Have you ever noticed that when there is something important in your life that needs attention, that the world around us provides a lot of hints to take note? For me, there have been a lot of indications that I need to take stock of where I am at in my transition into my “first retirement”.I’m now three months in, and it is challenging. It isn’t as smooth as I hoped it would be, and the promise of my vision for my future feels elusive in many ways. The coaching program I went through used the expression “it’s messy in the middle”.
Hints have been appearing in many forms for me as I work to find a path forward. My recent vacation took me away from my work so that I could see more clearly my desired direction in life. Coaching clients I am working with who are in the “messy middle” of their own transitions are reminding me that I’m still in the midst of one myself. The current book I’m reading (Rising Strong by Brene Brown) uses a similar construct that tells us not to try to avoid the tough bits in the middle.
I think this is a worthwhile topic to explore. A successful transition is about understanding what we want to hold onto that we currently have in our lives, what we want to let go of and what we want to take on in order to fulfill our new vision. That vision is usually compelling and clear enough to set us on a new path, but once we start out on the journey towards this vision, we usually discover just how messy it can be in the middle!
Having worked through this myself more than once, and my work with various clients would confirm my own experiences, it seems to me that there are three stages we go through as we navigate this through the hard work of transition.
Acknowledge the messiness.
A successful transition is about taking action, not just talking about it. But as soon as we engage we understand that this won’t be easy. Our first step is to acknowledge to ourselves that we are making a significant shift, and giving ourselves permission to let this take some time.
Because it is uncomfortable, we will naturally want to get through it as quickly as possible, but if we can find it within us to know that this work is necessary and can’t be rushed then we will be well positioned to dig into the hard work of moving past barriers of our own making. I recall a client of mine who was working towards a new vision for their future life. As we discussed this vision my client said something like: “Ian, it is all well and good to have this beautiful vision, but what good does it do me when I’m stuck in the mire of my current situation?” My question back to my client was “how might you act differently if you were to think of this mire as a necessary phase of your journey?” That clicked, and we were able to move on to addressing the obstacles that were in the way of that vision.
This latter stage of acknowledgement is about accessing our feelings, so we can know what is holding us back. The average North American is not comfortable talking or thinking about feelings. We generally go to blame (“I’d be happy if you would change”) or shame (“I’m not good/strong/valuable enough to make this happen”). What we aren’t good at is naming our true feelings. A real life example for me right now is that as I think about letting go of my association with my company in the next one to two years, I acknowledge I will be sad that I’m not a part of that community and I am anxious that I will not have meaningful work when I am gone. These are now strong feelings that I can begin to address.
Be willing to dive into the mess.
Even the middle stage of “messy in the middle” is the messiest! When we think about putting our feelings on the table and really examining them, it can be scary. Are we willing to get into the messiness of feelings? Feelings drive our bus. We can be brilliant thinkers, but where the rubber meets the road it will be the level of our emotional courage that dictates the outcome.
We may have “decided” that a transition needs to happen, but when it doesn’t start out well, are we willing to take on the things that are really holding us back? Are we willing to take the risks we need to to let go of our old way of being? Are we willing to challenge our own internal gremlins or old tapes that tell us to be safe and instead make ourselves vulnerable in the world by taking a chance? Can we truly believe in ourselves and our purpose in the world?
My favorite author, Brené Brown, has made a career of this topic. In her three books, she asks us to acknowledge that all humans are “perfectly imperfect”, challenges us to dare greatly to attain our greatest visions and when we inevitably fail, to “rise strong” and face the challenge unwavering again tomorrow.
As with any progress we experience in life, a tendency to backslide iin this arena is natural. The trick is to know when it is happening. How can we maintain awareness of the gremlins we have tamed and the feelings we have understood and come to terms with, recognizing that this challenge will be ongoing? Can we build ourselves a regulary (hopefully daily) practice of checking in with ourselves internally and honestly assessing how we are doing on our journey. Do we continue to “dare greatly”?
Second, what support structures do we have in place? Do we have one or more people who will hold us accountable to achieving our vision? Perhaps more importantly, do we have one or more people who will help us get back on the horse when we fall off?
The final question in moving through the messiness in the middle: do we know, and continue to know, deeply in our hearts that “I am enough”! I am everything I need to be to make this vision become reality.