“Let there be no boundaries. When you lose all sense of self, the bonds of a thousand chains will vanish. Lose yourself completely, return to the root of the root of your own soul” (Rumi).
2022. A new year has just begun, gently or aggressively pushing some of us to develop a wide range of desires, intentions, goals, expectations, hopes. The one thing that I would certainly say brings us together in this new year is the number of changes we have witnessed and experienced on different levels. Most of these changes have been dramatically accelerated by the pandemic, leading to a series of disruptions in different areas of our lives.
Transformations have happened in the background. They have been faster, simultaneous, and more complex. The almost overwhelming acceleration has thrown us into transition.
As Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock, “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it”.
We know that the pandemic has prompted many of us to re-evaluate our priorities, in both our professional and personal lives. Each one of us is doing our best to adjust to the changes around us while ensuring we take ourselves to a new level of consciousness in what truly matters to us. The effort is about bringing the external and the internal world together. The main work is about paying attention to our inner experience, becoming more conscious of what we want and what we don’t want, who we are and who we are not, and making a meaningful and productive movement into a hopeful future.
Whatever change might occur in our lives, whether it’s something forced upon us or something that we consciously want, we all embark on a journey called transition. The degree of disruption varies according to the individual, and the pace for the process to be “complete” is very subjective, especially if we are at the same time going through a personal journey, perhaps, long before the change manifested in our lives.
Throughout our lives, we go through phases of expansion and contraction, change, and stability. Various transitions happen, and as William Bridge reminds us in his work, the starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the endings that we have in leaving the old situation behind. Reflecting on the memories and feelings we associate with how we end a phase before we move into a new one can reveal a great deal about we can navigate transitions.
I’m writing this post this month that marks my ninth anniversary in the UK. One of my biggest life transitions started when I left Italy and moved to London to gain a deeper connection with myself and reveal more of myself. The change happened very quickly. I had already a new job before leaving Italy, it took less than a week to find a place to stay, and a few more weeks to start bonding with my new colleagues. The personal side of change, the transition, probably took nearly twelve months. I was disorientated, confused, scared, lonely, and more importantly, I was still ending a relationship with parts of myself that were no longer serving me. In hindsight, I realised that the move to the UK, and the personal change I experienced, wasn’t really the first transition I went through. In fact, there have been quite a few: the time when I came out as LGBTQ+, the time when I packed my bags and took a train to the north of Italy to pursue a master’s degree in human resources, the time when I landed my first job, the time when I got married, the most recent time when I have made a change to my career path, and so forth.
Just like me, you have also experienced different life transitions, different periods of change and stability, alongside what Erik Erikson defines as the “Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development.” These stages are precipitated by crises that we face as we move from birth to death. According to Erikson, each stage presents us with a psychosocial conflict that must be resolved.
Erikson’s model can help us have an overall understanding of each developmental stage and what it means to us, and reach wisdom in our lives. However, the key is really in understanding the transition process so that we can consciously and more effectively navigate any transition, where the change curve is typically not linear and through which we can experience a mixture of emotions. William Bridge in his book “Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes”, discusses three phases of any transition:
- The Ending: every transition begins with one. A fresh way to think about endings is key to how we can begin anew.
- The Neutral Zone: a time of reorientation. How can we make the most of it?
- The New Beginning: a successful new beginning requires an understanding of the external and inner signals that point the way to the future.
In my personal experience – and more generally working with people – I have particularly noticed that many people during their forties and fifties go through a period of feeling stuck, stressed, and uneasiness. Researchers found that self-reported life and work satisfaction appears as a curving U, that begins high in youth (around 18), bottoms out around our mid-40s, and then usually recovers upwards as we get older. While not set in stone and certainly not for everyone, often it’s during this phase defined as “midlife” when we develop a concern for the meaning of what we have done as well as a loss of interest in simple success. We might still get some energy from external accomplishments but we also find ourselves in a place where we become more interested in psychological and – for some of us – spiritual matters. It’s not surprising that a job, once a perfect match with our talents and interests, ultimately becomes boring, or a career loses its power to take us where we want to go, even the most successful and rewarding career. Changes can happen externally or internally. Either way, we usually tend to resist transitions, trying to put things back where they used to be. This is often when we start experiencing frustration, confusion, fear, anger, disappointment, and in some cases, even depression and anxiety.
There are different patterns that have been identified when especially during our forties and fifties we resist a career transition. For the purpose of this article, I have decided to focus on the main experiential signs.
We feel drained, heavy usually at the beginning and at the end of our day, our shoulders are often tense, we develop aches and creaks in places we never creaked before, perhaps we’re getting sick more often.
Our brain is constantly busy, desperately trying to figure out what kind of work might actually make us happy, beating ourselves up for not having the answers, wondering if the problem might be us and not our work.
Our confidence is severely affected because we think the problem is us and that we’re not just doing a good job as everyone else.
The only reason for keeping our job is money.
We find ourselves spending more and more time on instant gratification and self-medication by getting ourselves a reward for getting through the week (shopping, binge-watching our favourite series, staying out with friends later than we would normally do because if we go home, we might start getting lost in our negative thoughts about work.
We feel like we have a split personality. Being in that job makes us feel uncomfortable. We feel that mask coming down on our faces when we’re about to immerse ourselves in that role. Perhaps we’re pushy, cut-throat, and try to impress our boss, hit targets, or keep our head down, quiet whereas we’re confident and vibrant outside work.
We’re unhappy where we are right now and thinking about a career progression in our company or career field is even tougher.
When we are asked the question “what do you do” we just rush on our answer, we brush it off, we’re not proud.
We don’t care anymore. We’re just getting through each day. We tell ourselves what’s the point? and we numb ourselves against the disappointment and sadness we’ve been feeling at work.
There is often an inner conflict that can prevent us from moving forward. We might get to a place where we know we don’t want to stay in a job that has stopped having a meaning for us; at the same time we might not know what to do next or we might just feel almost paralysed by the fear of uncertainty.
I have been there for nearly 2 years, knowing I was going through a personal transition which I was quite determined to reject. I wanted almost desperately to stay attached to an identity, an idea, a self-image I wasn’t prepared to leave behind, even though it wasn’t working for me anymore. I had spent many years building a successful recruitment career. I had deeply identified with my role and had become very motivated to maintain it. That very identification – alongside the same old story I was telling myself to stay protected – ended up blocking me from moving forward. No matter how bad I was feeling about my job – and some personal areas in my life – I was still keen to keep the status quo.
The truth is, transition is personal development, even when we feel stuck. It’s often a process where we gradually unlearn beliefs and behaviours that do not serve us, and where new values scream for attention. It’s quite often a reminder of what is important in our career and our life. It demands some effort to consciously identify our values and prioritising those that are more important over the less important ones, so that we start creating extraordinary energy, leading us to opportunities that otherwise would go unnoticed. It’s about embracing a curious and learning mindset if we want to successfully navigate the process.
We all know life is an endless journey where we never stop learning. “The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it” (Elbert Hubbard).
Lifelong learning comes from the conscious choice I make every day to peel off another layer and reveal more of myself. This creates movement in my life. This is one of the ways I have used – and am using – to navigate my own transition.
One of the obstacles that I have encountered – and often some people I work with – is that we get bogged down in the bigger vision and purpose in our work without giving enough meaning to the details of the daily actions we take, and more importantly, without reflecting on the day just passed and asking ourselves what we have learned and what can help us move towards what we want to do next. The thing is, we can have more than one purpose. We can apply our skills and knowledge to more than one field. We are capable of revealing much more than we could imagine, even bigger than the vision we want to create because we are learning more about ourselves while going through the process rather than investing too much energy about what our next move might be. We show up in the thoughts, actions, and words we choose. What is a list of possible selves that can guide us through our transitions? The list allows us to be who we are at this very moment - as we embark on this journey, we start to open up possibilities that are not always coherent (we can compare and contrast, taste information, we don't commit to something immediately).
If you currently find yourself in a place where you feel stuck, I would invite you to reflect on the following questions:
- What are the signs that your work life is in transition?
- Are these signs also evident in other areas of your life?
- What do you need to let go of right now?
- What is currently in the shadow that is waiting for you to take the stage?
- What will your future self tell you about the phase you’re going through? Will it be telling you that this shall soon pass, and you will find again joy and meaning? Will it be crying out for change, and pushing you to take some actions? Imagine where you are in the future, who you are with, what you’re doing, what you see, hear, and feel.
Allow yourself to go through this process. Trying to ignore it or deny its existence will only prolong the time it takes for you to take the necessary action to rebuild your career and move on to a brighter future, a future that is not a new job but a new sense of yourself, a new consciousness, a new story in your life that is moving you forward.