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Transitioning into a new normal

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:

  • recognize, name, and normalize it

  • redefine it – from an uncomfortable place to an opportunity to experiment

  • create realistic, short-term goals with checkpoints connecting to long-term goals

  • strengthen existing connections and develop new ones

  • use the time creatively – embrace losses, setbacks, and failures as learnings and try new things

  • protect and encourage yourself

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.

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