I’ve been aware of a certain feeling of dread creeping into my days of late. Weaning myself off the umbilical cord of home had to come, but am I ready? I’m not sure. I’ll have to be by Thursday because that’s the day I’m due to run my first face-to-face workshop in nearly four months. I’m also due for my first face-to-face meeting with a new coaching client. It’s legal in my state to do all of the above now, but it’s curious how reluctant I feel, even though I love my work and I usually really enjoy getting out and about and connecting with people.
I know I’m not the only person who feels like this. Some of my friends on our regular zoom check-in yesterday expressed similar sentiments, even the most extroverted and peripatetic among us. Another announced that she has decided not to go back to her previous job. We were discussing the need for her to mark the ending of her long-standing role even though she is is not returning to it, because endings are the first and most important step in navigating transitions.
Author and change specialist, the late William Bridges identified transitions as the psychological process humans experience as they navigate change. Change is the external event or experience, while transitions are the inner process of adapting to change. Bridges identified three phases in transitions: 1) ending 2) the neutral zone and 3) new beginning. Bridges research with individuals, in organisations and in his own personal experiences of transitions, found that the more comprehensively we mark the ending of the last phase, the more smoothly and, in some cases, more quickly, we can move though the neutral zone to the new beginning.
It took a while, but this morning it dawned on me that it’s not just my friend who’s leaving her job that needs to mark the ending; the same applies to me and perhaps to us all as we re-emerge into a world that still requires mindful choices, social distancing and careful connection with others and with our environments.
I certainly didn’t mark the ending of Life as We Knew it, back in March when we suddenly found ourselves in lockdown or, at least, in isolation and for some, in quarantine. We were too stunned at the radical events rapidly unfolding in a startled world around us - the closing of countries’ and our own states’ borders, unprecedented (that became one of our most commonly used words) cancellation of major events including the Olympic Games, unimaginable prior to this virus.
We went straight to the Neutral Zone, that often uncomfortable place where we were no longer living our ‘normal’ lives but nor were we in the next version of ‘normal’. We were in transit. Up one day, down the next, watching the world’s burgeoning COVID-19 statistics with horror, doing what we could to flatten our own curve and hoping for the best. Some of us were home schooling, while working out how to apply for job seeker or job keeper payments, worrying about whether we would even have a job or a business to return to at the end of this and how relevant our work was anyway in the face of an international disaster of this magnitude.
Isolation has been a wakeup call for many of us. We now realise we have been living life on a trajectory that we never or rarely questioned. Coming to that realisation is a massive shift in thinking and the actions we now want to take to readjust our lifestyles to our new values and priorities are all part of the seismic shifts we are experiencing. Let’s not forget or underestimate the toll that takes on our psyches.
Some of us have learned new skills, discussed how to turn uncertainty into opportunity during this time, others have begun to compile research to help us heal from our various losses and still others have been busy trying to patch together ideas and options for what we might like the future to look like. But in reality, until there is a vaccine, the virus may wax and wane but it will not go away and we are destined to stay in some version of the neutral zone until it does.
Where does that leave us?
I’m proposing that we go back to the ending we never had, celebrate the lives we had pre-COVID to help us through the neutral zone of this time, even as we start to engage in the outside world again. How do we do that? Well, not necessarily with a party, but you could find a safe way to celebrate with a small group of family or friends. It’s entirely possible to celebrate alone - you could write a letter, create a drawing or painting or song or poem or anything that expresses and represents the life you had before isolation, and particularly the highlights, achievements or proud moments, what you learned, what you most enjoyed, the things you’re grateful for and the things you’ve missed. I have often recommended to coaching clients that they write a eulogy for a job they’ve left, anything that marks the ending and celebrates the life of that job or phase of life, just as you would for a person you have known well. Who are the people you’d like to thank and how will you thank them?
Once we’ve marked that ending, we’re free to navigate the neutral zone with less ‘stuck-ness’ - which may feel like sadness or hankering for what was or anxiety about what’s to come - and with more mindfulness and acceptance of what is, right now.
The next task, and this is my task right now as I prepare psychologically to re-emerge into the real world of work, is to mark another ending - the ending of this quiet, cosy, safe hibernation we called ‘isolation’. I need to identify and appreciate all the things I’ve enjoyed and achieved in this past few months, the fancy scrolls I’ve baked, the book I’ve half written, the daily yoga I’ve (almost always) practiced and to acknowledge the anti-social introspection I’ve felt, the sadness about people and things I’ve missed, the fears I still have of travelling into the city and re-engaging with the world.
Only then, I now realise, will I be psychologically as well as physically prepared to face the new world.