Knowing what phase of change you are in can help you normalize it. If you can recognize the signposts and relax into it, to your current phase will go smoother. Maybe even faster. And you’ll have valuable practice for the next time!
This beautiful picture reminds me that spring is on its way. The northern sun is strong enough to melt the snow, but only for a few hours each day before the freeze-thaw cycle resumes. It’s the in-between phase of change, which we understand and trust it in nature. What if we could do the same in our own lives?Click To Tweet
Several client conversations have reminded me of the basic phases of change. Here are some examples:
- I can’t believe I do that! Every time I go to a meeting, I can see what needs to get done. So, I roll up my sleeves, take charge and we get it done. I almost never ask probing questions. How did I not see that?
- I’m feeling a great sense of disorientation. Almost like I don’t know myself anymore. I’m doing lots of activities, but none of them are satisfying. I can’t believe I’m at this age and not yet sure of what I want to do. It’s kind of sad.
- As a meditator, I have always valued letting-go, shedding attachments, and the place of stillness where we can experience oneness. I trusted that if we do these, then no further self-effort was necessary. But as you point out, we are embodied beings, and the intentions we bring to our embodiment are present whether we are conscious of them or not.
Three Phases of Change
The process of personal change is rarely painless, although resilient people are able to move through it with relative ease. They are able to leverage shocks as signals for change, recognize that something is no longer working for them and explore new options. They become more comfortable with the phases of shedding an old identity and creating a new one. Knowing about the process of personal change helps you develop one of the key muscles of resilience, from my book Mind Your Life (see chapter 4).
The content and pacing of each transition is unique, but the process itself follows a predictable sequence. I’ll use Otto Scharmer’s U curve as a representative model. The process has three broad phases of change: letting go of the old, allowing a gap or transition and letting come something new.
For much of our lives, we are not in transition. (Good thing; it can be exhausting!) We are in performance mode, our behaviour and thinking in well-honed grooves of habit. We are reasonably effective in our lives. Our habit patterns serve us well, so we don’t have to think too much about them. We are operating on automatic pilot.
Then some kind of setback, challenge or trauma occurs. We respond in our usual ways but find they don’t work very well anymore. This precipitates the upper left side of the U curve.
Letting Go Phase of Change
The left side of the curve is the letting go phase of change. It is all about unlearning old habits, dis-identifying from your old sense of self. You start the process by hitting the pause button, in effect suspending your automatic ways of being and doing. You redirect awareness to observe yourself others and your situation more deeply. You start to become conscious of things you did unconsciously. You can look at what you used to look through. When you are able to do this thoroughly you can let go of the old. [See more about developing self-awareness here.) Quote #1 above is an example of this phase of change.
Gap of Transition Phase of Change
But you do not immediately jump into the new, even though you may want to. The bottom of the U curve is the gap of transition. Like the freeze-thaw picture, it is an awkward in-between zone, the gap between your old self and your new self, where you are neither one thing nor another. The bottom of the U is a place of questions, but not yet answers, where you rest in the unknown. What do you really want? What does the situation call for? What gives you energy and joy? Who do you truly care for? The more you have let go of old patterns, the more you re able to see with fresh new eyes. Eventually you detect the glimmering of new answers to your questions, which precipitates the right-hand side of the U curve. The unknown is the place where possibility exists; the only place from which you can truly create the new. Quote #2 is an example of someone feeling disoriented during this phase of change.)
Letting Come Phase of Change
The right-hand side of the U is about letting come something fresh and new. You construct a newer identity, you figure out more effective ways of doing and being that respond to deeper yearnings. Because you have let go of old ways, you are able to let come something that is truly innovative. You are able to tap into a creativity you may not have suspected. You try out new moves in tentative, low-risk, “pilot project” ways. You learn from your first mistakes and eventually crystallize those moves into effective new ways. When you are able to embody these new ways in a consistent way, you have a new set of habits, more effective and personally fulfilling than before. You have enacted the new. Quote #3 above is an example of someone newly appreciating the value of this phase of change.To illustrate, let’s use the analogy of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.
Before any kind of transition occurs, we are like the caterpillar, happily munching away, feeding ourselves and our families, growing in our lives. Then a signal for change hits. The caterpillar stops eating, stops moving and attaches itself to a twig of leaf. It constructs a protective cocoon around itself and turns itself inward. Inside that protective cocoon, it literally dissolves. Its formerly solid body turns into a rich gooey fluid, which contains the embryonic cells for its new form. When the protective cocoon is no longer needed, it is shed and the new creature—a butterfly—emerges.
The Phases of Change Repeat
As one of my clients pointed out, transformation is a continuous process of transformation and renewal. We have long phases of productive performance and incremental learning, going after our dreams and achieving our goals. These are punctuated by the three phases of change, as shown by the U curve. But we don’t end up exactly as we were before. We have matured, can handle greater complexity and uncertainty, whether that is new roles at work, changing family and life patterns, or even changing geo-political norms.
So, I have come to think of the U curve as morphing into a spiral as we, along with the rest of the planet, evolve and grow, solving new problems, creating a better footprint for those who will follow us.