Transitions: Five Pathways to Thrive vs. Survive

A Great Dance of Learning, Identity, Loss, Resiliency & Design

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.

ANAIS NIN

Embrace a Learning Mindset

Knowledge

Transitions invite us to explore our relationship with knowing. Knowing is highly prized in our culture. The challenge is that when we’re moving through a transition we must ALSO be willing to NOT KNOW.

Sure we can have a sense of a vision, a dream, an intention. And, if we grasp to these “seeds of desire”, we may feel blindsided & yes defeated when the inevitable variances naturally occur. One of the great mysteries of transitions is often their mystical nature. Having a Capricorn nature, I do love plans. And, what I have come to learn navigating transitions is that plans are important with a serious dash of open-ness, curiosity & flexibility!

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” 

Allen Saunders

Learn New Models

Often we’re clear about the content or skills required to learn as we embark on a new venture. However, we often don’t consider what is framing our experience. Models are important. They help make sense & meaning out of an experience. Like language they offer up a symbology to guide a journey, rather than detailing a literal step by step roadmap.

Being willing to not know what you don’t know

Transitions are rarely black & white, rather they’re filled with grey. From a physiological perspective, transitions will trigger primal responses that if unconscious, activate habits & strategies of coping that may not be supportive. We step into survival mode. From here we’re left to contend with instinctual responses to fear, loss, uncertainty & control. Creativity & innovation live outside of our reach.

From a WEL-Systems perspective we’re invited to expand our thinking beyond the presenting circumstance of a situation. To contemplate what is our structure of reality, and, to what degree we’re willing to step into a space of not knowing what we do not know. This is the domain of uncertainty, potential, curiosity, creativity & innovation.

Inherent in William Bridges Model of transition is an elegant, simple & powerful model of three core phases of transitions. The ending, losing & letting go phase; the neutral zone aka “the gap” phase and the new beginning phase.

Most of us want to skip on over to the new beginning. As a result, we can find ourselves deep in struggle, confusion and then quickly recreating what was. Before truly embarking on a new beginning, there is both some learning & unlearning to move through. Transitions are a process, not events to be managed. They’re often as much about the journey as they are the destination.

Transitions aren’t linear in nature. There is a back & forth, ebb & flow quality. Maybe you’re in the new beginning phase, only to discover there is more to process at the ending phase. It’s helpful to invite yourself to check-in and re-visit your journey. This is where having support can be valuable to check-in on where you are right now.

Reframe Identity

Unlearning Identity as What We Do & The Role(s) We Play

Where can we go to dis-identify with all that got us as far as we have gone in life?

William Bridges, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments (2001)

When something ends we can feel as though we no longer know who we are. Somewhere along the way, we’ve connected our identity with what we were doing & the role we were playing. This mis-placed identification over time builds and creates a heavy knapsack of titles & roles that take up space in our mind, bodies, hearts & spirt. We loose touch, connection with our innate essence and we find it challenging to fully show up for what’s next.

This can happen both in our personal & professional lives. As our career changes, we still continue to identify with the role before. Instead of carrying forth the knowledge and wisdom gained we add in a deep connection to the identification of the position once held.

In our personal lives, our children grow & our role as parent naturally seeks to evolve; as our parents move into their new phase as elders, our role as children seeks to evolve; as marriages begin and end, well our role as partner evolves.

When transitions feel hard, the identity conversation may be seeking your attention. There may be some unlearning required. The unlearning is about creating space so that we can design a new beginning (see below).

Part of the unlearning is first owning that,

Who we are is way more than what we do & the role we’ve played.

and then we’re able to open up to three powerful questions of a lifetime:

Who am I? Why am I here? How can I serve, now?

A personal example

I remember my first formal leadership position in nursing. This new role had a long list of new things for me to be learning and now doing. I struggled for quite some time as I still continued to move about trying to do what I’d done in my previous role, while simultaneously trying to learn what I needed for my new position. This looked like starting IV’s, admitting patients, carrying out roles for the nurses on the floor for whom I was to be leading (versus doing for). All fine in the spirit of support, and yet, its threads ran deeper. This is a common pattern I’ve seen repeated for years with health care professionals who transition into new roles that are requiring something new of them. I hadn’t taken the time, nor had I any awareness that I needed to consider I was moving through a transition.

My identity was engrained in the role I was leaving; the role I was deeply familiar with. I was somewhat aware of what I knew I didn’t know, yet not quite comfortable or truthfully even aware of what I didn’t know, I didn’t know. Over time, this became apparent. And it was I believe, looking back, a more painful transition than it needed to be.

Like an onion, choosing to examine & expand how you view your identity, has many layers. This revealed itself quite clearly to me when I moved full-time into being a business owner. I frequently was at a loss for introducing myself and sharing what I did. It was a clear reminded of the remnants of identity threads I still had connected to my role as a nurse. As much as I thought I’d digested the world view that I was a nurse, it still clouded me for many years after having left that role of service. Nursing will always influence what I do in the world. How could it not? And, how I self-identify today is much more than a particular role, profession or job.

So whether your transition involves a new role, a new job, a divorce, a new relationship or even retirement, contemplating the “identity” conversation may serve the journey through your transition.

Consider,

  • Are you straddling two personas in your transition?
  • Do you feel locked in a box, defined by your personality & history?
  • Who else do you have the potential to become?

Process Loss

Every beginning is a consequence. Every beginning ends something.

Paul Valery, French Poet

As much as we don’t like to not know in our culture, we equally aren’t keen on endings. Even those of us who love change and embrace the adventure of the new, probably have some threads of dread when it comes to endings. It’s these hidden threads that most often set-up the experience of having our foot on the gas & brake at the same time. These are the threads that keep us in unhealthy relationships, jobs we’ve long ago left and projects that have lost their spark and take on colours of resentments and burdens. Often in this experience, we’re fearing the loss of something.

The Five Stages of Grief is an important model to engage to support conscious endings. Reaching out for personal support may be of great value. For organizations, we must remember that changes we lead trigger transitions for people and emotions are cues to bring curiosity, compassion & caring, not just our management & authority.

William Bridges, Author of Managing Transitions speaks of the impact for individuals and organizations who’ve not adequately processed losses. He coins the term as Transition Deficits. Over time, our capacity to build a new beginning on a solid foundation diminishes. If this is the case for you, it may be time to do some excavation work.

Consider,

  • What are you most afraid of losing during your transition?
  • How do you experience endings?
  • Do you tend to fall short of fully feeling & acknowledging endings?

As I eluded to above, transitions aren’t black and white and they don’t follow a linear path. In my own journey and working with others for many years moving through transitions, the one choice point that often requires more attention, is the gap. Here we can open and soften. It’s here we begin to see the threads of what we need to unlearn, let go, release, face our fears, process our loss & digest our previous identities & roles. It is here that fertile ground is cultivated and the new beginning emerges.

Choice Point: Stand In The Gap

In choosing to stand in the “gap”, the space of not knowing what we don’t know, we don’t know, we’re actually activating the digestion of our past. The unlearning phase can truly begin. There is a paradoxical experience that emerges. A place where we can feel both lost & found at the same time.

Between letting go (of the old) and successfully launching the new there is a time of confusion and emptiness. People often feel lost during this time, and too often they interpret that lostness as yet another sign that something is wrong. It is simply a sign that they have entered the fertile chaos of the neutral zone.

William Bridges, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments (2001)

Cultivate Resiliency

Learning & Living Self Care

There is no greater time to dust off really good self care practices than during times of transitions. Maybe it’s the best time to start a new story of caring for yourself first. How many times have you boarded a plane to hear the emergency guidance to put your own oxygen mask on first! Well, there is a reason. Transitions affect us at multiple levels.

In my own personal experience and in working with others, the “effect” appears to show up in the body and mind as if out of no where. In fact, the impact of transitions simmer for quite some time. If you’re feeling tired, confused, anxious and impatient with a current transition, I urge you to pause and consider how well you’re choosing to take care of yourself. Do you sense that you have a belief that going alone is some proof of strength, competency or self-worth?

“If we want to live a Wholehearted life, we have to become intentional about cultivating sleep and play, and about letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.”

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

An important aspect of learning & living self care, is seeking support. Often we can find ourselves during times of transition feeling like we’ve failed. We thought the grass would be greener and yet we still feel the same. Maybe we have a story running that we ought to know what to do. Or, that we simply just need to get on with it, regardless of the anxiety, tension and or plain fatigue we’re facing. If this is you, stop and reach out!

Adopt Design Thinking Approach

Generate Ideas, Focus, Experiment, Check-in

Design is a concept we often think about relative to building something. Beyond building a house, a team, a business, consider design as a great allay in transitions. There are some basic and helpful principles of design thinking that support us to realize what emerges from the “gap”. The impulse to design emerges from within, once we’ve given ourselves time & space to percolate in the space between. What Bridges calls the neutral zone.

Here is a great talk on Design Thinking For Your Life.

Design thinking invites us to dream big. Brainstorm lots of options. To narrow our focus and leap into experimentation mode. There are a few crucial points along the way of design that we sometimes struggle with (see the Ted Talk by Executive director of Stanford’s design program at the d.School, Bill Burnett).

The archetype of the experimenter is crucial in design. The experimenter embodies a willingness to give it a go and check in with yourself and others as you proceed. Check-ins are important. Knowing you have them, and have good company (a coach & or a community of supports) that will help you stay accountable to yourself quiets fear-based mind-sets that get activated for all of us when we leap into something new.

Finally…

As much as this transition is about your growth & development, it is a journey that does not need to be traveled alone.