Hold on tight! Transition Curve Ahead

 

Every change sets off a transition process.  This is why you’re having all these feelings during this unprecedented time in history.  Although our understanding about this new corona virus is changing daily, the way we respond to change – the transition process – is well-understood,  predictable, and you’ve been through it before.  You know how.  You’ve got this. And you will not always feel this nutso.

 Reading Time:  4.5 minutes

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Change or Transition?

© 2020 Liz Williams

In his book Transitions, psychologist William Bridges separates change – an event in time – from transition, which is the psycho-emotional process of adjusting to a change.  Every change triggers the transition process with its predictable and sometimes tempestuous trajectory.

Take getting married, for example.  You look forward to your life as a spouse, a part of a unit, and that distracts from the fact that things you loved about your single life are coming to an end.  You no longer make decisions alone.  You are not as free to do what you want when you want to do it.  There are conversations, negotiations, creative solutions.

==> Every change initiates a trip through the Transition Curve

If changes we look forward to trigger the transition process, what about those we don’t choose?  Like not being able to shake hands, or showing your love by staying six feet away?  Even small changes like these can put as into transition:  I think of myself as warm, friendly person and I’m acting like a hermit.  It’s confusing and awkward.  Understanding what to expect is a big help in navigating your way through the transition curve.

The Transition Curve

ENDING or, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

The transition process starts the moment you realize something has ended.  Denial is our instant response to this realization.  “Sure, we’re not in Kansas, but everything else is the same, right?  I mean, people still look like me and speak my language and….who are all those tiny people and why are they singing and…there’s a wizard?  Oh, c’mon.” Like Dorothy on the yellow brick road, your denial is peeled away, step-by-step, encounter by encounter.

As your denial ebbs, you become aware that you don’t know how to be anymore – you don’t know how to feel like yourself.  You don’t feel competent in the new reality, because you aren’t – it’s too new.  Although we don’t realize it, we get much of our sense of self from the way others respond to us.  When that response changes, it’s confusing and disorienting.  What used to work doesn’t anymore.   We can become confused about how we fit in to the new picture.  We can question our value.  Denial protects us from this questioning until we are ready to take it on.

“Just the facts, ma’am”

Facts, information and clear boundaries are what you need to get past your denial and through the Ending phase of transition.  If you are going to go through the discomfort of shifting the way you are in the world, there better be a good reason.

Letting go of denial can be as simple as accepting you’re going to be late to work because you keep getting off at the wrong exit so you’d better set your alarm earlier. It can be as complicated as the identity reset you’ll need to become a husband, wife, or parent. It can be the moment you realize that your clients or employees will need something different from you, something you might not know how to provide.

When you’re ready to accept that your sense of certainty has come to an end, and your former way of being in the world may not be a fit, you’ve entered the next phase of this normal, predictable process of transition.

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

The neutral zone is like putting the transmission of your car in neutral – no matter how much hard you pump that gas pedal, you’re going nowhere.  The neutral zone is all about not knowing, which is unpleasant for most of us.  Being confronted with what we don’t know can be nerve-wracking.  We’ll do anything to get back in gear, to feel like ourselves again.  We’ll jump back into denial, deciding to simply do what we’ve always done, consequences be damned.  Or we’ll will ourselves into the future, deciding that we know exactly what to do.  No matter which of these you try, you will end up back in the rich soup of the neutral zone, unable to mover forward and not yet ready to.  But you are very busy adjusting to a new reality.  It takes the time it takes.

 

Your job is to simply to stay here in the zone of the unknown, getting all the support you need.  Maybe there is a routine or practice you find nurturing and maybe you want the support of others.  It’s OK to slow down, to feel a little lost and to reach out. It’s OK to get cranky.  It’s OK to enjoy the downtime too.  It’s normal to swing between these two.  Eventually, you may start to feel anxious about not knowing when the neutral zone ends. You may start wondering why other people are not reacting like you are.  You may think, “what is wrong with me?”

Absolutely nothing.

Do what you can.  Swing over to denial.  Try something new.  Take risks. Fail.  Try again.  It’s OK.

You are OK.  This won’t last forever. How can I help?

These are the kinds of things you need to hear in the neutral zone – kind, supportive murmurings, a warm smile, a friendly gesture, all taking the pressure off.  The neutral zone is like someone dumping a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor, then hiding the picture of what it should look like after kicking a few of the pieces under the couch.  The time for facts is over – you need support.

BEGINNING

One day you’ll wake up and that nagging pain in your back will be gone.  Your optimism and focus are back, and you have more energy. You may feel calmer, more grounded, accepting.  You’ll find yourself humming as you get ready for the day, thinking how you’re looking forward to familiar routines or the adventure of trying something brand new.  You will once again feel like yourself.  And you’ll think, “This is great!    Can I keep it?”  Yes, you can.  It’s yours, or more accurately, it’s you.

Inspire me!

You are ready for inspiring talks fresh starts.  You’ve figured it out and gotten your mojo back.  Will you revisit the neutral zone?  Maybe.  While models like this one are linear, life isn’t.   It turns and swoops and curves back on itself before jumping ahead or pausing.  But you’ll be visiting those other phases, not living there.

What about my clients, employees, friends, family?

Everybody moves through a transition at their own pace.  Understanding where someone is helps you offer them what they need rather than offering them what you need.  For example, if you are struggling with the ending, you may share your denial or hammer others with facts.  If you are in the neutral zone needing support, you may offer support to others who are still in denial.  If you are all the way through the curve and offer inspiration when others need facts or support, you may sound like you’ve lost your mind.  This tendency, though natural,  is not helpful.

Listen, then meet others where they are

Just knowing about this transition curve will improve your communication and effectiveness 100-fold.  Listen to your clients, colleagues and employees.   Where might they be in the transition process?  Offer facts, support or inspiration, depending where they are, not where you need them to be.  It’s OK to be where you are too, and not heroically trying to inspire others when you are freaking out.   Consider telling your story, admitting what you don’t know and sharing your humanity with people.  Pause.  Wait for ideas about what to say or do to come.  They’ve never failed you before and they won’t now.  It just may take a minute longer.

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“Squirrel!” – Adventures in Mental Hygiene

Reading Time:  1.5 minutes

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Earlier this week I was feeling lower than a snake’s belly.  I was metabolizing some difficult family news that left me with a low-level sense of dread I couldn’t shake.   I wasn’t sure how to move past it, so I was exploring that with a friend over coffee.

We were sitting outside near the Oakland Inner Harbor where we typically see seagulls and pigeons.  So when I saw a squirrel running along the walkway, I was stunned into silence.  All I could manage to was to point and blurt “Squirrel.”  This put us both in mind of the dogs in the movie “Up,” who were forever being distracted by squirrels, which caused us to laugh uncontrollably.  During a pause in the hilarity, I choked out “Now, where was I?” and that set us off again.

Eventually I managed to get back to my topic, but it wasn’t the same:  I was too light for that.  My mind was still running back and forth trying to solve the unsolvable, but it was more from habit than conviction.

When I woke up the next morning, I was again assailed with the awfulness of it all and my mood began to sag.  And then I heard myself say “Squirrel,” and once again felt the wonder of seeing that little furry being run by and I started laughing.  And I saw it more clearly than I ever had before:  One moment I was feeling depressed and the next I was laughing uncontrollably.  All that had changed was where I’d put my attention.

I saw that the choice was mine:  I could continue to let my mind persist in this painful and deepening trench, or I could step in and help it do something else.  I couldn’t solve or even fathom the original conundrum – no amount of thought or dread could do that – but I could redirect my beleaguered mind into happier and more productive territory, the way you would redirect a distraught child. Our mind sometimes needs it’s own minder – someone who will do the kind thing and hep it settle down.  I’m so grateful for the lesson of “Squirrel!”

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