Change and our sense of identity
I would like to begin my exploration into writing by sharing with you a few ideas on the topic of change and transition. I believe this subject is extremely relevant to what most of us are experiencing this year, or at least, have experienced (not once or twice) in our lifetime. I’ll illustrate the significance of this with a personal note: I used to believe I was someone who was able to deal with change and uncertainty with certain ease. Throughout the years, I had gone through shifts and transitions in my professional life – from pursuing an academic career to becoming a business owner – and in my personal life (i.e with the ending of relationships, passing of loved ones, and becoming a father which, in a certain way, changed nearly everything!). But the change I faced in 2020 affected me so deeply. In December 2019, I walked out the door of the company I started in 2006 for the very last time. The decision to leave my business had become the hardest and most drawn out decision of my life. I felt I was breaking apart from what had grown into the core of my identity, of my hopes and my dreams. It was attached to my sense of value, of worth. I felt I was parting from an extension of myself. And, as the months went by, I watched 2020 force similar difficult decisions and changes upon so many.
After I left my company and ventured into my coaching practice, as well as my formal training, I educated myself with many books on psychology and resources on personal development and coaching. This gained knowledge and set of tools allowed me to reflect on the difficulties of navigating the change I went through and understand the process of ‘disidentification’ that happens when we transition into new circumstances, new states of being, or into new stages of life. This is because our sense of ‘self’ is so often bound up tightly into our work and social circles. Our very identity is built out of our socialised and interactive mind: this is what I do; here is where I belong; this is my role in the world – hence, this is who I am. These underlying notions of identification give us a sense of security about ourselves and our place in our surrounding environments.
And… suddenly… things… change.
We feel uncertain and confused about who we are, and… (deep breath) we have to reinvent ourselves.
The process of transition
Before we jump too much ahead, I think it’s important to briefly talk about the difference between what we call change and the idea of transition. One of the first books I read in my own process was called Transitions, by William Bridges Ph.D. In it, Bridges points out that change is situational and is more related to shifts in our circumstances. While transition is the psychological process we go through when facing change. In his words, it’s ‘the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes’. We are so used to looking outwards and being consumed by the intricacies of our outer world (often trying to ‘fix it’) that we may find some difficulty turning our attention within at this time. But it is here that transition takes place and supports us, so embracing this process becomes crucial to navigate change with more ease.
The inevitable disruptors
This thought is echoed in the up-to-date book Life is In the Transitions (2020), by Bruce Feiler. Here, he articulates that transitions are central times of life and we cannot ignore or simply ‘wish or will them away’. Through extensive and timely interviews and study, Feiler concludes that the idea (or perhaps ideal?) of people leading a linear and progressive life is ‘dead’. Our contemporary existence in the world involves way more life transitions and happens in a nonlinear way. Instead of steady lines we see ‘loops, spirals, wobbles, fractals, twists, tangles, and turnabouts’. So, the more we accept and embrace such transitions, the better we become at mastering the inevitable changes we face. In all of our life stories, we encounter what he calls disruptors: that breach in the plan, that something that didn’t turn out as we expected it to, that change in the status quo. Most of these disruptors we manage to incorporate and deal with. However, sometimes one of these (or a combination of them) escalates to a point of disorientation and destabilization. He calls such events lifequakes, as the effects they have can be very damaging. Feiler points out that such eventsmay be voluntary (stems out of our own choices) or involuntary (something that happens to us, out of our control). I am aware that many of us are facing such ‘quakes’ in 2020. This year has seemed to overlap several ‘disruptors’ in people’s lives as aftermath of social, economic, political and health-related conditions. However, as Feiler notes, navigating the transitions that flow from these lifequakes can only be voluntary. So, despite sometimes not being able to control our circumstances and the changes we face, we do have control over how we choose to go through this process.
The phases of transition
Transition then comprises three phases: 1) an ending; 2) a neutral zone; and 3) a new beginning. As with many things in life, these phases are not so clear-cut and can often overlap and coexist. It may seem like quite a simple (and obvious) process to go through, but it is worth taking some time and thought into what these stages actually mean and how we can make the most of them.
Beginning a process with an ending may sound counterintuitive (most of us just want to jump straight to a new beginning!), but, according to Bridges, that is because we tend to think of an ‘ending’ as finality, something without continuation, forgetting that it can be, in fact, the initial phase of a process of self-renewal. Going through the practice of letting go of ‘what was’ is an important and crucial step, so we must devote time for it to unfold. One way to do that is by adopting a ritual practice or a ceremonial ‘goodbye’ to the old life circumstance. This can support us in dealing with painful feelings of loss or grief that may arise in this stage. It then becomes up to us to choose to embrace ‘what is’ – just as it is – and find the openness to develop into something new. Once we’ve positioned and accepted our ‘old situation’ as being in the past, we can choose to see our previous circumstance (and who we used to be) as a building block, as an asset that adds to the inner house we are continuously building. And that, with each block of the ‘past’, another layer of resiliency is build.
Neutral Zone – The In-between
Once we get past the ‘ending’, we find ourselves in the neutral zone of in-between. Here we are forced to confront the limbo state of uncertainty (and perhaps confusion). A large proportion of us have a rather fragile relationship with uncertainty. Faced with what can seem like an unfair and dangerous position to be in, anxiety can feel inevitable and, inside the void of this middle stage, it can linger and grow as we question who we are, what we’re capable of and where we’re going. Many of us believe that uncertainty is stressful and upsetting and must be avoided. This is because of the state of ‘worry’ we can find ourselves in such circumstances. However, we can easily fail to recognise that this fear is mainly the result of thought patterns and of projections we make into possible (not probable!) future scenarios. If we shift our mindset and engage with the moment we’re in, we can see that this stage opens up a creative space (remember that creation can also stem from chaos!) in which, according to Bridges, we are receiving signals and cues as to what we need to become for the next stage. In this in-between period lays the fruitful time for inner reorientation, so we don’t want to avoid or rush it. Here, we are slowly being transformed into the person we need to be to move forward in our lives.
The New Beginning
As we step towards the prospect of new beginnings, the crucial question then turns from who am I into: who am I becoming? It is here that we must try to align with our values, with what is truly important for us. It’s the time to investigate with curiosity and discover what is unique to us, because each of us has a different life story, a different experience of being. Here we can explore which skills and talents we have picked up along the way in our journey and can offer to the world. In this inner examination we find the strength, self-love and self-authority to move forward.
The gift in transition
It is within the world of transition that we must face ourselves deeply and, perhaps, even welcome this time we have been ‘given’. Seeing transition as a gift instead of a curse may be one of the answers to going through change with more ease and confidence. Because, it is within this very place of transition that we find the opportunity to reform and recalibrate ourselves as individuals and as a collective. Learning to use it to our advantage and growth is critical for our ability to truly embrace new beginnings. Part of this learning involves letting go of the past, engaging with the present and looking forward to a better future. In my view, incorporating the shifting character of our goals and dreams, and of our maturing nature, is part of the joy it is to be alive. Everything in our world is transient and exists in states of transformation. We are creatures in constant development, we are continually evolving into new beings. Nature thrives under the influence of change and even disturbance, as it adapts and transforms. Life is in flux and so are we. So, let’s make the most of this malleability and take this time to reinvent ourselves.
So if you are looking to find a new start in life, here are 6 crucial tips I wanted to share with you to help you transition through this time of change:
1. Face your emotions with curiosity
Usually, our emotional patterns are a direct reflection of what and how we are thinking. Because they are embodied, emotions can make things feel very real, but that does not mean that they are true. When you experience negative emotions, such as fear, it is worth asking yourself if what you are feeling is based on a thought related to: 1) an actual fact; 2) a limiting belief you picked up about a certain situation based on the past; or 3) a future projection. Just checking in with ourselves and assessing our feelings with curiosity (not pressure!) makes us step out of our emotional state and see things more objectively. Most times we find that our negative emotions are based on beliefs that come either from unpleasant past experiences or on (doomed) future outlooks, and not necessarily on our actual situation. Placing things in the perspective of the present opens the door to many possibilities and may help you see these limiting beliefs for what they really are, as processes of thought (or cognitive bias) that do not serve you nor determine how things will work out for you. From then, you are clearer to think creatively on strategies, solutions and brighter future outcomes.
2. Keep a journal
Get your thoughts down on paper each day and examine them. What are the patterns? Are they mostly positive or negative? Are you choosing how you think and feel? Do you believe you can? Recognise your limiting beliefs on paper. This will also help you notice the critical voice in your head and that hold you back. Noticing this voice is the first step to controlling and shifting it (and what it says).
3. Find your ritual
Rituals are known to scholars in anthropology and psychology as being helpful in assisting us when going through moments of transition. Ritual is both the vehicle for permanence (as it can be repeated) and also for change, as it opens up a space for the creation of the ‘new’. It aids us in letting go of the past with gratitude for what we’ve learnt, letting go of old habits, social ties, and old beliefs about the world. So, by creating ceremonial ‘goodbyes’ to the old life circumstance we can slowly remove the cues that trigger old patterns and ways of being, opening up to new prospects. In addition, when we face the uncertainty of changing times, a ritualized habit can give us a sense of stability and continuity. Ideally, choose a practice that makes you feel good, open and more engaged with life. It could be a morning meditation, or dancing to your favourite song, or walking in nature, or focusing on three things you are grateful for in your life just as it is. Whatever works for you. Just be sure it will make you feel good and that you repeat it. Doing that ritual everyday will give a sense of concrete reality and strength to your inner process.
4. Become the author of your own story
Write yourself as the protagonist (the hero) of your own narrative. In most ‘hero’ stories we find ups and downs, conflicts and turnarounds (at least the most interesting ones!). In this exercise, write a mini autobiography recalling the transitions you’ve been through and relish your achievements, however small. Try to reframe each ending as the opening chapter for a new beginning. Explore how sometimes your weaknesses turned into strengths. And reflect on what you’ve learned with past mistakes. The ability to take on new perspectives is a powerful process of self-development, allowing us to mould our self-concept with more ease. So, enjoy the exercise and look at the bigger picture. Where will your story turn to next?
5. Find the space to look inward
Savour the time of transition to look inward and ask yourself: What do I really want? What is really important to me? What are my core values? If possible, explain to your loved ones what you are going through and ask them to give you more space. Allow yourself the time to reform and reshape your journey.
6. Get a coach
They will deepen the experience and help you travel the path. Their job is to help you think clearly and confidently, stay in touch with your emotions and maximise your growth and learning. If you wish to have a conversation about my practice and how it can support you, you can book a phone appointment here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article which appeared as two blog posts last month on my website and that these tips will help you transition through the changes you are facing this year and next.