Working WITH each other and not AGAINST each other in Transition
This week I talked with a couple in the midst of making a major transition. Things seem to be lining up for one particular path over the other; doors are opening in a particular city for the husband’s job, a network is unfolding, and training opportunities lie ahead for them both. He is getting excited, starting to get a vision for life in this new city.
The woman, pregnant with their second child, has recently gone through two years of massive changes in her roles and leadership. She is ready for the transition, but suddenly found herself feeling ambivalent about the impending move despite the series of confirmations.
“I know I need to catch up to him,” she said to me. “This is a move we both want. I don’t know why I’m emotionally struggling to get there.”
Meanwhile, in the background, her toddler had a meltdown of epic proportions and she had to go. Mid-stream on getting in touch with her feelings, she’s got to attend to her little guy who is completely thrown off by the winds of change. Life in the throes of transition— a roller coaster of emotions…for everyone.
Transition is a little like trying to cross a swift moving river. Imagine a person standing next to a river— excited and ready to cross to the other side. She begins to wade into the water— ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep— deeper and deeper until she can no longer feel the ground underneath her. The current of the river picks up and she is momentarily pulled underwater and comes up sputtering. In a panic, her arms begin to flail until she gets her head above water, pointing her feet down stream to flow better with the current. She stabilizes on her back for a few moments, then flips over to take a several broad strokes toward the other side until she feels her toes brushing against the bottom of the riverbed. One foot down, two feet, she begins to emerge slowly, the water draining from her clothing and body as she rises from the water. Feet on solid ground- she has crossed to the other side. Mission accomplished!
All transitions hold similar stages of experience…. Familiar ground. A decision (or unwanted push) to cross to the other side. Shifting terrain. Swirling changes. Disorientation. Ugly thrashing. Forward motion. Gradual stabilization. New ground.
Now picture crossing that river with a group of two people, three people, or five people… harnessed together.
Some will be hanging back waiting to cross while the first one ventures into the water. Or perhaps someone has already arrived on new ground while the others are in various stages of wading, orienting, flailing, or stabilizing. The larger the group, the longer it will take for the crossing and the more varied the individual experiences.
Most of our life transitions involve other people. Whether it is a change for your family, team, business, small group, church; rarely are we making transitions solo. Facing retirement as a couple. Blending a family. Moving to a new location. Adapting to a new CEO. Empty nesting. Losing of a family member. Expanding a business. Bringing on a new team leader. Adjusting to a new physical limitation.
So how do we cross the rivers of transition in a way that honors and supports each other instead of pulling each other underwater?
First, not everyone likes crossing the rivers. Some people hate getting wet and having water up their noses, and the moment they are swept by the current is terrifying. In their unhealthy forms, these people sit down on the riverbank and refuse to cross over even though everyone in the group would experience reward on the other side.
But some people like change. Some people THRIVE on change. They love the feeling of the water rising and the exhilaration of being out of control. In fact, in unhealthy forms, these people may drag others from river to river addicted to the rush found in the crossing and in the search of new territory.
Though the extreme fear of change or propensity to change may be linked to something painful in our story, a big part of our approach to change is hardwired. Some personalities navigate change with more energy and enthusiasm; others are wired for stability thriving in routine and familiarity. Give each other GRACE; our personalities experience change differently.
Remember that you will be going through the stages at different times. Don’t expect everyone to be experiencing the same emotions at exactly the same time. You may be watching someone head into a river while you’re still saying goodbye to the old territory. Or you may finally be emerging on the other side when someone else has just lost footing and gone under. And if your group is large enough, you may even have one person on one the new bank and the other still back in old territory. Very rarely will you be exactly in the same place emotionally as the others in your group. Allow each person the freedom to be where they need to be emotionally without judgement.
You may not be able to support someone else well when you are in the middle of the river. There will be moments in transition where you are really just trying to keep your own head above water— the support you can give to others may be minimal. You may need to release others momentarily to keep yourself afloat. Yes, the whole group may be unnerved as they watch your head go under. We have to remember that we will be able to expect less from each others and ourselves when we are mid-stream (no pun intended) of a major transition. Remember this is a stage. It will pass.
Some will approach the crossing with their HEAD and others with their HEART. One of the greatest areas of conflict when transitioning together is the thinking/feeling differences. Some of us approach new experiences through our head. We rationally think through what needs to happen, step by step and make plans accordingly. We put our heads down and move forward, knowing there will be difficulty, but willing to persevere to get through to the other side.
Others of us understand much more of the emotions of the journey. We are attentive to the myriad of feelings present in change— sadness, fear, excitement, joy. And often we may holding the emotional barometer of the group— we may have a sense of when to slow down and wait for someone and when to keep moving forward.
The rub comes when the thinker tries to talk the feeler out of their feelings. “Why are you still crying about leaving our friends— you were so excited about moving on? You know this is a change for the better” or when the feeler is overwhelmed by all the emotions and becomes discouraged, fearful, or riddled with doubts— weighing the whole group down.
The truth is: We need each other. Thinkers help us keep practical steps in motion and can help move forward when we are overwhelmed with feelings. Feelers help us to honor the emotional journey of change so the feelings don’t get buried and start leaking out in harmful ways later on. Listen to each other— each of us is speaking a truth that needs to be heard.
As for my friends in transition… the image of crossing the river helps give perspective and language to where each person is. Her husband is wading in with excitement. Her child, who is extremely sensitive to change, is falling apart before his toes hit the water. And she’s trying to figure out if they are crossing the right river!
Major transition is difficult for one person, let alone multiple people. But the language of ‘crossing the river’ can be a simple way to help people identify where they are in the process. At different points when we transitioned overseas, we would ask our girls – where are you at on the “transition bridge**? Still a foot back in the old land? Off balance in the scary middle? Or starting to get your footing on the other side?” Knowing that no one had to be at exactly the same spot emotionally was incredibly freeing for each person (and helped us to track where the kids were).
The bottom line is, we have enough trouble navigating change without the added relational tensions; as much as possible, work at being on the same team. And most importantly, give GRACE to yourself and others, because we crossing through transitions is not an easy process.
*** This concept of the Transition Bridge came from an exercise we did at a cross-cultural training school (MTI) in preparing to move overseas. While they used the image of a bridge, I have adapted the concept to the image of crossing a river.