During my career as a psychologist, I’ve helped many people move through change and life transitions – letting go of the ways things were, the endings, and moving towards new beginnings, the future. Here in Sydney, as we emerge from lockdown today, and the pandemic way of life we’ve become accustomed to, many of us are hopeful that this time, it really will be an ending and a new beginning. Although the hesitancy is palpable – we’ve had a few false starts – hoping for a new beginning as we merge back into the community, albeit with face masks, only to be plunged back to a restricted way of lockdown living when an outbreak occurs, with our Melburnian friends having lived through a number of these frustrating cycles.
In a recent discussion with a colleague in Canada, she reflected on her experience of lockdown (she’s originally from Melbourne). She wondered whether it may have been psychologically better if Melburnians had stayed in lockdown the whole period, as they had done in Canada, rather than the rollercoaster ride of multiple lockdowns and the associated highs and lows and false hope that this experience brings. I’m not entirely sure what the answer is. There will be preferences and individual differences, as there always are. Personally, I’d much prefer to have more opportunities to be out of lockdown that be solidly stuck in lockdown for an extended period.
It’s also a matter of mindset, as most of us are now aware when it comes to resilience. When people have an endpoint in mind, they can more easily sustain discomfort. For some, even constructing a time point in their minds, where they give themselves an amount of time in which to stay in a certain situation and then reassess it, can be psychologically helpful.
Of course, people have more or less control over such timeframes depending on the situation. For example, the person who’s ambivalent about whether to stay or leave a relationship or a job and decides to give it 3 months, then reassess and decide. That known time frame, despite the discomfort and challenges it brings, allows the person to cope, knowing that there’s an endpoint at which they’re either going to make a final decision about staying or leaving or whether they will recommit to another time frame and then reassess again. I’ve found this strategy to be extremely helpful over the years in helping people psychologically cope in unknown and uncertain anxiety producing situations. Of course, we didn’t have control over the lockdown timeframes, in the main, except to do what we could as a community to influence them e.g. increase vaccination rates. Although knowing that this too shall pass was a psychological strategy that helped many through lockdown.
We’re craving new beginnings! We’ve been through a lot of change in the past 18 months and the pandemic itself is a perfect example of what it’s like to live in a VUCA world. Thankfully, there’s been quite a bit written in the psychological literature about change and transition. The one model I find particularly useful is Bridges’ Transition Model (1980). Bridges differentiates change and transition and suggests change is the external event or situation that takes place eg a pandemic, a lockdown, a sudden loss of any kind. This type of change can happen very quickly. Whereas transition is the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalise and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about.
Bridges’ model identifies three stages of transitions – the endings, the neutral zone and new beginnings. The ending is the letting go, the grieving of how things were, the reflecting, and ideally an opportunity to positively reminisce about all the good things that occurred in the past. If you can allow yourself the gift to look back amidst mixed emotions you may very well find true joy in the reminiscing, on the beautiful, precious moments that were there through those times – even in lockdown. Although there is often a simultaneous sadness about the loss of how things were.
As we move from endings and the letting go, there’s a period that exists prior to a new beginning. That’s the neutral zone – a high anxiety producing zone. And whilst I’ve been happy to sit with my client’s experience of being in the neutral zone, I often mused that I didn’t quite like sitting in my own neutral zone! For many people it’s the uncertainty and the unknowing that makes it most challenging and heightens anxiety. In fact, many people rush to a new beginning from the neutral zone primarily to reduce anxiety.
So today here in Sydney, as we move from an ending to a new beginning, it’s a perfect opportunity to embrace the neutral zone – sit in the discomfort that it brings. In fact, the late, great Prof Anthony Grant (founding father of Coaching Psychology) used to say repeat after me, discomfort is my friend! So rather than rushing into your new beginning or returning to the ways things were, it might be wise to pause or take time out this week to sit uncomfortably in the neutral zone and reflect on how you ideally want your new beginning to be. In fact, the pandemic has been referred to as the great pause – as it’s given many people the opportunity to gain clarity about what matters most. So why not pause a little longer this week, and ask yourself the big questions: What matters most? How do I want to live my life? What do I want to do? or perhaps more importantly What don’t I want to do? – if you have such privilege.
And don’t rush to a new old beginning – make it a new new beginning. Embrace the opportunity to consciously think about how you want to live your life going forward. Some strategies this week might be:
1. Book a coaching session with a professional coach or have a co-coaching session with a trusted colleague or friend and give yourself permission to dream.
2. Book a counselling or therapy session and give yourself time before you make any firm decisions about the future.
3. Meditate on your core life values and visualise what life might look like if you were living a values congruent life.
4. Write your Letter from the Future – a powerful tool in creating dreams (email us for a copy).
5. Finally, hit play on Michael Buble and turn up the volume for a mood-boosting Monday and sing – It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new life for me and I’m feeling good!
You can also purchase a copy of Bridge’s book – Transitions (new revised edition) here.