August is often a hot and oppressive month. The air thickens; everything seems like it's in slow motion. But at some point you get the sinking feeling that the summer is ending and the pace is about to accelerate. This is especially true for parents. For them, the end of summer means the beginning of an ordeal -- preparing their kids for the school year.
If you're a parent you've probably had some of these thoughts already:
I have to make sure my kid doesn't get the bad teacher this year.
I have to run a carpool that fits the schedules of three children and five parents.
I have to make sure my kid turns her homework in on time without going to war with her.
I have to control my child's use of video games, although, if I'm honest, it gets him out of my hair.
I have to drag my kid to Staples and fight my way through the crowd.
I have to face the judgment of other parents who -- in my imagination -- do all of this much better than I do.
These tasks always feel more overwhelming than they really are. Overwhelming enough for our patients to complain about them -- and not just the mothers. Years ago, I couldn't quite understand how such an everyday set of demands could paralyze grown men and women. But as I explored their reactions more deeply I realized it didn't matter what the specific demands were. It was what they represented: the end of summer.
These patients were facing what we call a transition. A transition occurs when -- usually outside your control -- your environment changes and makes a new set of demands on you. Moving from the warm relaxation of summer into the pressure of the school year is a classic transition. A smaller but more frequent transition occurs every time you walk through the door of your home after a day's work and have to deal with your spouse and children.
Why are transitions so overwhelming? The answer is that we're creatures of habit. We like to keep doing what we're already doing -- it's comfortable and familiar. We put off the future and its new demands as long as possible. But the more we put off acting on those demands, the more intimidating they become.
To make a transition successful you need a way to put yourself in the future before it arrives. This goes against our natural tendency to avoid dealing with the future until the last possible moment. Amy was a patient of mine with her own business who was normally energetic and organized. A mother of three, she came to a late summer session in a state that was completely out of character -- she was paralyzed. "I think about everything I have to do before school starts and I panic. Then I put the whole thing out of my mind. I feel better for a minute, but deep down I know that the pile of tasks is just getting higher."
I suggested a solution she didn't expect. I told her that for the next week, she needed to imagine herself in the future, having already made the transition. "It's three weeks from now, the alarm goes off at 6 am, you rouse your kids, get them breakfast, bug your little one to stop lolling around and tie his shoelaces, field a call from a carpool mom who's sick and needs you to substitute for her, etc." What I was really asking her to do was change her relationship with the future. Rather than putting it off and hoping it would go away, she was placing herself in it before it arrived. Although this was unpleasant, it destroyed the fantasy that she could avoid dealing with it.
She came back the next week and she was her old self. "I thought the assignment would create more panic, but it didn't. Instead, I got my confidence back. I realized I was trying to make the summer last forever."
No one can hold back the march of time. The future always arrives with its new demands. Whether you like it or not, you're going to end up taking the exact actions you're trying to put off. Your only choice is whether you move proactively into the future, or are dragged kicking and screaming into it. When you imagine yourself in the future as if it were happening right now you've taken the first step toward making the right choice.
This conscious decision to move continually into the future doesn't just benefit you; it gives your children a priceless gift. You convey to them that life keeps moving forward and presenting new demands. As long as they fully accept these demands, they'll be strong enough to deal with them. They'll view life with excitement and themselves with confidence.