The Courage to Let Go – Dealing with Transition & Navigating the Dreaded “In-Between”
I’ve been doing a lot of what I call “bridging work” lately. It’s the work of navigating in-between the piers as the spans of your life’s bridge is built. Letting go of what is familiar while reaching for the not-yet-here new stage of life.
Keeping Afloat During Change
David has recently completed a sale of his business. He’s been looking forward to this sale for many years as he worked hard to build it and prepare it for sale. In fact, during the lengthy process of identifying a business broker and seemingly endless negotiation with the buyer and investors, he’s been anticipating this change, dreaming of his new freedom.
He has just begun his “earn out” period – the time when he will continue to work with the new purchaser of his business and help effect a smooth transition. His final payout from the business is dependent upon successfully navigating this transition period, staying motivated and, eventually letting go. He doesn’t want to be like a prisoner, just marking the days off on his wall calendar until he’s “free” to go. He wants to enjoy this transition period. Even more surprising to him, he’s finding that he doesn’t really WANT to leave.
“What’s that about?” he asked me. “I’ve been looking forward to this day for years!” In one conversation his voice dropped to almost a whisper as he told me, “I’m afraid I might even sabotage my exit, which is crazy! I just can’t imagine not being here when my earn-out period is up. Maybe I should just tell the buyers I want to take it back.”
We both know that he doesn’t want the business back, what he wants is for the uncertainty about his next steps to ease. He’s beginning the process of letting go of the old and reaching for the new. And, it’s understandably scary. Luckily, the investors in his company knew that this is a predictable part of transition for a company founder and brought me in to help David. We’re creating a transition plan that will allow him to ease through this period of uncertainty and into something new.
Another client, Tristan, and I have been working on designing the next step for his career. Each time we get close to him making a break from his current position and taking the leap to his next venture – one he’s been anticipating for years, he retreats to rework the plan, doubting whether it makes sense to leave the familiar but frustrating job he’s been in. Again and again, he raises “just one more thing” he needs to accomplish/complete before he can make the leap to the new thing – wondering “what if it doesn’t work?” Regularly, we talk about how long he has known it’s time for him to go, he hasn’t been happy there for a long time. Together we create structure for the transition, so he can weather the storm of change, and not subconsciously create a crisis to force the leap or sabotage his success once he moves.
The common link for both of these clients is the dreaded “in-between” period called transition. It’s there, inherent in every change, even those which we have planned and looked forward to with great anticipation.
Preparing To Leave
Every time we transition, there is a leaving. We put down one thing and reach for the other. Sometimes we consciously choose the transition, sometimes it is forced upon us. What surprises many of us is how the grief and loss of this “in-between” period arises, even when we’re looking forward to the new thing. Sometimes we stay in the old state an extended period, stretched between the thing we are leaving behind and the thing we are reaching for. Unsure, confused by the conflicted feelings of relief and loss, we jump back and forth across the ravine of change until we finally commit to staying on the “new” side. It takes a toll.
I’ve experienced it in my own life, too, in ways great and small. I think back to several different times when I’ve been in transition. Here’s one in particular. Many years ago, I decided to leave my law practice. People asked me “Why? You’ve got it made. What are you doing that for? What are you going to do?” Honestly, I didn’t have an answer that would satisfy them. I just knew that I couldn’t do it one more day without putting a stick in my eye. I suppose I made it worse for many of them when I decided to buy a 38 foot motorhome and travel for a while. I can still remember the bug-eyed looks accompanied by exclamations of “You’re going to do WHAT?!?” My ex-husband still jokingly (I hope!) refers to it as my nervous breakdown – and I’m quite sure to him it looked like that. The truth was, I needed to make the leap, even when I didn’t know what would come next and even when other people couldn’t understand what the heck the change was about.
I honestly didn’t know what would come next, but I knew I couldn’t stay where I was. That much was clear. Perhaps you’re feeling that, too. Make no mistakes, that period “in-between” was difficult. But it was also exhilarating. I was afraid. I was thrilled. I questioned whether I had made a mistake. I worried about what was ahead. I loved the journey and the adventure. I wished like crazy that I had a guide who could tell me how to get through it. Gradually, I embraced the reality that for each of us in every change, in every transition, whether they are welcomed or unwelcomed – you will never be the same person you were before the change.
Transition Always Follows Change
Dr. William Bridges, best known for his expertise on dealing with change, and the author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, puts it this way: “Transition is not just a nice way to say change. It is the inner process through which people come to terms with change, as they let go of the way things used to be and reorient themselves to the way that things are now.”
So even if you desperately wanted to sell your business, and no matter how excited you were about the sale, you must come to terms with what this change means for you. Who are you as a former owner of this business? What must you let go of now that you have transitioned some of the responsibilities? What must you embrace as you let go of others? How will your life be different? What meaning will you attribute to this change of identity and how will you integrate it into the new sense of your self?
In this example, the change is the sale of the business; the transition is the process of letting go of who you were before the sale, so you can begin a new chapter in your life and embrace the joys and challenges that brings. Unlike change, which happens swiftly, transition happens slowly, over time. It has a process, in some ways like the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as outlined in the great work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Change (yes, even that which we look forward to) can leave us to deal with these conflicting feelings.
Have you ever moved to a new house with anticipation, only to feel anger about needing to find a new dry cleaner or Thai restaurant, wondering whether you made a mistake moving and thought about how you wanted to move back to the old place? Perhaps, after getting married or having your first child (or even that child moving on to college), you felt an inexplicable sadness, grieving the way your life was before – even though you KNOW this new stage of life is what you were looking forward to. That is the period of the “in-between” called transition. It makes sense to miss the old, to long for the ways things were (even if they weren’t that great) and to find it challenging to fully embrace the new.
Typically, with any change comes three stages of transition.
1. Letting Go
2. The In-Between
3. The New Beginning
What Does “Letting Go” Mean?
People may tell you, “just get over it” or “you wanted this, remember? Be happy!” But, the transition that happens with change is not something you “get over,” it is something you evolve through. That evolution of letting go is a process to navigate.
As long as you hold onto the way things were (or convince yourself that things will somehow change, when all evidence points to the contrary), you won’t be able to move to what is, or what could be.
It’s not your identity or your past experiences you’re letting go of, it’s the nostalgia or wishful thinking that you want to go back to the way things were or you had hoped it could be, that you don’t want this change for your life. But things can’t go back.
It’s when you realize that things are not ever going to be the way they were (or that you hoped they would be) that you begin to let go. And when you let go, you step forward on your path into the in-between, which sometimes feels like the “twilight zone.”
Traversing the In-Between
Paul is a seasoned investor. He has been at his new venture firm for six years. Tension between him and another senior professional (“Bob”) has been steadily escalating for more than a year. Increasingly, he has come to dread the days he and Bob will have to interact. Despite all of his efforts to defuse this conflict, Paul has been unable to make headway. The firm will soon begin the process of raising a new fund and Paul will be forced to decide whether another ten year stint with Bob is tenable. He knows signing up for a new fund with Bob is agreeing to a decade of escalating hell, but he’s also unsure where else he’ll go.
Some days he is clear that he needs to move on, but he just keeps hoping that somehow something will change with Bob (“denial and bargaining”) and he won’t have to make the move. Each time he begins to look for a new position, the fear of being “in-between” makes him freeze, clinging to this role he knows isn’t working. At that point, magical thinking (“denial”) takes over and he backs away from the move because he can’t yet see the other shore clearly. He’s been surprised to feel depressed and anxious as his ambivalence grows. His anger is coming out sideways at home. His wife told him she can’t take the back and forth anymore. “Just make a decision!” she said. That’s where having a guide to navigate the choppy waters of transition is making all the difference for Paul. I am helping him stay focused on letting go of this crumbling shore as he reaches out for the other side.
Safely Reaching The Other Shore
Transitions are triggered by change, and there’s no way to avoid them. Your new beginning is around that corner, you may choose it or it may choose you, but you’ll have a hard time successfully grasping it and pulling yourself up into a better life without building a transition bridge.
Let’s engineer the bridge together. Drop me a line or give a ring and let’s talk about how to navigate your own version of the “in-between.”