“Transcend” or “Transform” Your Problems?

Explore whether stress caused by loss and change is better transcended or transformed.

pensive-300First, I’ll define two words that are often used in discussing change caused by loss and stress: “transcend” and “transform.”

Transcend means to pass beyond the limits of, to be greater than, as in intensity or power, and surpass or exist above and independent of the material experience. More or less, that’s what my dictionary says.

Transform means to change markedly the appearance or form of, to change the nature, function, or condition of, and to convert something from one thing to another. More or less, that’s what my dictionary says.

Here are five ideas for exploring how these two concepts are used:


The Serenity Prayer, that marvelous piece of wisdom used by millions, cautions us to be aware that some things can — and, I might add, should — be changed.

When change occurs fairly easily, the people involved probably don’t feel “transformed”. It is only the situation, itself, that is transformed. Often, however, we discover we’re part of the problem. In order to change the situation, we must change. We must transform something about ourselves, such as the way we think about the situation or the way we act toward it. When that happens, not only do we recognize the problem is different, we experience ourselves as different.


The Serenity Prayer also notes that some things cannot be changed. They can only be accepted or fought against fruitlessly. These opportunities allow us to experience “transcendence” in the sense that we recognize “who we are” is independent of how the situation turns out.

Perhaps that is what the person who objected to my original article meant when he thought of transcendence as “an attitudinal shift towards one’s problem.” He felt that letting a person “rise above, be and exist over and apart from” their problems allows them to “let go of” problems and not be controlled by them. The writer “found the concept of transcending problems to be very powerful personally.”

In the sense that not being caught in a problem can be viewed as transcendent, I would agree with him. In Letting Go of Our Adult Children: When What We Do is Never Enough, I wrote about serious problems we had for many years with our oldest son. I attempted to transform the situation between us when there was something I could do. When there was nothing I could do, I had to let go. Was that transcendence? Perhaps. How one looks at it may be a matter of semantics.

But I believe I was only able to get to the point of acceptance by realizing that I had to transform myself. I had to stop trying to help him live the way I was sure was best for him. Thus, I had to engage my “will” to stop trying to change something, which I experienced as a transformation of my coping style.


Whether one approaches a problem by “transcending” it or attempting to “transform” it, or oneself, depends, in part, on one’s temperament and coping style. For example, the writer of the e-mail noted that perhaps transcending problems was more comfortable for him because he was an introvert. Certainly extroverts and introverts approach life from two different directions.

Beyond the category of extrovert and introvert, however, are those who get so involved in the details of a problem that they can’t see the forest for the trees. In the end, it takes longer for them to solve problems because they don’t have the perspective they need. They would do well to get a more objective view by stepping away from the situation.

Others, however, are attracted, perhaps unconsciously, to the concept of transcendence because it can be used as an excuse for not dealing with an issue. While the person is feeling superior for having risen above a situation, those remaining in it are left to solve the problem on their own.


I am biased in believing that transformation is a more effective way of dealing with some problems because it tends to be more permanent.

For example, I’ve been on mountain top retreats with people who are convinced they’re “a new person”. They’re sure they’ll never again argue with their spouse. However, when they drive down the mountain road and return home, they often discover their spouse has not changed. Because they believed all they had to do was to transcend their problems, when their buttons get pushed, just as they were in the past, they don’t have new behaviors to replace their old ones. Then they’re stuck back in the same dynamics they had before.


Since some of the issues we may be dealing with are significant life stressors, I wonder whether one can actually “transcend” them.

Consider the loss of a loved one. Some people may feel their only hope is to get distance from their loss by attempting to transcend it. Well-meaning friends and relatives can push a person to “get past” their loss and “get on with life.” But as I have discovered in working with grieving clients, dealing with loss is extremely difficult. Every night the empty bed reminds you of your loss. The memories of a long life together force you to face the reality of your loss. That is why you are unlikely to feel you have “transcended” your loss until after you’ve taken a long, hard look at what life is like without your loved one.

After many months of experiencing the nitty-gritty of pain and grief, you will discover you’re a different person — transformed, if you will — and then it will be easier to transcend lingering feelings of sadness.

© Copyright 2006, Revised 2012, Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT

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