Change is something that comes to all of us. At different times, and in different ways, we find ourselves navigating the change journey. Occasionally, we initiate the process, and occasionally opportunity is thrust upon us.
It’s a difficult journey, regardless. Particularly when we had no say in getting launched on it. But even when we choose it for ourselves, even when we think we are ready and that we need to make the change, we are often never fully prepared for what’s about to happen. And somewhere along the way, we’re going to want out.
I shared my own experience with a self-inflicted and theoretically straightforward change last week. (I’m still working through it, thanks for asking. And there are moments and times when I still feel out of control, but they are fewer. There are also moments when I question my sanity in doing this to myself, and others where I berate myself for not picking things up faster. Such is the role of the internal voice in the process). I related some of the touchstones of navigating through to the other side. I also realized that exploring those in more detail would very possibly be useful.
One of the greatest challenges in how we think about, talk about, write about and otherwise try to explain change is that we present it as rational. We pretend that there is a process, and that this process is in someway linear. One of the simplest (and as a result, possibly the most famous) change models asserts that we “un-freeze, make the change and re-freeze.” Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? What could possibly go wrong?
The actual reality is that there is nothing very rational about change. And there is precious little that is linear, either. What actual change has in common with change models is that there is a point before the change and a point after the change. What happens in between those points is by no means straight or straightforward.
Change is an emotional process. It is a visceral process. It is also an entirely internal process. There is no way to manifest, demonstrate or show someone else what you are going through. But it is oh-so-very-real, oh-so-very-personal and thoroughly challenging.
So how do we get through it, then? It’s helpful to keep in mind that there are, indeed stages, even if there aren’t linear ones. The writing I did last year on liminality is extremely relevant here, in that it speaks very well to the journey as experienced, and provides some insight into the steps that can be guided.
In particular, change is about leaving something behind, and committing to a new way of being, working or acting. As I pointed out, early writing about liminality dealt with rituals of growth and advancement in the experience of living in a community. Core to the experience was letting go and transitioning to a liminal space; you are no longer who you were, but you are not yet who you are about to come. You’re in an in-between space of figuring it out and navigating forward. And that’s where all the messiness of change lives.
My theoretically very simple change is a good example of that. All I was doing was changing the software that I use for time management. At least, that’s all I believed I was doing at the time. The first part was easy: I abandoned the old system. And genuinely, that happened. I was building lists of actions and thoughts of what I needed to do going forward, but not in any way attempting to manage in the way that I had previously. Points for jumping off of the cliff, then. Go me.
What I didn’t yet have was a new system to move to. I had a system I was learning. And the learning process connected me back with previous ideas that I had explored when figuring out my current approach to time management. I was learning what buttons to push. But before I could push the buttons, I needed to figure out how to organize the ideas. To organize the ideas, I needed to understand how the software thought. I then needed to accept or challenge those thoughts. From there, I needed to figure out how else to structure or approach the software in a way that might work for me.
This meant figuring out alternative options in a system I didn’t fully understand. It meant doing so for an approach that I came to slowly realizing was evolving. This in turn required answering questions I didn’t realize I had asked, and of which I was unclear as to the answers. So much, so messy, then.
This is where, in the liminal journey, you are finding your new place of being. It is where you wrestle with ideas and purpose and direction and logic and structure and meaning. By way of context, I’ll point out that I was simply dealing with my time management approach. So we can extrapolate from there what it is like when we get to the really difficult problems.
Except, and this is where part of the epiphany was for me, the really hard bits of life don’t feel in any way exponentially greater than what I was experiencing. Or to put more straightforwardly, my emotional journey since stepping off the cliff was pretty epic and intense and all-consuming and frustrating and stressful all on its own.
Our brains don’t process these emotions on a calibrated scale. There is no rational assessment happening of “this is only a wee little change, so we’ll tune stress in at 2.5 and dial in anxiety at a 3.2.” There is an on switch, and an off switch. And when you’re dialled in for stress, it ramps up all the way to the top of the scale with surprising speed.
While logic isn’t necessarily operative here, a little capacity to step back and get some perspective can go a long way. The first thing being to recognize that what you are experiencing is normal and expected and entirely predictable. This was a little bit like the recognition that I had last week, that I had done this to myself. I appreciated where the impetus of the change had come from, that I had set it in motion, and that I owned the journey and my experience of it.
I would like to point out that my stress didn’t magically disappear on that realization. But it had an explanation, and that was helpful. Knowing why you are experiencing something—and that there is a reason behind it—is useful in recognizing and acknowledging the emotion, and continuing to operate. There may be stress or anxiety or frustration, but it’s there for a reason. Which makes it a little bit more manageable.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this too shall pass. It does get better. An interesting phenomenon of human perception is that we can look at all of the transformation we have experienced in our lives to this point and appreciate the magnitude of what has happened already, and yet our tendency is to view the future as an extrapolation of our current status. We get dialled into a view that we’re stuck where we are, and it’s not going to change.
When we’re in the fuzzy amorphous blob that is liminality, that’s a pretty horrendous thing to be contemplating. Yet that is often where our mind goes. That is the crux of why we tend to lurch to our previous behaviours, approaches and systems. Our internal narrative is one of, “It’s difficult, it’s awkward, it doesn’t work and it’s not going to get any better. I should just give up now.” In the middle of a vortex, that’s a pretty appealing idea.
And so we need to sort out a way through. Which is the point of the journey, and the story arc that liminality is trying to navigate. Having let go of our old self, we build the skills and perspectives and insights that allow us to go where we want. That’s where the hard work comes in. Because we need to figure out how.
For me, that’s about structure and concepts. Once I can connect with the essential ideas that are there, and how they relate to each other, then I can begin to make sense of and sort out a way through. My frustration is greatest when there is no clear anchor, when there is no visible framework and there is no sense of why. It was the source of the frustration I was experiencing in last week’s update. The concepts that I started the process didn’t fit with how the new software worked, and I wasn’t happy about what I needed to do to reconcile those two propositions. There was no clearly framed set of options that gave me an either/or choice. I had a muddle of concepts that didn’t work, and no clear path to get to concepts that did work.
What helps here is to get a hard edge. The challenge in finding it is that we need to take the time to be open to new structures before we start trying to impose them. What I knew at the time was that what I did wouldn’t work. What I didn’t yet have was a clear picture of what could work. I needed to put my brain’s desire for a clear answer aside, and be open to what solutions could be. Once the options were on the table, I could sort through what seemed to be the most promising next step.
In other words, while the liminal space of change that we find ourselves might be uncomfortable and difficult, we need to sit with it for a while before we can leave it. We need to explore and understand why it is uncomfortable, and what’s nagging or not working within it. We need to appreciate what makes the fuzzy aspects fuzzy, and learn new perspectives that allow us to start creating clarity. We need to have enough presence of mind to recognize that we aren’t going to stay here, and that we will find a way through, but enough confidence to live with the discomfort of being here for now.
Yes, it’s hard. I’m not going to say that it’s supposed to be hard, necessarily. Although one might. Because the difficulty of the journey is why we value so much the reward of getting to the other side. We build new appreciation of ourselves and our abilities, because we’ve tried and been tested and we have figured a way through to the other side. If it was easy, we wouldn’t value the accomplishment nearly so much. It’s difficult to remember that in the middle—and it would probably just make us angry if someone tried to helpfully point it out—but that doesn’t make it any less true.
What I find reassuring is that for all that change is scary and messy and difficult, there is a way through. There is always a way through. There’s no process for it, no map, no short-cut to get from one side to the other. The journey is the experience, and the experience is what allows us to get to the other side. It’s up to each of us to figure out what our path will be.
A very well written article! Change is messy. All of us have experienced that which Sr Mgt does not get most of the times. It is NOT an ON OFF switch as you have rightly mentioned.
Thanks for sharing!
Tim Goin says
Great post. I particularly like, “ . . .change is about leaving something behind, and committing to a new way of being, working or acting . . . . you are no longer who you were, but you are not yet who you are about to come You’re in an in-between space of figuring it out and navigating forward. And that’s where all the messiness of change lives.”
I think many do not acknowledge that when they are in the in-between space, it is messy. And, that as they move to the “to be” state, messy is normal, uncomfortable, but normal (and may be needed).
Mark Mullaly says
Thanks so much for the feedback, Tim. I appreciate it. And yes, messiness is the order of the day. And that messiness is… choatic. Moving in the in-between space often feels like two steps forward, three back, and then forward again. We may feel we’re getting it one day, be disillusioned the next, and then find ourselves being hopeful again. And then one day, it’s completely natural.