COVID and the Change Crisis
Heraclitus said, “There is nothing permanent except change.”
Change is constant, but people don’t really like change. Even people who say they do are usually referring to things they have direct control of or events when they are the “leader.”
Actually, we’re hardwired to resist change. Our brains are designed to interpret change as a threat, and so they respond to change by releasing the hormones for fear, fight, or flight in an attempt to protect us from change.
One of the biggest challenges is that things change, but people transition, and while things change quickly, people transition slowly.
We attend to those changes that we cannot avoid or ignore through a process in which we mourn the ending of what was, explore multiple different possibilities, and then embrace what will be. That’s the transition process.
If you’ve lost a loved one, been uprooted from your job or home, or experienced any form of sudden, dramatic change, you’ve experienced the full impact of the transition process. You know the pain and disorientation that comes with the loss of the familiar and the difficulty of embracing a new and different reality.
Even changes we view as positive or have initiated ourselves demand that we move through all three stages of the transition process – ending, neutral zone, and new beginning. (William Bridges defined these stages in 1991 in his groundbreaking book Managing Transitions.)
We may not even be aware of the transition process as we move through it for small changes in our lives. However, with significant change, the pain of letting go, the confusion of “what next?” and the cautious excitement of something new are more acute, so the transition stages are often more apparent and the emotional experience more noticeable and disruptive.
Change strips us of our sense of control. Change points out poignantly that we do not know what is going to happen next.
We usually find some balance in the transition process because not all aspects of life around us are affected as we are. We can look to others, both friends and strangers alike, and see that life is going on “as usual.” And this “life as usual” provides a marker of normalcy that holds us in context and gives us a broader sense of comfort.
But what happens when not only everyone around you but the entire 7.8 billion inhabitants of the world are confronted simultaneously with the reality of “We are not in control. We do not know what is going to happen.”?
Welcome to COVID-19!
On such a massive, unexpected scale, it can be difficult to see that the world changed, and all of us are struggling to transition.
What are we struggling to transition to…what is the new normal? That question drives a lot of end phase denial and neutral zone confusion, fear, and anger.
The ending transition stage for the current change driven by COVID-19 began at different times for most of us, but the reality of its seriousness hit in mid-March when most of the United States went into some level of lockdown.
Endings destroy security, routine, and predictability, and we respond with uncertainty, reservation, denial, shock, anger, fear, or sadness.
We had never experienced anything like this before. It was “unprecedented.” There was (and still isn’t) any road map to follow.
As we reluctantly moved into the neutral zone—where none of the old rules apply, and the new rules have yet to be defined—we found ourselves feeling insecure as we were assailed by chaos on all fronts. No one knew what to do, the information we received was often contradictory, and lives, often our own, were being drastically altered.
The neutral zone is a time of confusion, disorientation, frustration, skepticism, and/or apathy. The neutral zone is uncomfortable, and our current reality is we’ve endured it for months on end. It has frayed our nerves and our tempers and tested our patience.
As could be predicted, many found the neutral zone to be too uncomfortable to bear. We all have difficulty with the lack of structure and familiarity that exists in the neutral zone. We want to go back to the way it was – “The pandemic isn’t real!”, “We will be through this in a month.” – or we want to jump ahead prematurely – “Things will get back to normal soon,” “I’m tired of all this talk about COVID; it’s more important to get our lives back on track than worry about it!”
But no matter how hard we fight accepting it, things will not go back to the way they were pre-pandemic. Things will get better, but the long-term result will be a “new” normal that will take a while to arrive, and in which we will discover that we have been changed irrevocably in ways we cannot yet predict.
Unlike employees who quit rather than accept and adjust to the changes their company makes, there is no opt-out from the changes precipitated by COVID-19. Denying it will not make it go away, and there is literally no place in the world to go where the pandemic is not changing things.
As I write this, the mass immunization effort is underway, and the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel can be seen, even if only faintly. But it is enough to begin to give us the hope that a real new beginning is coming. With it will come the excitement, energy, and commitment inspired by new visions, new opportunities, and a new future.
It is hard to live through changes that you cannot avoid and at the same time keep your perspective about the necessity of the transition process, but that is what we are all being called to do. Understanding things theoretically does not make anyone immune to the psychological and emotional process of living through them.
We want to do more than survive COVID-19. We want to thrive through the change that it has forced upon us.
Take some time to reflect on what you have lost that will never return. Common losses brought about by change involve control, competencies, attachments, meaning, turf, expected futures, structure, membership, power, and importance. What has changed for you? Identify those changes and allow yourself to grieve their passing.
Acknowledge the confusion and uncertainty of where we all are right now – in the neutral zone. Identify your response. What are you afraid of? What are you most confused and uncertain about? Talk to others to discover that you are not alone in your concerns.
New, real beginnings always come. Those who can surrender what is lost, accept what has happened, and open themselves to new possibilities will ultimately thrive.
“It’s not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin
PS. As you’ve probably guessed, each Perceptual Style has characteristic responses to change and the transition process. Next time, we’ll explore a few tips and techniques you can use to help you with transition.
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