Coping with this COVID-19 transition

The world’s been turned upside down. ‘Normal’ life has been completely disrupted.

We’ve been shoved through the COVID-19 doorway into a Brave New World and we are staring and blinking and trying to take it all in.

It’s a confusing mix of the old and the new. It’s work, Jim, but not as we know it. It’s home too but it’s not the one we are used to.

It all seems a bit unreal, a fantasy. Or perhaps a nightmare. It may even be flipping between the two like a faulty light bulb, creating an effect that’s neither light nor darkness but some ethereal twilight.

Hang on, this is getting a bit weird. Come on, pull yourself together. We’ll soon be back to normal!!

But will we? I don’t mean will it be soon (who knows?) but will it be ‘normal’?

Because now, looking back, normal was pretty weird, wasn’t it? Tens, hundreds, even thousands of people all travelling in polluting cars or on uncomfortable, crowded and unhealthy trains and buses to go to a building so that they could sit on their own and email each other.

I mean, that’s just nuts, right? Now we can just roll out of bed and do that from the ‘comfort’ of our own living rooms. Shit, we can even STAY in bed and do it.

All that dressing up, all that rushing around, all that ‘busyness’ and performative activity. All unnecessary. What was all that about?

All that needing to be ‘seen’ and yet we never really saw each other. You didn’t know which of your coworkers had children or cats or dogs and now they join you on your video conferences. You were unaware of their partners, or their taste in decoration come to that, and now you know how well they chose either of them.

Seeing these hitherto unknown parts of their life, of their being, has changed the relationship. It’s broken down barriers, it’s made the connections more real (which is kinda funny as they are actually less ‘real’ in our virtual meeting rooms).

A lot of the pretence and performance has dropped away. Conversations are more real, more connected. Relationships are stronger. Now you can see the person behind the ‘work colleague’.

This has been a transformation. A rapid, forced transition from one world to another. And now we’re not quite sure where we are. We can see the past was actually bonkers and we can’t see what the future will be like. We’re rather lost in a fog of uncertainty and ambiguity and we’re struggling.

This is all perfectly normal, even in these abnormal times.

Let’s look at what’s happening and try to understand it by referencing William Bridges’ model of Transition, a personal favourite of mine. But to do that, we need to briefly look at the model.

Bridges defines three stages to a life transition. 

The first is Ending, Losing, Letting Go.

This is the end of our old life, as things begin to change we disengage from it.

The second is The Neutral Zone.

This is a temporary state that we have to endure, an emptiness where our old life has fallen away but our new life has not yet emerged.

The third is The New Beginning.

This is our new life, our acceptance of the new understanding, values and ways of thinking we have gained from this transition.

Right now, we are mostly in The Neutral Zone (although Bridges presents this as a linear model he counsels that it is much messier than that and we may oscillate between all three zones as we find our way through). However, before exploring what that means, we need to look at the Ending in a bit more detail.

There are four aspects to the natural Ending experience: Disengagement, Disidentification, Disenchantment and Disorientation.

We didn’t get much option about Disengagement. The disruption caused by COVID-19 catapulted us out of our old life. We are no longer trapped in the rituals of office life, the performance and processes, and we are operating in ways we could barely have imagined before.

What’s really interesting is that Bridges says that disengagement begins an inexorable process of change. What that means is there is no ‘going back to normal’. We will not be the same people at the end of this as we were before it started. Change is inevitable.

Next comes Disidentification, the experience of being not quite sure who you are any more. The old rituals have gone, the old routines are redundant. The suits gather dust in the wardrobe, the car sits outside unused, you’ve forgotten what your desk even looks like. Are you still the high-powered executive you thought you were if you never have to use your Mont Blanc pen? You are plunged into an existential crisis that no amount of checking your frequent flyer miles is going to shift! 

Then comes the Disenchantment. This is the most overlooked part because we think of growth as an additive process and this is all about throwing away the stories we’ve told ourselves about the past. Those stories about how important it was to be at certain meetings, to have that corner desk, to look really sharp for that big meeting. The stories about how critical it was to get that report done, to get the budget done, to hit your targets. The stories about hurrying and hustling and being ‘across it all’.

Most work environments, and especially Corporates and large organisations, are an ‘enchantment’, where we believe a load of nonsense and behave accordingly and call it ‘normal’. That’s why people have those signs that say “You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps”, along with lots of Dilbert cartoons stuck up on their walls.

Now you can see just how bonkers most of that stuff was. Remember how important you thought your budget was before COVID-19 blew it out of the water? Remember how much time you spent trying to predict the future, and how you believed you were going to make things happen? Remember all the time you spent running around meeting people and looking busy?

The key here is not to let disenchantment lead to you becoming disillusioned. Yes, the past was, in part, a fairy story that you had made up to make yourself feel good. In the case of work, it’s a collective fairy story that everyone goes along with. It wasn’t all made up, though. There were good things you can build on. If you get disillusioned, you won’t grow and you’ll go back and make the same mistakes as before.

This all brings you eventually to a state of Disorientation, as the anchors of your past have disappeared and you feel like you are drifting in an endless sea. This is very uncomfortable, and we mostly try to avoid it, but it is critically important to our growth that we endure it. It is the death of our old selves, which is why we feel discomfort. Right now, in this Corona-moment, we mostly don’t have any choice but to endure it – but at least we can try to understand why we are feeling this way.

It is in this state that we enter The Neutral Zone. Often we try to flee this space, either by attempting to return to our old life or by embarking on a New Beginning before we are ready.

In an attempt to escape the discomfort, we may find ourselves trying to recreate our previous existence in this virtual world (indeed, there are reports of bosses trying to do this and having their staff on Zoom calls from 9 to 5). This is doomed to failure for all sorts of reasons, technical, practical and psychological.

Alternatively, we find ourselves trying to craft a new lifestyle from our situation and taking up ambitious side projects, trying to learn a language, read more books, write our novel and all sorts of other idealised behaviours. Whilst this seems alluring, we aren’t ready to make these types of changes and our commitment will fall away.

So, we are stuck here, in limbo. In uncertainty, ambiguity and confusion. 

It’s not just us, it’s the entire world. Everything is in transition and we can’t know what the future holds, what ‘The New Beginning’ for the world will look like, or for our country, or our organisation. Or us.

These feelings of discomfort, tension, unease, anxiety and fear are normal and widespread, and we’re going to be experiencing them for some time. That means we need to find ways of dealing with them and learning how to function despite their presence. 

Transitions are necessary parts of our life and our personal growth but they are harder when you are pushed into them. It can be very difficult for us to accept the need for a New Beginning as we are generally resistant to change.

We must also accept an Ending, which is a form of death. There is a process of grieving that we will experience as a result.

This is where we are right now. We are grieving for the life we had and we are mostly not yet accepting that the future will be different, that our old life has died. 

We can’t force the process. Much as we may wish, we cannot push ourselves forward. We will only craft our New Beginning when we are ready to do so. But it can help us to acknowledge the madness that we left behind, the abnormality of the old ‘normal’. Once we’ve decided we don’t want to go back to that, then we can, very gradually, start to look forward.

Ahead of us is the pain and anguish of getting through The Neutral Zone. Ordinarily, some will move through it quickly whilst others take much longer. However, because the whole world in is transition, we’re all going to be stuck in it for a while yet.

Eventually, we will start on our New Beginning but there’s no process for this, no checklist, no great turning point (although we might create a story about one afterwards). In fact, new beginnings are often unimpressive and indirect. We just have to be open and see what comes into our consciousness. It is about what resonates with you, not what is logical.

Remember Steve Job’s famous observation that it’s only when we look back that we can join the dots. Right now we are in the process of collecting dots. It is not the time to try and join them up.

It can’t be hurried, our ‘new normal’ will emerge in its own time.  Until then, we are going to be in discomfort and dislocation, fear and anxiety. So my advice is this.

Stop grieving for the old ‘normal’, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and it wasn’t very ‘normal’ either.

Instead, enjoy collecting the dots. You never know when or how they will come in handy but you do know that they will.

And finally, let me share a quote that William Bridges’ puts at the end of his book.

“Not in his goals but in his transitions, man is great”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

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