CHANGE is a part of life. Sometimes changes are clear cut: a change of job or the loss of one, a move, becoming a parent, losing a loved one. Sometimes they are more gradual, and we don’t really notice them until they’ve happened.
Changes can be for better or for worse, they can be freely chosen or forced upon us. Recently we have perhaps been exposed to the most direct form of imposed change that most of us have ever experienced: for the last year our lives have been turned around by lockdown restrictions and changed again as we go through each of the reopening phases. Rarely does change come about in this manner, clearly announced and with a series of defined actions to take. It doesn’t make it any easier to manage, however. Because dealing with change is more than just following a series of steps.
In William Bridges influential book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, originally published more than forty years ago, he makes the distinction between a change and a transition. The change is the external situation. Not being able to visit your parents. The ability to suddenly travel more than 5km from your home. The loss of a job. The birth of a child. The move. It’s the event itself.
A transition, on the other hand, is the psychological process that accompanies it. The adjustment we go through, mentally, as we come to terms with the new situation.
And often, we don’t acknowledge or are even aware of the necessity of allowing this process to take place in order to effectively deal with a change in our circumstances.
Because change can be hard. And this can be the case even with changes that we feel are for the better, that we have freely and willingly chosen, that we should be happy about. You might have just got the promotion you’ve been wanting for years. You’re supposed to be happy, right? Why do you have this sense of unease? What’s wrong with you? With more negatively laden changes it is perhaps easier to recognise the loss, but even then we often gloss over it. It’s not that bad, we say. Sure, aren’t there other people much worse off than us.
Let’s look at the bright side. There is of course nothing wrong with stepping back and trying to gain a bit of perspective when we find ourselves in challenging times.
But unless we allow ourselves to fully acknowledge what we are actually feeling, we are doing ourselves a disservice and will often not able to move forward or take full advantage of the new opportunities that change can bring.
When talking about changes and transitions, Bridges describes them as starting with an end, rather than with a beginning. And this is the bit we often fail to recognise. It’s the end of what was. And it is OK to feel a sense of loss and even longing for that, even if you treasure what your new situation has brought.
Becoming a parent is a source of joy, true, but it also comes with giving up a lot of the life you lived before you became one, and which you enjoyed. A promotion, fantastic. But perhaps you are giving up some of your free time, perhaps you miss having less responsibilities. Retirement – so much freedom suddenly, but your job might have provided a routine and sense of meaning that is now no longer there.
As much as the lockdown restrictions were an imposition, when they started to ease up, many of us felt a sense of loss and longing for the quiet times we had lived through.
If we don’t allow ourselves to fully reflect on what we are missing from a previous phase in our lives, we are creating a dissonance between where our mind is at and the external situation, which if not resolved can lead to a sense of continuous unsettlement. It can lead us to make change after change, never realising why the change doesn’t bring about what we expect it to. It can stop us from moving on from negative experiences or be the source of anxieties that we don’t seem to find an explanation for.
Once we allow ourselves to recognise the ending, however, and identify what it tells us about what’s important to us and the emotions associated with it, we are in what Bridges call the neutral zone.
The neutral zone is a bit like a no man’s land. Our mind is catching up with what’s going on, we are finding our feet, but are not quite sure yet what this new phase really means for us. It’s not always a comfortable place to be. But it’s an important one. If at this point we are honest about our feelings, losses, fears and hopes, we have a much better chance of successfully navigating our way through it.
And once we do that, what we often end up with is a sense of renewed energy, direction and purpose.
We become more resilient and better equipped to deal with changes in the future. This, then, is the true beginning. And this is where real growth can happen.
Like everything else in life, these stages are not necessarily clear-cut and linear. You might find yourself stepping back and forth between them, or that you’ve moved from one to another without even really noticing. There isn’t a right or wrong way to react to things either. Sometimes a life changing event can happen without any major adjustment being needed. Other times the smallest of changes can really knock us down. And that’s all OK. What’s important is that we learn to recognise the signs that we are going through a transition, that there is something here we need to deal with.
We are living through times of great uncertainty. We are dealing with changes in our own lives, are impacted by what is happening to others, and are also coming to terms with potentially dramatic changes to the way lives and businesses are conducted on a global scale. There is a lot to process.
When we say that we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat, we tend to talk about our external circumstances. But the way we are impacted by the current torrent of changes is also dependant on how we deal with the psychological aspect of it. And this will vary greatly from person to person. Let’s make sure we give ourselves and each other space and support to deal with that too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ingrid Seim is a psychological coach and the founder of Avenues Consultancy & Coaching.