Managing Your Transition from Military to Civilian Work


Dear Beloved Soldier,

This is some information I have wanted to share with you for a long time.  I just never had a place I communicate with you until now.

If you are about to leave the military or have already, there is a huge transition facing you.  I’m sure your friends have already shared with you how difficult it can be.  It probably has you in turmoil as to whether leaving is a good step or not.  The funny thing is that is how transition works.  It makes you question yourself before, during and after.  What seemed like a good idea at the time, is now making you not only question the decision but also your own judgment.

I hate that for you but I’m going to give you one of those fact-of-life talks that will equip you now and throughout your life.  I only wish that as a culture, we would talk about change more than we do.  It would help us through big changes like what you’re going through and will continue to go through your whole life.



There is change and there is transition and they are related but different in terms of what they put us through.

Change is an event.  It’s an outward activity like leaving the military, moving or changing jobs.  It is also a discrete process as well, with well-understood stages that ultimately lead to a decision and action.

Transition is the internal, emotional reaction to changes you are making or about to make.  Like change, it is its own discrete process and stages.  While the two go together, they aren’t the same nor should you think they are because you manage through them in different ways.

To give you an example of the two and we’ll keep it simple.  Let’s say you’re still in the military and have new orders to be stationed in a new location.  The change is a new assignment, in a new location.  Your actions entail figuring out your various logistics of moving your things and being assigned to new leadership.  Your transition might involve sadness is leaving your friends or leadership, or location.  You might feel uneasy about what the new assignment might entail and once you arrive, you have both the assignment to get used to and all those new people.  Even after you start your new assignment, you’re not that comfortable for a while.

Sound familiar?  That’s the difference between change and transition.  Related but different.


What to know about Transition

We do very little in our culture to help people understand transition.  As a result, I think some of us make poor decisions when we are in the midst of it because we don’t understand what is taking place.

William Bridges has written and taught that are three distinct phases to transition.  I have modified some of the wording because I think it describes the phase better.  They are:

  • Endings. If you think about it, all change means something has come to an end.  For you, it’s your military service.  It’s also much more than those words imply.  It’s the ending of a lifestyle, friends, philosoph, and work.
  • Confusion. You will go through a period that lacks clarity about all sorts of things.  The primary reason is that you have not solidly “become” whatever the new direction is.  You might be learning or you might simply be in search but you don’t yet know enough about your new endeavor.
  • Beginning. You might start a new job and move to a new location however, your emotions have not yet caught up – they will.  Each day you get a clearer picture but it takes a while.  You haven’t learned your job, you really haven’t yet established tight relationships and you certainly haven’t used your true potential.

It’s important to understand that this is 100% an emotional experience and it will cause you to be excited and terrified at the same time.  That’s why it’s related to change but it’s not the same.  One is an internal experience and the other is an outward experience.

Another interesting thing about transition is that your transition can sometimes precede your change and be the catalyst of making a change.  People who dislike their job go through this.  First, they have to experience enough of these emotions for long enough to prompt a decision to find a new job.  You especially see this scenario when people end relationships.


Each phase is also characterized by different emotions.


The phase of Endings I fondly call the “dis-ing” phase, as you will notice a hefty list of emotions that begin with “dis”.  When you decided to leave the military and did the required paperwork, you became a short-timer.  This term is largely driven by the emotions listed.  It’s hard to keep up your interest because emotionally, the train has left the station.

I will also point out the aspect of mourning.  We do mourn things that have ended in our life sometimes in addition to the mourning the loss of a loved one.  Like anything you mourn for, you will move past it at some point.

You may not experience all of these emotions including mourning because we all react to changes differently.  The duration of your emotions is a by-product of your own unique emotional makeup.  You can’t compare yourself to others.  It also doesn’t help to deny the existence of these emotions.


Ending phase Confusion phase Beginnings phase
Disengagement Emptiness Inner signals
Dismantling Surrender Identify of self
Disassociation Unshaped by purpose Excitement
Disenchantment Realignment Resolve
Disorientation Reorientation  
Disinterest Sluggish  

William Bridges calls the phase of Confusion “Neutral” but as you look over the list of possible emotions, it’s anything but neutral.  It’s important to notice that both Ending and Confusion are largely shaped by negative emotions and this almost more than anything else, it the point you should take out of this.  It’s not going to be a comfortable time for you, even if you are hysterically happy about your new endeavor.  It is confusing: Happy and uncomfortable at the same time?

In the phase of Beginnings you see your new life taking shape.  Each day the window to your beginning is opened wider and you see more and more glimpses of what’s ahead.  This is what you’ve been waiting for, even if your body is already there.


The Management of YOUR Transition
When you have a medical procedure or operation, the doctor will tell you what to expect following the surgery.  Along with that, they will tell you some things you should do to aid in your own recovery.  Telling you that you will be in some discomfort doesn’t make the discomfort go away.  What it does do is to let you know that what you are experiencing is normal and to be expected.

To a very large degree, the same is true for your transition.  You are going to have conflicting feelings and mixed emotions.  That’s par for the course of transition.  You will experience some discomfort as well as confusion.

The best management is the knowledge of transition and it’s phases.  You can’t speed up your feelings nor can you slow them down or compare yourself to others.  It is what it is.

If your transition is prolonged because your new work has yet to manifest, you have to give yourself purpose in the meantime.  In addition to job search, do things like volunteer.  We under value the place that purpose has in our life, however it is one of the primary assets that we find through the work we do.

You might also need to bulk up on patience.  It’s a highly underappreciated trait especially when you are uncomfortable and just want to feel normal- right now!  You could begin doing things like mediation to calm down from what’s taking place. Find peace in the knowledge that your transition will pass and each day will get better.

Be very cautious about reversing your decisions or jumping to conclusions.  We will get into a transition and interpret our conflicting emotions as a sign we made a bad decision.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make big decisions but spend more time than usual right now to make sure the decision is a good one. Consider consulting with a neutral person to act as a sounding board.

Change.  We aren’t resistant to change despite urban myths that some of us are.

You will go through change continuously throughout your life.  That means you will have transitions large and small to go through only now, you know what to expect.


Brought to you by Dorothy Tannahill-Moran – dedicated to unleash your professional potential.


About Dorothy

Dorothy Tannahill-Moran is the Introvert Whisperer, Career & Leadership, speaker and author.

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