11/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When The Fear Of Transition Leaves You Frozen

Q: I am going through a real puzzling period. I am not sure what is actually happening to me. I feel frozen.

I am a healthy, single 64 year old award-winning composer. My life has been an interesting one and for the most part quite lucky. I have had a close relationship with my four sisters, my friends are numerous, I have traveled extensively, and I have many interests other than music. I feel satisfied and fulfilled. In my fifties, I went back to school to get a degree in comparative religion. I grew up Catholic and have always felt spiritual. Once I left my parents' home I stopped going to church. I recently became a member of a church that responds more to my need for open, questioning, intellectual spirituality.

Of course, there have been some more difficult moments as well. My childhood was relatively happy, but my Dad was an alcoholic and I can remember being the perfect child in order not to upset him and incite his rage. I had a tough time then, but I am now sympathetic to the pressure he must have felt to support a family with five daughters.

I am successful in my field, but there is no doubt that I had to struggle. Success can sometimes be a process of clawing one's way to the top. I have had numerous lovers and even some long-term relationships, but none of them measured up to the man I was once engaged to. He unfortunately dropped dead in front of me three weeks before we were supposed to get married. Our relationship was one of mutual respect and mutual satisfaction. We listened to each other and we tried every day to make the other happy. I haven't been able to find another relationship yet to compare with this one.

Now, I believe there is another stage left for me to experience, but I don't know what it is. How does one transition to that next stage? You often write about the importance of transitions, but I get the feeling they are painful. I don't believe that change has to be a cataclysmic event. I am hoping that at this age, I can transition smoothly. I am trying to be as aware and as thoughtful about this transition as possible. I am prepared to change my life completely and have tried various ways to use my musical talent.

I am also hoping for a relationship that will finally be a shared experience. I am really hoping that in my next little life I will be valued for myself. I want this in my work and in my personal life.

At least to myself, I seem so clear. Then, why am I frozen?

A: The first thing you need to do is to review your lifetime experiences. You have very effectively been able to transcend several experiences that might have felled a lesser person. You have developed a wonderful mix of intellectualization, understanding, and hard work. You are clearly a survivor.

But pain -and you have had your share -- takes its toll on us all. Eric Ericson, the well-known developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, believed that throughout life there are stages or conflicts that we need to resolve in order to successfully transition to the next stage. If we do not resolve a conflict before moving on, that conflict will reappear in subsequent stages. For instance, the role of a teenager is to work through the conflict of "identity vs. role confusion." In other words, to become an adult, one must develop one's own sense of identity rather than following the identities of others in the group.

What are some of your unresolved conflicts? Let's start with your father. As an adult, you can understand the pressure he was under. But you did not have to deal with your father's alcoholism as an adult, but as a child. Those feelings -the ones you had as a kid -are the ones that need to be faced. They include the feeling you had as a child that your needs were not as important as the need to keep your father calm. A child cannot trust a parent who doesn't make him or her feel safe or listened to. The harsh fact is that you were probably not valued as a child. Little wonder then that you continue to search for the security you lacked as a child and the sense of being valued.

Secondly, your career is successful, but your description of the struggle to get there is joyless. You feel that you are valued for your musical abilities, your talent, but not for whom you are. Your music awards are the result of hard work and talent. That's good, but it makes you question whether your identity tied to success and applause or to an appreciation of your inner qualities? Once again your struggle is to be valued as you wanted to be as a child.
Most importantly, you search for a relationship in which you will feel valued. When your fiancé suddenly died, you experienced an extraordinary trauma. What makes it worse for you is that this man, your fiancé, offered you the only relationship in which, by your own account, you found yourself listened to. You felt that your needs were taken into account. You felt valued. And yet you probably have not made yourself open to another, similar, relationship. But if you had this sort of rich and fulfilling relationship once, you can have it again. Why do you close yourself off?

You seem to want the next transition in your life to focus away from a career and on to a relationship. You want to find yourself valued as an individual not because of your talents. You are fearful that change means pain and can only be accomplished through a cataclysmic, possibly traumatic, event. That has been your experience. Your father was explosive, your career required clawing upwards, and your fiancé dropped dead in front of you. Naturally, you are afraid of that happening again. You may fear a new stage of life or a new relationship because if you finally ask others to value you for yourself, it will be taken away from you. Emotionally, this is how you experience the death of your fiancé.

Take the plunge. Go for the next stage. If you feel some of the fear and anger from your past and if you keep that fear and anger in the past where it belongs, you may be able to move to the next stage. Only you are holding yourself back and only you can free yourself from old patterns.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.