I just did my first virtual retreat that was created for a group that has been going through a lot of changes over the past year and couldn’t help but realize that I was describing what the entire world is going through now related to the pandemic. One of the reasons that we struggle with change is because when we experience it, we expect it to be over immediately. But change doesn’t occur like taking a trip from one side of a street to the other. There’s a psychological process that we have to go through once a change has occurred.
Change is situational. There’s an event of some sort, like switching from working in an office to working from home. Then there’s the psychological process of transition, a three-phase process people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about. Transitions begin with an ending or loss. Regardless of whether the change is deemed positive or negative, there is something that has to end and that typically means losing something or even grieving over something. Perhaps it was a miserable relationship, for example, and you got out. Even though that may be a positive change, there was some level of comfort in that miserable relationship because you knew what to expect, you knew how to navigate it, you knew who you were in that relationship. Now you’re out and you have to figure out your new identity. You don’t know what to expect. You feel anxious.
Consider coming home with a new baby. Such a joyful change for most. But what are you losing? Sleep, freedom, discretionary spending money, spontaneity? Loss or grieving is the first phase of transition, recognizing that even if the change is positive, there’s still a loss of some sort. When we perceive the change as negative, feelings of loss are obviously amplified. Recognizing what you have lost due to the pandemic is the first step in understanding your own transition. Have you processed or grieved over what has been lost yet? It’s certainly not a fun process, but it’s much less healthy to deny any loss, hoping that everything will just go back to normal soon and you therefore won’t have any losses. Across the globe, everyone has lost something and things will probably not go back to exactly how they were, and certainly not any time soon. This doesn’t have to be viewed as completely negative. It simply means the reality is that we can’t avoid processing what we’ve lost through denial.
The second phase of transition could be referred to as simply waiting. Dr. William Bridges refers to this stage as the neutral zone in his book, Managing Transitions. It’s a murky area where you know you’ve lost an old identity, but you don’t know what your new one looks like yet. An example would be the sale of a company you work for and while you may be given a little bit of information, something like, “We’re selling the company, but don’t worry, we don’t anticipate any job losses,” you worry a lot. What does “anticipate” mean? Why can’t you get more information? Why is it taking so long to hear about what’s happening? What should you be doing or preparing for in the meantime?
Sound familiar? We’re in the waiting phase or neutral zone right now in this pandemic. The event that sparked the change may vary for people, depending on their circumstances. It could have been the announcement that there was a pandemic, it could have been the day someone was sent to work at home, the day someone lost their job, the day someone was called in to become an essential worker. Whatever the day of the event was, that event pushed you into transition. First step, acknowledge what you’ve lost. Second step, enter the waiting phase or neutral zone.
A common feature of this phase is lack of clear direction or information. Experts or leaders differ on their opinions, a plan of action is unclear and ambiguous, there may be no timeline for anything. And most importantly for our psyche, we’re not clear about who we’re supposed to be now. Most people have multiple identities, based on the various circumstances of their lives. We may have a work or career identity, a home-based identity, we may have various identities we slide on and off depending on the people we’re with in any given moment. But if we’ve experienced a major change, which we all have, at least some of our identities have perished, at least temporarily, while others seem to be merged or morphed into something almost unrecognizable.
And that leads to the next challenge with this waiting game. We have no certainty that it is temporary and we have no clear picture of how anything is going to work once we’re freed from our secluded retreats at home. Who are we going to be? What will our work look like? How will our finances be impacted? Will our companies survive? Will our children return to school? Will there still be movies or amusement parks or concerts to attend?
Marilyn Ferguson, an American Futurist, described the waiting phase like this:
“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”
I think that pretty much sums it up. We’re stuck waiting and it’s very uncomfortable. To further add to our anxiety, the ego, whose job it is to protect us, can easily interpret current events to be “dangerous,” and therefore sends the signal to the brain to prepare to fight or flee. That means the brain starts releasing adrenaline and cortisol, along with other stress hormones, to allow us to do just that – fight the circumstances or run away from them. The brain simply doesn’t understand that there is nothing to fight and nowhere to run, so what we end up with is just more anxiety.
This is why you see more and more people now breaking out, defying the rules, making demands and behaving in ways that may be endangering themselves or others. They don’t know how to manage the discomfort of being in the waiting phase. Last week I shared my concerns about some of the counties here in California opening up the beaches and my fear that people would not follow the physical distancing rules. Surprise, surprise, many did not. I suspect similar scenarios will be playing out all over the country as various states open, close, restrict, expand…it’s really all a lot more waiting. We won’t know, for example, if the beachcombers did any real damage for at least 3 weeks. That’s a very long time from my perspective. More waiting.
What I found interesting about the massive crowds at the beach is two-fold. Keep in mind, this is not the same as people who have lost their jobs and are breaking rules for survival purposes. And I’m not condoning breaking the rules for any reason, but I have an easier time at least empathizing with those that are in dire straits. But this was a day at the beach. So first, people interviewed at the beach made comments along the lines of having cabin fever, just being tired of being cooped up, needing to enjoy the sun. I suspect it is none of those things. It is much more related to simply not being able to stand the discomfort of waiting. For many, it is also the discomfort of spending time with ourselves. A lot of people don’t want to or don’t know how to be alone with their own thoughts, their own feelings and/or their own pasts. It’s simply easier to stay distracted and this waiting phase is wreaking havoc with being able to do that.
The second interesting observation about the beach crowds was just how crowded it was. Tens of thousands of people flocked to one of the beaches that opened, many having to walk a mile or more to get there because the beach parking lots remained closed. Here in California, after six weeks of being told multiple times daily that we have to remain at least six feet apart, it was glaringly obvious that people do not understand how this virus spreads. They were walking on crowded sidewalks together, congregating in large groups on the sand, playing games, bunched together eating on blankets. They looked like they were having a great time. But at what cost? And why aren’t they understanding how this works? Why would they risk their own health or possibly the lives of others to spend a few hours on the sand? How can they not understand that spreading the virus will only prolong our stay-at-home mandates, delay businesses opening, postpone any start to recovering economically? Again, this goes much deeper than wanting a tan or being tired of staying at home. The waiting period of transition is difficult and what we’re seeing is people who don’t know how to process their anxiety, fear and perhaps loneliness. That makes it a little easier to feel empathy, but we’re all going to pay a price for this. It is more evident than ever in my lifetime that we are all connected and our actions affect everyone else.
People’s inability to cope with the neutral zone of transition could be greatly helped by having strong leadership directing them and by having clear facts from doctors and scientists to support those leaders’ decisions. What we have in the world right now is a mishmash of experts and leaders sending mixed signals daily, which only further exacerbates the situation. We have a handful of governors from both parties in the United States who I tend to believe are charting the right course, but many more who are placing the economy ahead of safety and lives. But how can I possibly know which course will be the right one until we get past the waiting phase? I can’t. There are leaders of nations around the world doing the same thing. Sweden has stayed open, while Denmark has shut down. Some heads of countries spout ridiculous theories and advice while others defer to the scientists. Others started off in one direction and then abruptly changed course once the number of sick and dying began to climb. The overall signal is that no one really knows and no one’s really in charge. That doesn’t induce anxiety, right?
Being mindful doesn’t preclude us from feeling discomfort. We’re uncomfortable with this situation because we are human beings. Our brains are wired to make us feel extreme discomfort when our minds think we’re in danger and that discomfort is supposed to prompt us to take action. And that’s what makes the neutral zone of transition so miserable. We don’t know what action to take. If we’re well and in a low risk group, shouldn’t we do everything possible to get back to work so that we don’t lose our homes, so we can feed our families, so we can go back to normal? Well, if it was reframed to say, “I’m okay and I need money to survive, so I’m sorry that my actions may cause you to get sick and die, but I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” then would you still really do it? I don’t know and I’m not trying to pretend I do. Every person is experiencing different challenges and not only do I not know what is best, it’s not my place to decide for anyone else.
What I do know is that mindfulness includes understanding that we have a responsibility to each other and that our actions affect others. That means that for me personally, I weigh the risk to my own health as well as to others each time I step out the door. I cross the street during my daily walks as soon as I see anyone coming in the opposite direction on the sidewalk. I make sure to say hello to that person from across the street to ensure that they understand my crossing the street was not a hostile act, but one of consideration for both of us. I really think about whether or not I need to go to the grocery store each time it comes up. Is it a distraction from my own discomfort of being home for so long or is it because I need an item for nourishment or comfort? That doesn’t mean I don’t go to the store. It means I check in with my thoughts and feelings before I make the decision, to better understand why I’m doing what I’m doing and what impact it may have.
We need to recognize that it is natural to feel somewhat frightened and confused at such a time. It is natural to feel uncomfortable. As old patterns disappear from our minds and new ones begin to replace them, we can be full of self-doubts and misgivings about our governments, science, religion, neighbors and beach-goers. And as ambivalence increases, our longing for answers and consistency only increases. This can create a temptation to follow anyone who seems to know where he or she is going, even people who have no expertise and who can even cause us harm. Practicing mindfulness gives us that pause, a necessary moment to re-center and make better decisions.
The final stage of transition is the new beginning. But we’re not there yet, so we’ll save that for another episode. We’re still stuck in the neutral zone for weeks or months to come, so let’s focus on what we can do now to help alleviate some of the discomfort we’re experiencing and prepare for the next phase where what actions we can take will be clearer.
Simply acknowledging that something is ending can help. Recognizing the conclusion of the current phase helps us prepare for what is emerging, which is much more effective than pretending that it's not happening. Grieve what you’ve lost, even if the loss may only be temporary. We don’t know that, so right now, you’ve lost something. If you regain it later you can celebrate, but for now it’s gone. Freedom, a job, being with family members, a vacation, a wedding, travel, going to the beach. Honor the transition. Leaving the status quo can be a challenge, so allow yourself some time and space to process.
If you are well or healing, look for and give thanks for the lessons from the closing of the current chapter. Even when we are mourning the ending, if you can, find the positives in the situation and give thanks.
Seek and give support in the change. Your support network, whatever it looks like, can celebrate or commiserate with you and help you. You will find connection, joy and strength in both giving and getting assistance. One of the upsides to the neutral zone is that it is the space for preparing for new beginnings. Explore the new possibilities. List and dream about the fresh opportunities that can come about from all of this.
Visualize the new phase. Put imagination, words and action into what is developing. Envision what you desire and hold the intention that it unfolds to be even better than you can picture. Your intention is powerful and you can influence the outcome by your conscious thoughts and actions. It’s very hard to wait, but you can start creating your new beginning in your mind while you’re waiting.
Remember the times you’ve successfully navigated a previous transition. As you face a new challenge, use the knowledge that you’ve managed to cope before to give you strength.
Finally, just breathe! As anxiety rises, remember that this will pass, just as all of the constant changes in life do. We may not know exactly where we’re going or what it’s going to look like, but we do know for sure that we’re going. We want to arrive to this unknown place in good shape. Healthy, clear-minded and ready to begin again. We won’t be stuck in this waiting pattern forever. It may feel like it some days, but before we know it, we’ll be in the new beginning phase and we want to be prepared to make it even better than what we had before.
For now, stay home if you can. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. If you can’t find your way to feeling better on your own, ask for help. Be mindful in the actions you take, remembering that they affect others. And be patient. The beaches and hiking trails will still be there when this is over, actually better than ever because they’re getting a break from our abuse, so take a breath and return to waiting with the rest of us. We don’t have to do nothing while waiting. We can begin planning our new futures while we’re in this waiting phase.
Also remind yourself that things could be much worse. Most of us are in the comfort of our own homes. Most of us are well. Most of us will bounce back financially when this is over and we’ll support those who can’t. Many of us may discover new beginnings that are more enriching and fulfilling than the old identities we lost. All of us have been reminded that we are never really alone. We’re all connected and we’re all sharing in this experience together. And we all have the opportunity to practice mindfulness so that as we enter the next phase, it may be with more emphasis on the greater good for all. I can wait for that. Can’t you?