i.e.: increase the part that this role plays in your life. For example, spend more time volunteering or crafting, etc.


  • Avoid isolation by getting involved in your community or participating in a group or association. ‘Thicken’ any role that include others in your life!


  • When you leave a role, shift your attention on the new role that you are entering or on one of the other roles that you wish to become more significant in your life. Again, ‘thicken’ this role by making efforts to establish new relationships and routine behaviours around it. For example, I thickened my role of volunteer by spending more time volunteering but also by attending seminars and functions with my group of volunteers. I then also started to develop close friendships with a few volunteers who shared my values.


Further Readings


Australia Government (2011). Trends in couple dissolution: An update. (Family Relationship Quarterly, No.19). Melbourne, VIC: Australian Institute of Family Studies.


Ebaugh, H. R. B. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Hollis, J. (2006). Finding meaning in the second half of life. NY: Gotham Books.


Light, A. S. & Visser, P. S. (2013). The ins and outs of the self: Contrasting role exits and role entries as predictors of self-concept clarity. Self & Identity, 12(3), 291-306.


Van den Bok, A. (2014). Narrative Therapy. Notes of Professional Development People Seminar, Sydney, 5 & 6 March 2016.


National Longitudinal Survey Program. (2010). Number of jobs, labor market experience, and earnings growth: Results from a national longitudinal survey news release. (Publication No. USDL-10–1243). Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor and Statistics.


Copyright © 2016 by Sylvie Vanasse, Parlure Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.

Swinging on the life change trapeze Part 3 – Landing safely!

Trapeze 3 Landing

In the previous two blogs on the change ‘trapeze’ metaphor, I first discussed the need to let go of the old situation, the equivalent of leaving the trapeze departure platform and then, of “flying high up in the air”, the equivalent of what William Bridges calls “entering the neutral zone”. In this blog, I cover the last main phase of transition, the landing or, again according to Bridges, the “new beginning”. This phase is typically easier than the first. However, new beginnings can also be filled with regrets and doubts. That’s normal and to be expected, especially as some unanticipated obstacles might emerge.


In another blog, I will talk about the various types of transitions. There are many, those we choose, those that occur naturally (e.g.: menopause) and those that are unanticipated or imposed upon us by others or our environment (e.g.: lay-off). So, how to approach each landing will vary accordingly. I don’t have to tell anyone that unanticipated changes, such as lay-offs, redundancies, illnesses, deaths of a loved one, can be much harder to “land” than the changes that we opt to undertake.


Each of us is also different and our “internal” states, views, beliefs, level of resilience and so on, will also impact our landing. So, again, the smoothness of landing will vary according to each person’s internal states. In short, there is no one-size-fits-all approach but there are some recommendations that are helpful.



I combined recommendations from several authors (See Further Readings below) who have extensively studied and worked with life transformations to created my own STEP process (See Figure 1). As you can see, there is quite a lot to consider in order to secure a safe and smooth landing. The main idea is to know your current situation, know yourself, your strengths, coping mechanisms, boundaries and limitations, and to be especially mindful and gentle with your doubts, fears, guilt and other internal obstacles and resistances.


STEP Process Vanasse



Further Readings


Denborough, D. (2014). Retelling the stories of our lives: Everyday narrative therapy to draw inspiration and transform experience. W. W. Norton & Company.


Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. MA, Cambridge: Da Capo Press.


Ebaugh, H. R. B. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Goodman, J., Schlossberg, N. K., & Anderson, M. L. (2006). Counseling adults in transition: Linking practice with theory (3rd Edition). New York, NY, USA: Springer Publishing Company.


Hollis, J. (2006). Finding meaning in the second half of life. NY: Gotham Books.


Kurtz, R. (2007). Body-centred psychotherapy: the Hakomi method. Mendocino: LifeRythms, US.


Copyright © 2016 by Sylvie Vanasse, Parlure Pty Ltd. All rights reserved.


Swinging on the life change trapeze Part 2 – Whilst up in the air!


Trapeze 2 In the Air Small

In my first blog of the series on the life change trapeze, I talked about the importance of letting go, of leaving the current situation in order to be able to free ourselves to move forward. In this second blog, I discuss the importance of taking the time to fly way high up in the air and take a bird’s eye view so you can explore your best landing spot.


Regardless whether the new situation has been imposed on you or not, it is whilst we are high up in the air that the real transition and the ‘inner change’ take place. This process can take several months and, if you have not entirely let go of the previous situation, it can even take years. If you have chosen to make a significant change in your life, others might also try to pull you back. Not everyone in your entourage might approve of your decision. It can be scary for your partner or closed ones to see you leaving a situation that they consider acceptable or even more, prestigious. For example, doctors, surgeons, professionals or ‘executives’ find it hard to change profession or role especially if the change is perceived as a ‘downgrade’. Beside one’s loss of status, a change can also generate a loss of income, which the partner might disapprove of. In her study of ‘exes’, Ebaugh found numerous examples where people delayed their decisions for years due to a lack of social support.


But once you’re in the air, it can also be scary because you enter some kind of ‘neutral zone’ says William Bridges. This is when doubts can easily populate your mind. You are basically oscillating between a past and a future role. According to Bridges, a number of steps need to occur such as ‘disentifying’ from the previous role, ‘dismantling’ the past, which can leave you feel disoriented, ‘empty’ or literally groundless for a while. That is normal but rarely enjoyable, even when you make a deliberate and positive change. It’s a time when you can also feel really isolated because closed ones might tell you things like: “You made this decision to change…what’s the problem?” or might add: “Why can’t you enjoy the ride?” The fact is, transition, like learning a new skill, is mostly enjoyable in hindsight, but rarely whilst it takes place. In learning for example, what we enjoy are the end results, but let’s be honest, studying, memorising, rehearsing, drill practicing, are activities that can be really tedious. It’s the same with transition: disentifying, dismantling, disenchanting and disorienting are seldom enjoyable.


Having said all that, it is whilst you are in transition – up in the air – that you have the best viewpoint. You can have the freedom to look around, explore the landscape and see the many possible landing spots. So, it’s worth resisting the temptation to rush this process and learn how to navigate the discomfort.




  • Recognise that it’s normal to feel disoriented, confused, unsettled and even scared during this phase. If these feelings become too intense for you, they are likely going to be too intense for your loved ones to witness as well. So, you might need support from an objective person or professional to help you navigate these.


  • Most people who make successful transitions weigh in the pros and cons of the change, not only in a rational way but also with their intuition, ‘gut feel’ and heart. Take time to identify or review your deepest values and needs.


  • Make sure that your loved ones understand how important the change is for you but that your change might also be creating a number of losses for them too. So, you will likely need to draw from your empathy and good communication skills. The “REAL Dialogue” framework (see more about it on this web site) can really help you here.


  • Be clear on the type of support that you expect form others. Again, use REAL Dialogue to make requests for support that are clear, doable, positive without being coercive.


  • Meditation or mindfulness exercises, such as journaling, might also be very useful to gain clarity of mind.



Further Readings


Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. MA, Cambridge: Da Capo Press.


Ebaugh, H. R. B. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago, IL: University of

Chicago Press.


Hollis, J. (2006). Finding meaning in the second half of life. NY: Gotham Books.


Copyright © 2016 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved.

Swinging on the life change trapeze Part 1 – Letting go of the bar!

Girl Trapeze

This is the first of a three-blog series on each of the three stages of life changes.

Many years ago, I remember reading an excerpt of Danaan Parry’s the “The Essene Book of Days”, where he uses the analogy of swinging on a trapeze to illustrate the personal transformation process. Today, in helping people with life transitions, Parry’s analogy resonates even more with me than ever before. I use this analogy slightly differently now, but I find that going through a life change, whether it is anticipated or not, is like being on a trapeze. You’ve got to leave one platform, fly in the air and land (hopefully). Similarly, making a life change has three main stages: 1) Leaving the current situation, 2) Preparing for the new situation and 3) Embracing the new situation. During this process, like on a trapeze, you can literally feel “ungrounded”, confused and scared.

When I left the corporate world, after 25 years, to start my consulting business, I did feel like I was swinging on a trapeze. At times, it seemed that I had dropped the bar and was up in the air with no net underneath me to catch my fall. I also made two mistakes. First, I tried to rush my landing so I could feel safe again. Second, I tried to keep an eye on the departure platform, just in case I needed to return. Needless to say, I could not rush forward whilst looking back at the same time. It did not work and only brought more confusion. If I wanted to change, I had first to let go of the past. That’s the first stage.

Letting go of our old ways is not easy. It often yields to a redefinition of our solidly built identity. We have to leave our old role behind and reshape a new one. In the meantime, we can feel destabilised and isolated. Beside one’s role and identify, making a life change will inevitably generate other losses and hence, will require some mourning. For example, I had to distance myself from people and activities that I used to enjoy but that were now keeping me glued onto the departure platform. Examples included old professional networks, ex-colleagues and types of work that I felt competent and ‘safe’ doing but that were no longer aligned with my new business direction. I even threw away old books, articles and papers that I had not touched for years but that I was keeping ‘just in case’.

The ‘letting go’ activities triggered mix feelings. I felt sad, grateful, as well as excited and relieved. Overall, the process unburdened me. It made me lighter so my flight – my preparation – towards my new platform became more graceful and easier. Below are some of the lessons that I, and many others, have learned through their transition process.


  • Take time to leave the old situation and complete unfinished business. You don’t have to throw away the baby with the bath water but clearly identify what you want to take with you (e.g.: skills, experience, lessons learned) and what you need to leave behind.
  • Honour what and whom you are leaving behind. Ideas include:
    • Acknowledging colleagues, mentors, neighbours or whoever significantly impacted you in your previous situation. You can do this at a celebratory party or individually or with a card or email.
    • Taking photos of people and places that you are leaving behind.
    • Making a list of the key lessons that you learned and what you wish to continue, start and stop doing in the future based on these.
    • Making a list of your achievements and the legacies that you are leaving. If you’re leaving a job, you can even write your own “thank you for your service” letter.
    • David Denborough, narrative psychotherapist, suggests that you create your “Club of [Old Situation]” document where you can list members of your old team, including: team mates, your offense, your coach, your goalkeeper, your fans, key values you were defending, the goals that you scored together, etc.

Further Readings

Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. MA, Cambridge: Da Capo Press.

Denborough, D. (2014). Retelling the stories of our lives: Everyday narrative therapy to draw inspiration and transform experience. W. W. Norton & Company.

Light, A. S. & Visser, P. S. (2013). The ins and outs of the self: Contrasting role exits and role entries as predictors of self-concept clarity. Self & Identity, 12(3), 291-306.

Parry, D. (2008). The Essene book of days. Earthstewards Network.


Copyright © 2016 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved.

What triggers us to leave a situation?

Blong Girl Thoughfully Watching A SunriseSmall

There are many reasons why we seek to make major changes in our lives. Helen Ebaugh, prior to being a scholar and writing her book “Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit”, was a nun. One day, she decided to leave the order after its management made major organisational changes that were no longer aligned with her beliefs. She then joined Colombia University in New York where she studied “role exit”.


Professor Ebaugh interviewed over 185 people who had made a major life change, including other “ex” nuns but also divorcees, transsexuals and many others. As a result, she listed the following four key triggers that influenced her interviewees to make a life change:

  • organisational changes
  • burnout
  • disappointments
  • major changes in a relationship


Ebaugh’s lists mainly external influences, but other authors like James Hollis and William Ridges, also add intrinsic ones like psychological insights, changes in our values or beliefs, spiritual growth or deepening our social and political awareness. There are also other triggers like becoming ill or recovering from illness or the death of someone dear, which might all incite us to change our life style.


Organisational changes are prevalent and often the main influencing factors for individuals to seek an alternative work role. Some changes might be abrupt whilst others will be progressive and might slowly erode one’s positive perceptions of the organisation that they belong to. In addition to a change in direction, changes in an organisation’s structure will generally have a ripple effect. For example, one’s career advancement aspirations might be blocked as a result of the restructure. Others might fear losing their skills, status, autonomy or control. Changes in team composition or management will also greatly influence individuals to move on. Once a team has “jelled”, dismantling it can be devastating for team members, creating a sense of loss of one’s working community, feeling of camaraderie and belonging.


Burnouts are also on the rise. According to recent results of a longitudinal study conducted by Professor Paul Richardson and Associate Profession Helen Watt from Monash University, one in four teachers will experience burnout. The Australian Bureau of Statistics also indicates an increase in the average working hours, which they call “overemployment”. Many people are therefore getting exhausted and fatigued, which impacts on their sense of integrity as they notice being more irritable with clients, colleagues and family members. This was the case for me. I worked very long hours and was doing tasks that were becoming increasingly removed from my deep aspirations and needs. I was spending more time managing paperwork than coaching, counselling or supporting people to flourish, which is my passion.


Disappointments and disillusions in both relationships and at work are other instigators of life changes. Often, it is the young adult who feels such disappointments, says Ebaugh. Images of relationships and career prospects are often unrealistically depicted in the media and by education institutions. So, when graduates start working, they often feel disillusioned by the reality of their new job. The same goes shortly after they have engaged in an intimate relationship.


Of course, there are also changes in a previously stable relationship that can generate disillusionment. One of the two partners might have an affair or start behaving in ways that are no longer acceptable to the other. Unless the couple communicates well or seeks support, such events are likely going to trigger a separation.


There are often cues that indicate that we need to make a change. Becoming aware of these can help us make more timely decisions about a change. Are there any cues for you? Below are some cues that others have recorded in their change process.



  • Check for burnout cues like regularly feeling uneasy, irritable, fatigued, sluggish, unmotivated, tearful or depressed.
  • Check for changes in your typical behaviours such as an increase in your alcohol consumption, insomnia, adopting unhealthy eating habits, impulsive buying, etc.
  • Check for relationship cues such as lack of intimacy, changes in sexual activities, lack of joy, increased frequency of arguments and conflicts, and any form of abuse (emotional, verbal, financial, physical…)
  • Check for inner change cues such as questioning your values, life’s meaning and purpose, spirituality, desire to get more involved socially or politically, etc.
  • Discuss cues with closed friends. They often pick them up before you do!


Further Readings

Ebaugh, H. R. B. (1988). Becoming an ex: The process of role exit. Chicago, IL: University of

Chicago Press.


Hollis, J. (2006). Finding meaning in the second half of life. NY: Gotham Books.


Bridges, W. (2014). Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes. Cambridge: MA: First Da Capo Press.


Watt, H.M.G. & Richardson, P.W. (2011). FIT-Choice: Attracting and sustaining ‘fit’ teachers in the profession. Professional Educator, 10(2), 28-29.

Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved

Give or gain? What motivates people to start new projects?

Give or Gain

Many think that people are intrinsically egoistic and that generosity and altruism aren’t real. They believe that we only give in order to eventually get something in return, to be perceived as good or to free ourselves of guilt. Others even consider generosity as an indicator of weakness and as potentially jeopardizing sound reasoning and decision-making. However, our findings and those of recent studies are proving otherwise (Emiliana, Simon-Thomas, & al., 2011; Goetz, Keltner & Simon-Thomas, 2010, Cooper, 2010).


We are hardwired to fight or flight in face of danger but we are also hardwired to empathise and cooperate. “Compassion and benevolence are evolved part of human nature, rooted in our biology and brain and ready to be cultivated for the greater good” says Dr Dacher Keltner from Stanford University. His recent studies on the evolution of compassion indicate that these qualities have for primary function to facilitate cooperation and protect the weak and those who suffer from our community. Other studies, conducted by Dr Nigel Nicholson, from the London Business School, also show that empathy and our need for social belonging are keys to our survival. In short, without our capacity to help each other, we would have never survived.


So, I was curious to review Individual Motivational Profile (IMP) reports that my colleague John Smartt and I conducted with adults and see what were the key motivating factors for individuals to get involved in new projects or ventures.


I reviewed over 130 reports and extracted the keywords of the individual’s objective that people expressed when they got involved in a new project or venture. I found that “contributing to others” was one of the top five reasons why people got involved. Objectives included keywords like: “To derive a worthwhile result for myself and others”, “when I see a need to help others”, “to contribute to a person or a business and see them flourish”. Such examples abounded in the reports.


The other most frequently quoted objectives were needs for learning, growth and elf-actualisation (e.g.:” to be the best I can be”), followed by undertaking something challenging and improving situations. One could argue that improving situations could even be classified as a means for alleviating some kind of suffering and hence, contributing to others. Overall, 85% of the primary objectives to get involved were to meet a broader need for meaning in life, e.g.: contributing, learning, growth, creativity, discovery, purpose, efficacy, etc. The other objectives were to meet needs for connection, peace, joy and autonomy.


Maybe I knew this all along and I have read the reports with my own biases and philanthropic view of the world. However, I would welcome anyone to review the reports and disprove my findings. So, sages, poets and spiritual leaders alike have known this for thousands of years, we seem to gain more when we give!


Further Readings


Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, & al. (2011). An fMRI Study of Caring vs Self-focus During Induced Compassion and Pride. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.


Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D. & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin, University of California, Berkeley.


Nicholson, N. (2000). Managing the Human Animal, London: Texere.


Cooper, J.C. (2010). When Giving Is Good: Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activation for Others’ Intentions. Neuron, Department of Psychology, Stanford University.

Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved

Midlife Crisis – Myth or Reality?


rearview mirror life crisis medium

Clichés abound about fortysomething men who leave their wife to elope with a lady 20 years their junior or who get into debts buying a luxury sports car. These clichés might be exaggerations but many researchers found that most of us, men and women, do seriously take stock of our life at some point between the ages of 40 and 60.

What’s going on?

There are many theories of human development attempting to explain what typically occurs in the middle of our life. These include perspectives based on life stages (i.e.: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc.), lifespan or events that typically occur in the course of life, biology and genetic, chaos theory, historical and social contexts, to name a few.


One of these theories is the stage-based model, developed by the famous psychologist, Erik Erikson. He is also renown for labelling the “identity crisis” of adolescence. In fact, Erikson observed eight life stages, all being preceded by an inevitable crisis that, when successfully resolved, is presumed to foster personal growth and maturity. Amongst these, is the middle adulthood stage with its accompanying “generativity vs. stagnation” crisis.


Other theorists contend that it is not necessarily one’s age or life stage but life circumstances that trigger crises. For example, events such as forming an intimate relationship, getting a first paid job, parenthood, children leaving home, retirement, and so on, are often times of heightened self-reflection, change and growth. They estimate that viewing life changes in a linear or “stage-based’ fashion is too limiting and underestimates the complexity and unpredictability of life events.


Others argue that life changes happen in both predictable and unpredictable manners. For example, we tend to form intimate relationship in young adulthood, retire around the age of 60-65, etc. These are predictable changes. But we might also review our life following a traumatic event or the diagnostic of a chronic illness, which are unpredictable events.


Finally, some authors complain about the highly individualistic view of stage-based approaches like those of Erikson. They contend that we change through our relationships with others not independently due to our age of even life circumstances alone. So, life changes are complex and we have to consider multiple factors when analysing them.


A Time for Taking Stock

However, middle age is typically a time when most of us have been in an intimate relationship and/or a career for a while. Andrew Oswald, from the University of Warwick, argues that we experience a “U-shape” job satisfaction curve across our working life. He also found that it is then unsurprising that we review our career when at the “bottom” of this curve, which happens around midlife.


For those who have children, the middle of life generally coincides with their children being in their teens or young adulthood, often in the midst of their own “crisis”, triggering inquiries about the impact one’s parenting.


Given the constellation of life events typically occurring in midlife, it is then unsurprising that many of us would stop to reflect on and take stock of our life. This review does not happen in isolation either. Even though it is primarily deeply personal, our reflection takes place within our social and cultural contexts, i.e.: it is based on our own and the expectations and those of our family, including our children, community and social network.


Overall, this period of self-absorption makes us wonder whether we “generated” something meaningful in our life or have “stagnated”, to use Erikson’s terms. Some of the questions that we ask ourselves include:

  • “Overall, am I happy?”
  • “Am I in a loving and supportive relationship”?
  • “Have I raised my children well?”
  • “Have I been doing a job that I am truly passionate about?”
  • “Who’s life have I been living, mine or the one that my father (or mother or other person of authority) wished for me?“
  • “Did I make a difference in the life others?”
  • “Have I led a meaningful life so far?”
  • “Is my life well-balanced?”
  • “Is this it?”
  • “Will I ever…do, achieve, become….?”


However, not everyone will take the time to reflect. Some are happy with their life as it is – period. Others will avoid self-reflection altogether or not until they’re on their deathbed. It’s just too hard or confronting. Others might experience a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that they can’t just pin down and that they will seek to appease by working longer hours or going shopping or drinking (or having an affair or getting the new sports car!). Others are just too busy to ponder right now. They might be caught in the “sandwich” where they are caring for both their children and their elderly parents for instance. For others, midlife will be a time of self-reflection followed by adjustment or change.


Gains & Losses


For those for whom the midlife reflection opened the door to a world of new possibilities, making a life change might still be a challenging thing to do. Firstly, a multiplicity of choices tends to generate anxiety. Secondly, we can anticipate gains but also potential losses. These include the loss of a well-constructed identity, loss of status, skills, relationships such as professional networks, and financial stability, to name a few. It can be humbling to return to “school” or start a new career and one can become riddle with doubts. A “change honeymoon” can also be followed by feelings of isolation, as it might take much longer than expected to rip the benefits of the change.


I often joke that when I left my high-status “frequent traveller” role I was stunned to be “demoted” from the Qantas “Platinum” status back to the “Silver” one within a matter of weeks. My phone also immediately stopped ringing and most of my emails, which used to be over a hundred per day, turned overnight to a trickle of “spams”. I might have been joking, but the losses kept creeping on me and I did wonder after a few months: “What have I done?” Now, I have absolutely no regrets, but it was definitely a time of deep and longer than expected reflection and adjustment.



  • Questioning yourself in the middle of life is normal and healthy!
  • Get clarity about your values and passions.
  • Make a list of the various dimensions of your life (e.g.: family, work, health, hobbies, spirituality, etc.) and rate how each is important to you and then how satisfied you are with each of them today. See if there are any gaps that need attention.
  • Write your own eulogy…what legacy do you wish to leave? Are you on the right track to do so?
  • Talk about it to a trusted friend, pastor (if you are religious), counsellor or coach.


Further Readings

Bauer, J. P. (2004). Personal growth in adults’ stories of life transitions. Journal Of Personality, 72(3), 573-602.


Bussolari, C. A. (2009). Chaos theory as a model for life transitions counseling: Nonlinear dynamics and life’s changes. Journal Of Counseling & Development, 87(1), 98-107.


Goodman, Jane, Schlossberg, Nancy K., and Anderson, Mary L. (2006). Counseling adults in transition: Linking practice with theory (3rd Edition). New York, NY, USA: Springer Publishing Company.


Hollis, J. (2006). Finding meaning in the second half of life. NY: Gotham Books.


Oswald, A. P. (1996). Is job satisfaction U-shaped in age?. Journal Of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 69(1), 57-81.


Weaver, Y. (2009). Mid-life: A time of crisis or new possibilities? Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 20(1), 69-78.


Weinberger, M. K. (2008). Intimacy in young adulthood as a predictor of divorce in midlife. Personal Relationships, 15(4), 551-557.


Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved

You “want” or you “need”? Knowing the difference to resolve conflicts

The findings of my research and studies on human behaviour indicate that though we get motivated by various stimuli, at different times and at varying levels of intensity, we all share fundamental motivational factors or “shared human needs”.

Different Directions Want_Need

In fact, many mediators and counselors rely on the identification of these needs to create common grounds between individuals involved in conflicts. Generally, they do not start their process by addressing what people “want”. Their first aim is to uncover the deeper concerns or needs of each party. “Wants’ are only strategies to meet those deeper needs, and mediators and counsellors address these much later in the process.


Let me give you a simple example. A couple of years ago, shortly after our two beloved cats died, I suggested to my husband that we should get a dog. He wasn’t too keen on the idea given that we travel a lot and that a dog would need walking, daily care, and so on. I was starting to dig in my heels with my “want a dog idea” when my husband asked me: “What is your core need? “ (By the way, I’m the one who studied communication based on needs and who was supposed to ask these types of questions, but my husband kindly said that my skills have robbed off on him over time, hence his questioning. He got two brownie points for that recognition!)


When I heard the word “need”, I knew immediately that this was the right question to ask. I almost magically shifted my “wanting” a dog, towards trying to identify why I wanted it and what was my deeper or core need. I discovered that what I was really needing was to nurture and care for living creatures.


It’s only then that strategies to meet my needs emerged, and there were many, e.g.: become a volunteer to rescue wildlife or volunteer at an animal shelter or volunteer to help other human beings, which I opted to do in the end. The beauty in finding my deeper need is that multiple strategies unfolded. In addition, we were more likely to find one that would meet both our respective needs: my need for nurturing and my husband’s need for peace of mind whilst travelling and for his own care for animals (the poor dog would be lonely and spend days after days at the shelter. Instead of being divided, we united in both sharing our deep care for animals even though we expressed it differently! We now have two lovely kittens that we both adore. I also volunteer one day per week in suicide prevention, which I find extremely fulfilling and that truly meet my needs for care.




1. When facing conflicting “wants” with others (or even within yourself), ask yourself what deeper need(s) are you trying to achieve. Some common deep needs include belonging, connection, honesty, meaning, autonomy, joy, well-being and peace.


2. Ask the other person the same thing, i.e.: If you were getting what you “want” what deep need of yours would be met? Go to the “core”.


3. You know that you have gotten to both your “core needs”, when what you come up with is shared by all other human beings on the planet! For example, we ALL have needs for belonging, connection, peace, and so on. If what you come up with is not something shared by all human beings, you are still at the “want” level, which limits your possible strategies.


4. Discuss the many strategies that could get your core needs E.g.: How can we both meet our need for “care” and “peace”?


5. Agree on a strategy and put into place.


Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved

Scary honesty

aboutI don’t think that I’m alone with the fear of speaking “my truth” to others. In fact, when I conduct interpersonal communication workshops, this is the number one fear that many of the participants express, especially in the workplace. At home, it’s another story. Many admit not having any problems in being honest with their significant other or with their children, but admit coming across as “blunt and of not being heard as they intended.

So, it seems that one way or the other, we pretty much all struggle in being successfully honest with one another. By successful I mean, being heard as we intended and getting our needs met. Why is that?

Again, most people say that they either don’t know how to speak honestly or are afraid of doing it “wrong”. They fear hurting the other person’s feelings or damaging the relationship. In short, they fear not being liked or loved anymore, and being abandoned or rejected by the other.

So, we often chose not to speak up in order to remain connected with the other. The problem with that approach however, is that our silence often turns into resentment, which can insidiously escalate into hatred. If we remain silent for too long, we often end up reaching a boiling point where we then explode. Then, we end up hurting even more acutely the one that we initially did not wish to hurt! We’re caught in a vicious circle!

Social psychologists, anthropologists and neuroscientists have put interesting hypotheses forward. One of these makes a lot of sense to me. It is that we have a strong drive to “belong” and being “rejected” is not only painful but also dangerous!

According to Professor Dacher Keltner and colleagues (1), from Berkley University, we are born with a “compassionate instinct”. Without this instinct, we would not have survived. We are a physically weak species compared to some of our predators. We’re pretty small and slow. We have no strong jaws or teeth. Put Einstein alone in front of a sabre-toothed tiger and the poor man, despite his high IQ, would have been breakfast. So, it is the fact that we rallied our forces and collaborated that enabled us to survive our predators.

To return to our fear of having an honest conversation, it seems that our need to belong is therefore more important than getting some of our wishes granted. Also, researchers (2) discovered that the feelings of pain experienced when we are socially excluded are as strong as those experienced through physical injuries. This is because the neurotransmitters of pain are located in the same location in our brain. So, not only is it dangerous to be “rejected” but it is also painful. Which pain is the greatest? Not having my wish granted or being “rejected”?

So, can we do anything about this? Can we have both? Can we speak honestly in order to get our needs met AND keep our connection with the other? The answer is “yes”. In fact, if we do this skilfully, we can even get more than that. We can build trust and reinforce our connection with the other. Here are a few tips.



  • Be clear about your deeper need versus your wish or want, e.g.: “I need support” versus “I need you to support me.” This way, you open up the door to many other strategies to obtain support besides getting it exclusively from the other person.
  • Make observations, not interpretations. Use the exact words that the other said or recall the behaviour as if you held a video camera, e.g.: “When I heard you say that you did not have time to help me out…”
  • Own your reactions and feelings, e.g.: say: “…I felt hurt” versus “You never seem to have time to help me”.
  • Take the time to check that you have been understood as intended: “Can you tell me what you heard me say?”
  • Make a simple and doable request: “Are you willing to ….by … Friday?” Watch out for “demands” in your tone of voice. Demands do not leave room for the other to “choose” or to say “no”. They tend to stimulate feelings of guilt in the other or imply that there will be retaliation or punishment.


Further Readings

Einsenberg, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion, Science, 302, 290-292.

Keltner, D., Marsh, J., & Smith, J. A. (Eds.). (2010). The compassionate instinct: The science of goodness. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Copyright © 2015 by Sylvie Vanasse. All rights reserved