Monday, February 11, 2013

The Man or Woman in the Mirror - Managing the Emotional Challenges of Transition

I am writing this brief Blog post in fulfillment of a Commission.  Allow me to explain.  I just got off the phone with my good friend, Professor Kate McKeown - known to many as The Vulcan Professor!  We were talking about the "Rumsfeld Quadrant of Knowledge."  

On February 12, 2002, the Secretary of Defense made the following  statement as part of a press briefing regarding the War on Terror:

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Kate and I were discussing the "unknown unknowns" with regard to a project that we are working on together.  So, I shared with her part of a conversation that I had just concluded with a young woman who is transitioning from serving as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Army.  Here is the gist of what I shared:

"We have talked about many aspects of your transition, but there is one more item that I would like to put on the table for us to discuss today and in future conversations.  I find that in dealing with women and men who are transitioning from the military - even those who are retiring as Flag Officers- Generals and Admirals - that this is often the most neglected and most important transitional dynamic to be aware of and to control.  I am talking about the emotional and psychological challenges that one faces in transitioning from a role of military leadership to the private sector, service sector or graduate school.

Think about this.  For the past several years, you have lived and worked in an environment in which external structure was present everywhere you turned.  You had a clear and identifiable mission, and would often receive immediate feedback on how well you had performed in carrying out your assignment in fulfilling that mission.  At the end of the day, you could check off any number of boxes of concrete things that you had accomplished.  You knew your place in the scheme of things and you knew your purpose, as well as having a pretty clear picture of your performance.

  And then one day you begin Terminal Leave, and it all changes.  Gone are the structures, the mission, the After Action Reports, the sense of your place in the world, a sense of security and accomplishment.  You face a new world, one that often has a hard time understanding who you are and what it is you did when you were serving in the military.  You send off resumes, and are met with overwhelming silence or with insensitive questions like: 'Have you ever held a real job?'  You apply to graduate programs and wait months to know if you have made the grade and will be accepted to matriculate in the fall.  And it begins to take its toll in subtle ways.

You wake up in the morning and look in the mirror (shaving mirror or make-up mirror), and look at the face of a stranger staring back at you with that 1,000-yard stare.  You begin to wonder, 'Are my best days behind me?  Have I peaked too early?  Is there a place for me now?  I used to command men and women who saluted me when we met, and no I have a hard time getting phone calls and e-mails returned.'  

Managing the reality of those dark hours is as important as sprucing up your resume or updating your LinkedIn Profile.  What I have learned in listening to other women and men who have gone through a similar transition is that you need to admit that those dark moments exist.  Acknowledge them - to yourself and to a small cadre of trusted advisers - and then mount a frontal assault against them.  Create your own structure - a workout schedule, specific times for sending out resumes, writing a Blog, reading from a strategically chosen reading list, volunteering to 'Pay It Forward,' re-connecting with family and friends, and talking about your feelings and struggles.  Use the 'sounding boards' and the 'leaning posts' that are the special  persons  in your life."

When I finished recounting for Kate what I had said to this young soldier, Kate exclaimed: "You need to write down what you just said.  I needed to hear that.  Lots of people need to hear it - not just transitioning military personnel.  Hang up the phone, write it as a Blog piece, and then call me back so we can continue with our original agenda for this phone conversation."
So, I have herein fulfilled  the Vulcan Professor's Commission to share my thoughts.  Here are my final two cents' worth on the matter - at least for now.  Two questions:
  • If you have those dark hours when looking in the mirror, are you humble enough to reach out to a trusted friend or family member to give them the opportunity and the privilege of sharing with you your struggles and hefting some of the burden that you bear?
  • Do you have someone  in your life who appears to be struggling with those dark hours, but who seems reluctant to open up?  Ask some gentle leading questions that make it clear that you are prepared to listen if they would be willing to talk at a meaningful level about how they are doing?
I had just such a conversation last week on the phone with a "crusty old Colonel."  At the end of our conversation he said, "Thank you for raising this issue of the emotional aspects of my transition.  No one else has dared to talk to me about it, and it is very real."

Take a look in the mirror, my friend.  What do you see?



Anonymous said...

Dr. Chase,

I agree completely with the Colonel of whom you mentioned towards the end. These in-depth psychological issues are not brought up the the military setting. Often times, these issues affect the person, but are not identified or realized for a significant period of time.
I appreciate you outlining and sharing them and additionally giving ways to promote communication (on how to ask questions such as those in your final points). I believe this type of communication is so very important and can be utilized much more (in the military setting and others) to promote social health. As a transitioning officer, myself, I can ask these questions to myself in order to become self-aware. Your discussion also shows me ways on how I can be a better friend to those close to me who are transitioning, in addition to acquaintances and colleagues. Thank you for sharing your insightful blog.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Chase,

Many thanks for posting these thoughts. As a civilian transitioning from overseas-only assignments, it was extremely useful as well. I've heard the 'real job' question in my own job-search. I can't agree more on the mental challenges one faces while searching for a new career and adjusting to home life. It often comes at you all at once too so the suggestion of a structure and creating some normalcy out of the chaos is an appealing argument. Going from a 7-days a week routine that I knew inside and out to ad hoc hasn't been easy. The questions one should ask themselves are helpful too - they will also be useful to others I know who will soon start their transition.
Again, many thanks for your thoughts on an oft-ignored subject.