Yes, and yes! For many of us, both are occurring at the same time.
While day-to-day life still feels uncertain and uncomfortable, we are starting to create patterns and habits that are becoming our new normal and forming the basis for our new beginning. At the same time, it remains unclear how our lives will be, look, and feel in the near and longer-term future.
Last month’s newsletter discussed the phases of transitions, focusing on the neutral zone phase and strategies for coping with it. As a reminder, the neutral zone is the phase in each transition that can feel like the no-man’s land or limbo between the ending of something (life as we knew it pre-covid) and the new beginning (not yet defined in the time of covid). It is a time of discomfort and uncertainty, but also a time for exploration and experimentation. It is also a time to question old habits and to contemplate change and new approaches. Last month, I suggested a hypothesis, that the neutral zone in the time of covid might have a long duration.
Over the last few weeks, I have watched myself, and others, develop plans, put systems in place, and start to approach the current period as not a time for waiting but as a time to live, work, play, and plan. In other words, this neutral zone might be the new normal and it might be around for a long time. So the question becomes, how do I create routines and structures, future plans, and life in this prolonged unknown? Rather than waiting it out and putting life on hold, perhaps it is a time to explore, experiment, and create a new beginning.
This graphic, from Dr. William Bridges’ work on transitions, illustrates the phases of transitions and shows that they do not occur sequentially, but most often, simultaneously.
While we may stay in the neutral zone for some time, it is also likely we will begin to create our own new beginnings, whether we realize we are doing it or not. We humans do not like the unknown and uncertainty, so it is normal to try to formulate direction and structure to move forward.
The coronavirus pandemic is a life transition thrust upon us (as many other life transitions are), so this time of uncertainty and unknown is even more distressing. Our natural search for explanation and meaning will likely propel us to define some structure and new normal, in as many places and parts of our life as possible.
While this is likely and inevitable, and also useful and helpful, it is worth remembering that feelings of being unsettled and unsure will persist as we live in both the neutral and new beginning phases (while also still living in the ending phase and letting go of the old).
As you take steps (consciously or not) to both navigate the neutral zone and to create your new beginning, here are some questions to reflect on:
1. Which parts of my former personal and work-life do I want to retain (if I can) and which parts no longer serve me and would be good to leave behind?
2. What new approaches to my work or home life have I tried? Which do I want to keep?
3. How do I want my new normal and new beginning to look and which parts can I control?
4. What remains uncertain or unknown for me? How am I coping with these? What support would be helpful to me in continuing to deal with these uncertainties?
Whether you are more in the neutral zone or your new beginning, or both, please remember to take care of yourself and reach out anytime. I love hearing from you.
Sending my warm regards,
In crafting a new normal, are there opportunities in the midst of the uncertainty?
My last message was a reminder for us to go easy on ourselves and to give ourselves a break during this pandemic and all the accompanying unknowns. I have been thinking more about the potential upside of this historic event. At a time of significant, unfamiliar, and frequent change, some of the usual rules are suspended or less important (while new rules and/or norms, such as masks and social distancing are introduced). What does this mean for each of us?
If you have read my newsletters over the years, you may recall my affection for the work of William Bridges, especially his books, Transitions and Managing Transitions. He theorizes that to effectively navigate the constant of change in our lives, we must understand and manage the transitions that accompany it. While change and transition may seem like the same thing, they are not. Change is situational. It is the concrete thing that happens or will happen. Transitions are emotional and psychological. They are the processing we engage in as we move from what was to what is now or is evolving. Transitions are a normal and regular part of life. And, we each proceed through our own transitions at our own pace.
Before I explain the phases of transitions, I want to point out the obvious: We are in the midst of a momentous shared transition; created by the coronavirus epidemic. In fact, many of us are simultaneously experiencing other transitions, such as graduating from college, completing medical residency training, getting married, having a baby, retiring, or others. For most of us, it feels overwhelming.
Bridges defines the three natural phases of transitions as the ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning. Oddly enough, each transition begins with an ending.
The Ending – Some transitions start by choice, such as a job change or the transition to married life. Other transitions begin against our will or unexpectedly, such as the rise of a pandemic that necessitates working from home, suddenly providing virtual patient care, or being laid off from work. Whether by choice or not, something ends and that means loss that requires grieving. The loss might be the end of the old job relationships. It might be the loss of time alone after a child is born, or, in the case of the pandemic, the loss of hugging friends, being physical with loved ones, or working out when and where one chooses.
Navigating the ending, and confronting the loss, begins with recognizing, naming, and allowing it. Acknowledging what is lost, honoring what was, and allowing oneself to grieve help to facilitate the process of transitioning from what was to what is.
The Neutral Zone – This is the uncomfortable space between the ending of the old and the beginning of the new. This is a short, and hardly noticeable period, like when leaving one job, having accepted another, and starting soon after. Or, it can be less uncomfortable, for example, when completing some education or training, and starting a position in a defined period of time. But, many times, there is a period of discomfort and uncertainty between one ending and the next beginning. The coronavirus epidemic is an example for most of us of living in the suspended phase of the neutral zone. Some parts of the life we led prior to early March have ended. Yet, there is still so much unknown about what the next 3-18 months hold that it is difficult to plan work, school, finances, travel, weddings, meetings, family reunions, and so much more. This unknown is disruptive and uneasy. However, it is also a time when some of the usual rules are suspended and the opportunity exists to try new things, explore new ideas, or dive into new ways of doing things. From creativity in social media expression, to making masks, to caring for children while working, people are innovating, out of necessity, but also because it is a time when there is less risk in innovating.
Navigating the neutral zone is a big challenge, especially given our human discomfort with uncertainty. It is helpful to acknowledge uncertainty and give oneself permission to live with the discomfort. Setting small, achievable goals makes the bigger uncertainty more tolerable on a day-to-day basis. And, finally, giving oneself permission to experiment, innovate, try new things, or learn can open up new perspectives and paths forward.
The New Beginning – This is the exciting and energizing phase of launching into something new with a renewed sense of purpose and interest. It may also include some ambivalence at what has been left behind and some questioning of one’s ability to succeed in the new endeavor. Like the other phases, recognizing where one is in the transition process and allowing oneself to accept it can be beneficial. In this new beginning, it can also be useful to define one’s goals in preparation for the new start.
Depending on where one lives, a new normal may be slowly developing, in the midst of the pandemic, but it is hard to call that “new normal” a new beginning. It may be some time before we see a clear new beginning. The neutral zone may be our transitional phase for a long time to come. So, here are some approaches for managing the neutral zone:
While some of us may crave our pre-covid routines and lifestyles, they have ended, at least for the near-term, and we are potentially facing a long transition to a well-defined new normal. Allowing ourselves to grieve the losses of our pre-covid lives, while giving ourselves space to embrace the big neutral zone we live in now, may offer ways forward in this time of uncertainty.
Take good care of yourself and reach out anytime. I am always happy to hear from you.
How are you doing in your changed life?
I want to start this email with a thank you to all the healthcare professionals working everyday, caring for people with and without covid, with compassion and at personal risk to themselves and their families. And, also, a huge thank you to all who work to keep us and others fed and cared for in this pandemic time.
As we navigate our new reality of living and working in this time of a pandemic, I have been reflecting on how I doing with my time. Now, in the sixth week of isolating and working from home, I have created a good routine and structure. And, I am facing the reality that I am not feeling as productive and efficient as I expected. This email is an example. Four weeks ago, I started this email message and had the plan of writing a useful post each week or two. Now 4 weeks later, I am revisiting the message I wrote then, editing it, and wondering how it is I did not send it. While I have been working regularly, my life is generally simpler compared to so many others and also compared to my life before the pandemic. So, why am I not getting all the additional stuff done that I thought I would?
My hypothesis is that the ongoing unknowns and changes in life are a bigger challenge than I want to acknowledge. A cloud of unknowns about our physical, social, and financial lives hangs over us, and we have no real way to problem solve for our new and yet undefined futures, yet.
Dealing with the unknown is one of the most difficult things we do as human beings. Even really hard things we know about can sometimes be easier to navigate than the unknown. While some of us may be settling into a new normal, much uncertainty remains. Here are some of the ideas I compiled from various sources for that first email I composed 4 weeks ago, about dealing with uncertainty and the unknown:
In rereading these suggestions, perhaps the most important one I realize I need to pay more attention to is being kind to myself and okay with how I am embracing these challenging times. Not everything will get done and that is more than fine! If you are not already doing it, perhaps now is a good time to join me in practicing self-kindness and giving yourself a break.
We will get through this time with all of its unknowns, and hopefully with more gentleness to ourselves.
Take good care of yourself and reach out anytime. I am always happy to hear from you.