Imagine you’re hiking along a beautiful woodland path on a sunny day. Two hours into your hike, you find yourself in the middle of a totally unexpected violent storm. You and your companion find a rustic trail shelter where you huddle to wait out the storm.
After ninety minutes, the rain tapers off, the winds die down and you emerge into a completely different world. All around you there are fallen tree limbs and uprooted trees shrouded in a thick grey fog. The path you were on has been washed away.
You’re disoriented by the altered landscape and wander aimlessly trying to find a landmark or path that will direct you back to the trailhead. When one of you digs a compass out of her daypack, you’re able to figure out which way is east, which will lead you back to a road where you can get directions back to the trailhead.
As you slog through the fog, mud, and downed trees you have no idea when you’ll get there or where you’ll wind up, but you trust that if you keep going, you’ll eventually emerge from the foggy forest and be able to make your way back to your car.
Our lives for the last six months have resembled that hike. The pandemic hit with the sudden ferocity of a storm uprooting businesses, killing thousands, and disrupting our lives. On top of that, we’re going through another storm as a result of the tragic killings of several innocent black people by law enforcement. And for many of us in California, the recent historic wildfires have led to more loss, suffering, and disruption.
The rapid changes in the landscape of our society, our lives, and careers have us scrambling to figure out their impact and attempting to respond to them. We’re walking in a fog of uncertainty, confusion, and fear. We’re all in the process of one or more transitions.
In his book, Transitions – Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges explains the transition process and provides a valuable roadmap for handling life’s changes. Dr. Bridges breaks this process into three phases – the Ending, the Neutral Zone, and the New Beginning.
A clear understanding of these phases and how to navigate each of them can provide a helpful framework for navigating these chaotic times.
The Three Phases
Every transition begins with an ending. For most of us, this started in March when the pandemic dominated the headlines, and all of America locked down. Even though initially, some may have dismissed the pandemic as a temporary disruption, our society and lives have been permanently altered by this event. It’s time to acknowledge what has ended for us. By identifying what’s been lost and saying goodbye, we free ourselves to move into the creative phase of the neutral zone.
The second phase – the Neutral Zone – is that time of uncertainty and confusion between the old reality and the new normal during which we explore creative new possibilities and try to adapt to the change. Many of us are in that stage now as we adjust to the “new normal” by downsizing, reinventing, or relocating.
The third stage is the New Beginning when we experience the results of the change. For most of us, the future is still fuzzy since we’re still assessing the impacts of the change, continuing to adapt, and awaiting medical breakthroughs to eradicate or treat COVID-19.
We each move through the stages of transition at our own speed. Moreover, because the transition isn’t a linear process, one phase may precede another – for example, we might go through a foggy neutral zone of confusion and searching and then end something – whether it’s a career or lifestyle or relationship. We might also be navigating two phases at the same time or undergoing multiple transitions at the same time.
For example, several friends and clients, who, due to the pandemic, shifted to remote work, or were laid off, relocated from the Bay area to reduce their living expenses. They reshaped their lifestyles by either moving in with family members or downsizing their homes while simultaneously transforming or even reinventing their work lives.
No matter where we are in the transition process, we must go through a process of ending to step into and thrive in the next chapter of our lives.
Phase 1 – Ending, Losing & Letting Go
Loss is an essential part of any transition process – even changes that we view as positive. A promotion or a move to your “dream home” may involve relocating to a new office or city, altering relationships with colleagues and friends, and leaving familiar rituals behind.
During this stage, some people may feel afraid or deny that the change is really happening. Others feel angry, sad, disoriented, or frustrated. Over the last several months, most of us have experienced a mix of these emotions or different emotions in succession.
It’s often tempting to ignore or downplay endings and just disappear without saying goodbye. The problem with not acknowledging endings or rushing through them is that you don’t have any closure around a situation. And losses that haven’t been mourned, goodbyes that were never said, or hurts that were never processed can create emotional baggage that returns to haunt us as we start our new lives or careers.
What’s ending for you right now?
What do you have to release to move forward?
POWER TOOL – Acknowledging What’s Ending & Saying Good-Bye.
- Identify one transition you’re going through right now and clearly define what’s ending for you. What are you losing as a result of this transition?
- A job, professional identity, or a role?
- A home or a lifestyle?
- A regular paycheck?
- A certain structure in how you work or live?
2. Say good-bye to what you’re losing.
- Take time to reevaluate what you’ve lost by writing about your loss and your emotions surrounding it. Research by Dr. James Pennebaker has shown that people who use expressive writing to record their feelings about a particular challenge for 15-20 minutes a day for three or four consecutive days can help you make sense of unexpected events, give you a greater sense of control, calm you and lower depressive symptoms.
- Say goodbye to people you’re leaving behind at your workplace or in your neighborhood. If you left without saying goodbye, send an email or card.
- Create mementos of what you’re leaving behind such as a digital scrapbook of pictures of events, people, and awards.
- Take a trip into nature and create a little ritual where you bury or throw some symbol of your past into the ocean or a lake.
Releasing What’s Holding Us Back
Before we can create a new future for ourselves, we also have to say goodbye to old habits, attitudes, expectations, identities, and beliefs to make room for exciting new ways of living and working in the emerging post-pandemic world. This can include:
- Expectations that things have to be a certain way – for example “to live a happy life, I have to live in a certain place” or “because I have this professional degree I only have a career in this profession.”
- Outdated definitions of success – “to be successful I have to earn a certain amount of money or have this title”
- Habits – a certain habit that you developed in a prior job that might be holding you back now, for example, perfectionism, not taking credit for your achievements, people-pleasing.
- Limiting Beliefs about yourself
Think of this as decluttering your mind. We have to clear away old habits, attitudes, and notions of success in order to fully explore new paths with an open mind without being weighed down by emotional baggage from our past.
It’s only when we come to terms with our endings and let go of outdated expectations and limiting beliefs that we free ourselves to craft a future for ourselves that will enable us to thrive in our post-pandemic world.
We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. ― Joseph Campbell