What To Do When Change Happens To You

Archimedes Lever from Wikimedia Commons

If there is one constant in life, it’s change. Sometimes small, sometimes big, it is a regular and eternally-present phenomenon. So why do people fear it? Why does it make us angry? There are many reasons but, often times, it’s the fact that some changes don’t fit the narrative that we selected. When we view change through the conventional narrative, the title of a Willie Nelson song comes to mind: It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way.”

You’re not supposed to quit your job at 35. You’re not supposed to still be a single at 42. You’re not supposed to have children at 21. You’re not supposed to go back to school at 55. You’re not supposed to feel unsure about your life and where you’re headed at age 18.

I fabricated each of those examples but I bet there’s someone out there who feels those things at this very moment.

Anyway, our adult lives are constantly compared to a conventional narrative frame that suggests change isn’t “supposed” to be regular. Blame it on your parents, your friends, or the media. Or all three. Whatever the source, we frequently think about changes and crises from a set of acceptable time frames. These are the stages or chapters we develop in our personal stories. Our first house is something we get in our early 20s. Parenthood should really only occur in our late 20s/early 30s. The mid-life crisis should happen in our mid-40s. Our move into leadership roles is in our early 50s. Retirement is at 65. A big medical ordeal is something that we’ll address in our 70s.

I remember a dear friend once saying “I’m too young to have marriage problems!” In that person’s case, having problems in the marriage was perfectly understandable. Just not at this time. It should come later, in another chapter of her story.

It brings me to an important line from this week’s book, Transitions:

The most important fact is not that there are one or three or four or six identifiable periods of crisis in a lifetime; rather, adulthood unfolds its promise in an alternating rhythm of expansion and contraction, change and stability.

Which is to say that there is nothing wrong with any of us when we encounter (or elicit) periods of change. These things come like the weather. No one controls the weather. We haven’t failed as a person if it rains tomorrow when we thought it would be sunny. So the key, I think, isn’t to resist these periods of change or stability or be upset when these things occur outside our expectations. Instead, we should first build a distinction. Is this merely a change or is it part of a transition?

Change Versus Transition

Just because everything is different doesn’t mean anything has changed. — Irene Peter

I love this line but I wish I could rewrite it to make this idea more precise. The word “change”, as Irene Peter uses it, is synonymous with “transition”. Because what she really speaks to is the fact that you can make a whole bunch of changes but things will largely stay the same because nothing has transitioned into something genuinely new.

The revision is much less witty but much more accurate: Just because everything has changed doesn’t mean anything has transitioned.

Understanding the distinction is of vital importance.

Yesterday’s article focused on this distinction within the context of our own initiatives that we choose for ourselves. We make these choices all the time but especially at this time of year. So that article was written to help us understand the real weight behind our New Year’s resolutions. If you really want to eat more healthy, you have to choose to make a transition in your mindset. You have to eventually adopt the paradigm of a healthy-eating person. Which is to say that food has to stop being a source of comfort and indulgence. Otherwise, you’ll just make a bunch of changes on the grocery list for a brief period and go back (as I have countless times) to the old habits.

But what about when a change occurs outside of your control? When something happens that wasn’t “supposed” to happen? Consider our definition from the authors:

One of the most important differences between a change and a transition is that changes are driven to reach a goal, but transitions start with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in.

It’s the letting go. If a change occurs that leads you to want to let go of an idea, a self-image, or a dream, then you’re clearly embarking on a transition. I emphasize the word “want” because if you do not want to let go of those things, you shouldn’t! Resisting a change can be counterproductive but resisting a transition is never a bad idea. So long as you can understand the distinction between change and transition and understand, too, the place at which you can fight for the things you don’t want to lose. I don’t mean a literal “place” but a stage in the process.

The Three Stages of Transition

This gets us to heart of the book, the core three-stage framework that surrounds a genuine transition. It is illustrated in the image below:

Image provided by Edinburgh Napier University

This is one powerful idea. As you can see, what separates and elevates a transition from mere change is the three stages. It starts with the letting go of what doesn’t fit you anymore. The neutral zone follows (which we’ll cover tomorrow). Then we emerge into the new beginning, finalizing the transition at the point where we are so different that we can hardly remember what our old self was even like.

There is no time horizon. These transitions can happen very fast or very slow or somewhere in-between. The transition can get stuck in one of the three stages for a long time and you might spend very little time in the next stage. For example, when I became a manager for the first time, I had difficulty letting go of my identity as a equal member of a team. But once I did let go, the neutral zone period of adjustment was very quick and I emerged within just a few days in a different mindset. Meanwhile, there are other transitions that have taken much longer because I’ve been stuck in that same neutral zone for a while, having let go of something with nothing else to hold onto.

As you can see, the graphic has a bit of oscillation. It isn’t a discrete set of rectangles where you neatly jump from one stage to the next. Not, it’s more of a sine wave where, as you let go of the old self, you venture into the neutral zone and occupy both states in some combination that varies in distribution. And, as the graphic suggests, you can occupy all three states at the same time! To some degree, anyway.

This may feel sloppy and I think that’s the point. Transitions contain a lot of conflicting, contrasting, push/pull tension for most of us. Until we become more mindful of this dynamic. Today, for example, I’m working through things and am fully aware of what item is in which stage. I could map it out if it weren’t so tedious. But knowing that helps me manage the expectation. This is especially true in the neutral zone which, otherwise, can feel like an awful purgatory that makes you seethe with impatience.

To Transition Or Not Transition

But it all starts, as you can see, with the letting go. So when change happens to us, whether we’re talking about “us” as individuals or as organizations, the questions we have to consider are some variation of the following:

  1. Is the change something that can fit our goals and self-image or is it something that pressures us to abandon something we had wanted?
  2. If the change is a deep threat to things we don’t want to let go, how can we resist? So as to not suffer an unwanted transition?
  3. If we can’t resist and can’t control that change, how can we create a new beginning that actually serves us well in the end? So that the unwanted transition is somehow better for us?
  4. Finally, out of all that we can do to either combat or manage or accept the change that is occurring, what actions could we take that we would be proud of 10 years from now?

These aren’t the most profound questions one can ponder. Nor are they the only questions you should consider. All the same, to mindfully recognize when change might compel a transition is to then know how to make the best transition possible.

Or make no transition at all. Because, as mentioned a few times, you can resist when necessary. Or abandon your self-initiated efforts when appropriate. Knowing when and how isn’t easy. In fact, our authors argue that this is what the neutral zone is all about. So we’ll explore that a bit more tomorrow. It is, I think, the most valuable aspect of this model: understanding the neutral zone and what to do when we’re in it.