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Cultural Butterfly


Navigating the Great Unraveling

We Have to Let Go, and Go Through the “In Between,”

Before We Can Begin Anew

It’s obvious that 2020 has been a year of huge upheavals, disruptions, and all kinds of very unsettling, upsetting, and challenging “unraveling” experiences. What isn’t so obvious are some reasons for this that are often less well known.

Even though we tend to use the words “change” and “transition” interchangeably, there’s a big and important difference between them. William Bridges, in his groundbreaking work with transitions since 1980, described the distinctions like this:

Change is when an external something starts or stops. It is planned and managed by a logical model, and is ineffective or even stopped without an accompanying transition process.

Transition is an inner psychological reorientation by which people move from “what-has-been” to “what-is-going-to-be”:

  • letting go of the old identity, reality, strategy, dreams, and future

  • crossing the “wilderness” in between the old and the new

  • functioning effectively in a new way

This means that transitions are the human side of change, a developmental/organic (not a linear/mechanical) process, and are normal, natural, and necessary in order for a change to truly occur or “take”.

This year we’ve had some serious external changes which have been heavily reported and discussed. However, typically we haven’t been talking about the actual transitions, the “inner territory” that must be navigated in order to successfully deal with the outer changes. That’s because awareness of and attention to the importance of inner realities and process has not been part of our culture’s paradigm, so we’re missing some crucial understandings, skills and resources in this process.

It’s like the American folk saying, “You can’t steal second base with your foot still on first.” We’ve been trying to steal second base without realizing that our “foot” (individually and collectively) was still on first, and not knowing how to let go so we could move on.

That because it’s transition, not change, that people ordinarily resist:

  • They resist the loss of their identity and their world.

  • They resist the disorienting experience of the in-between neutral zone.

  • They resist the risk of making mistakes in beginning again, looking foolish, feeling incompetent, getting in over their heads.

I’ve certainly experienced these, over and over, each time there has been a change in my life. Can you see or feel yourself in these? Do they make sense or resonate with you?

It’s even more confusing when a change is something you want, have worked for, and looked forward to (e.g., a relationship or marriage, a new baby, a new job or career, a new home or place to live, retirement, etc.)

A good example comes from when I was the career counselor in a university some years ago. A student came to see me who was visibly very upset. He had just graduated with his Master of Social Work degree, which was a rigorous, two-year, full-time program. He was married with two children, and his wife had gone back to work to help support the family while he was in school. He also had had a part-time job while he was in school full-time. You get the picture, right? On top of all of that, he had just been hired for his absolute dream job.

And yet here he was--in tears--in my office, saying, “What’s wrong with me? I should be the happiest guy on the planet!” He had expected, of course, that those outer accomplishments (changes) would make him and his family happy, and he (and they) had been caught by the inner transitions that he didn’t even know about. After I helped him recognize the legitimacy of his transition experience and process the losses of his inner endings and the disorientations of the neutral zone, he was able to fully engage in creating the new life that he and his family had worked so hard for.

Some symptoms and costs of unmanaged transitions are:

  • Self-absorption

~ decreased effectiveness and productivity

~ blocked communication

  • Anxiety

~ loss of adaptability, motivation, and energy

~ vulnerability to negative suggestions or fears

  • Resentment

~ passive-aggressive behavior

~ aggressiveness and blaming

  • Stress

~ more illness and injuries

~ increased use of alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, other “stress- relievers”

  • Guilt

~ defensiveness

~ excuses

Can you see yourself and/or other people in these descriptions? As you look back at your experience of the changes this year, can you see that you were, and probably still are, dealing with (or trying to deal with) the actual inner transitions?

Some things to remember about transitions:

  • You have to end before you can begin. (We don’t usually like to acknowledge this).

  • Between the ending and the new beginning, there is a hiatus.

  • That hiatus can be tremendously creative (as well as confusing).

  • People go through transition at different speeds.

  • Most people (and organizations) are running a “transition deficit” from all our unacknowledged, non-legitimized, and unprocessed previous transitions, which then “pile up” on us emotionally and take their toll.

I’ve found that consciously and skillfully navigating this inner territory is life-giving for individuals, groups, and organizations. It is essential that we acknowledge and harvest our “unraveling” in order to effectively weave new stories, new lives, and a new world from our experiences. This is work that I love! If you or someone you know is being challenged (or even just uncomfortable) in this, please contact me.

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