Navigating the Fog of Change
When I moved to snow-bound Edmonton, I would sometimes play a little game with myself while I was out walking. I would find an open space of fresh, un-trodden snow, and I would close my eyes and attempt to walk a perfect circle with only the feeling of the sun on my face to guide me. I was amazed at how round and large I could make the circle (maybe 50 feet in diameter) with only my orientation to the sun guiding me.
I developed this practice while I was feeling disoriented in my life. I had moved to a new city (Edmonton) where I knew no one and I had become a student again after years of working. I was studying counseling, a field very different from my previous professional training and experience as a musician and teacher. I had chosen this move. I was interested in my studies and excited about my new career path, and yet I kept waking up in the morning thinking, “How did I get here? What am I doing? Will I be any good at this? Have I made a bad decision and ruined my life?”
Walking circles in the snow while concentrating on one source of navigation was my symbolic way of orienting my inner world. It was a prayer, a meditative practice, a way of centering myself while I walked, thinking of what I DID know with more certainty, and what had remained the same to ground me in the midst of feeling disoriented and anxious. I remembered what I wanted to accomplish when I made the decision to change my life. I reviewed my life-goals and the values and beliefs those goals were based on. And while feeling the warm sun on my face I experienced in my body a symbolic journey of being guided by something greater than myself.
It wasn’t the joy of the sun and the novelty of snow in my new environment that prompted me to walk circles, but the fog of unexpected feelings that had disoriented me. I was doubting myself, lacking confidence and questioning my decision even though it made sense logically. Part of the confusion was that this logical decision didn’t actually feel very good!
I had expected to feel relieved of some negative aspects of my previous life and excited about building my new life, but everything was clouded over by feelings of missing so much of what I had left behind - teaching and making music, my friends and work colleagues, my apartment near a good jogging trail, and swimming in Ontario lakes during muggy summers.
And I missed myself.
I’d lost many of the people, places, and activities that anchored me in my role, my feelings of worth, and my direction. My external world changed quickly when I moved to Edmonton but I was becoming aware of an internal transition taking place that was less defined and on a different schedule that I had little control over. I remember jogging on a new trail when I first arrived and stopping to look at a map that had a big red dot with a “You are here” label on it to help you orient yourself to the map. As I continued jogging down the trail I thought, “ What does that mean?
“You are HERE.” My BODY was there, standing in front of the map in Edmonton, but my heart was definitely still planted in Ontario relationships and my mind was bouncing back and forth between the two as I tried to adapt my skills, confidence, and ways of being from my previous life into what was called for in my present life.
William Bridges in Managing Transitions (1991) explores the concept of transition being an internal process, part of change but not the same as change. Transitions follow a separate schedule from external change and usually take much longer because they involve our selves adapting in various ways.
We often don’t expect this and it can be disorienting, sometimes leading to doubting ourselves, thinking that if we were just stronger or smarter we would be charging ahead feeling great instead of saying things like, “I’m in a fog… I can’t figure out which end is up… I’ve lost my bearings…. I feel lost…I just can’t get my feet on the ground,”
Bridges describes the three stages of internal transition that accompanies change as follows:
Ending, losing, letting go – accompanied by feelings of denial, sadness, anger, fear, loss, disorientation, disengagement, distancing
The neutral zone – feelings of disorientation, anxiety about identity/role, resentment towards the change, searching for direction,
New Beginning - taking hold of the new with more confidence, energy, and openness to learning.
If we are able to locate ourselves in this process (and just like grief, the stages of this process might overlap with each other and not progress in a linear fashion) it can help us stay the course and feel less overwhelmed and discouraged during the disorientation stage of transition. It’s similar to a doctor warning you of possible dizziness and bleeding after surgery. When you experience dizziness and bleeding the next day, you don’t think you are dying, you wait it out knowing it is part of the expected side effects.
When changes are forced on us, it’s often easier to understand that there will be disorientation and often a longer struggle with the first stage of loss. Someone who looses a loved one to death or separation can feel they don’t know who they are or how to live without that person. After a traumatic incident (assault, accident) a “safe” and familiar neighborhood can suddenly seem dangerous to the victim. After you’ve been let go from your job you feel confused about your life direction and abilities.
When changes are forced on us, it’s often easier to understand that there will be disorientation and often a longer struggle with the first stage of loss.
But people who choose changes, especially those they anticipate will be positive, such as getting married, having a baby, graduating, retiring, taking the perfect job or moving to a new house, are often surprised -- as I was in my Edmonton move -- to struggle with the emotional fog that is part of the transition.
Drastic changes like moving across the country or losing a spouse will obviously cause a significant emotional transition, but there are many more subtle changes that are regularly taking place in our lives without us even being aware. What alerts us to them is the feeling of disorientation that we can use as a marker to start locating ourselves in the process of change.
I heard lots of people in Victoria say in the last few weeks of August, “Was that summer? How can it be September already, we didn’t really have summer.” The seasons don’t feel right because summer wasn’t as hot and dry as usual, which meant less outdoor activities, shorter camping trips etc. People don’t feel like they’ve had their usual summer break so they are feeling weary heading into busy fall schedules and disoriented that they usually have more energy at this time of year. Some even feel regret, as if they should have figured out how to do things differently in summer so they would feel better now. But if they follow that disorientation back to its source they realize they are not to blame.
Often the most difficult changes lead to deep transformation and renewed hope for a more fulfilling future.
Climate change is the culprit and it is imposing subtle changes in our daily lives that we must adjust to. Disorientation can actually help us analyze our situation to discover what is changing, and be more informed about how to deal with the changes. In addition to understanding the stages of transition, here are some ways we can help ourselves through the transitions that come with change:
1. Find your version of “walking circles in the snow”. Reflect on what has remained the same in your life and in yourself to help you identify sign-posts of familiarity to ground you in the fog of disorientation. My reflective practice of walking circles in the snow (or sand here on the coast), using the sun to guide me, grounded me in my spiritual values that had remained the same throughout my changing life. You might reflect through journaling, taking a regular walk for “thinking time” or engaging in conversation with a therapist or a reflective friend.
2. Apply the same rules you do when driving in the fog:
Slow down! Be patient with yourself and remember that transitions have their own schedule. You can’t rush the emotional work.
Turn on the low beam headlights which illuminate the path right in front of you, not too far ahead which ends up blinding you. This means you need to focus on the step right in front of you, not take on the worry of all the possibilities of the future. You need to consciously acknowledge the small accomplishments of today, no matter how small.
Keep your focus on your own lane. It is tempting, but self-defeating, to compare yourself to others who appear to be handling similar changes with ease while you struggle. Each person’s internal transition is unique and it’s unfair to compare your internal experience with your perception of another person’s external experience.
Pull over when necessary. Take breaks when you can and build in transition time instead of leaving one job one day and arriving at the new job the next day.
3. Continue with habits and activities that were part of your previous life before the change (even if they are in a modified way because of new physical limitations or a new location). Continue your exercise routine, find a place in nature where you can walk and think, make or listen to music you like, and continue creative expressions and hobbies you enjoyed.
4. Stay connected with good people over your lifetime. Continue to talk to mentors and good friends, wherever they are, to help you through the transition. We have so many ways of staying in touch now. Moving doesn’t have to mean losing connection to loved ones, but you have to consciously make the effort.
5. Take time to explore your new life. See the transition as a time of learning, experimentation, and personal growth. No one likes finding themselves in the fog of transition, but stay the course, the fog won’t last forever (even here on the west coast). Often the most difficult changes lead to deep transformation and renewed hope for a more fulfilling future.
Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions: Making sense of life's changes. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Bridges, W. (1991). Managing transitions. Reading, MA: Perseus Books.