I have been absent for some time from this blog, in large part because I have been consumed for the past several months with holding space for people going through big changes in their lives.
This has not been easy. Holding space for change never is.
What has been confusing and confounding to me in this process is WHY I've struggled so much with what I'm doing. Helping people who are in the midst of a change is the core of my work. I've been doing it for years. Why has it suddenly become harder somehow?
This morning I ran across a fantastic article by Heather Plett on holding liminal space. She perfectly describes why things are shifting for me now and it helped several things click into place.
Change in a "Professional" Context
Most of what I do is connected to helping people navigate changes in career and work. In the "professional" realm, we are very task-focused. What actions do I need to take? What is on my "to-do" list? How do I make and implement the right plan?
So we approach professional transitions from a place of wanting to know what we should DO and tend to constantly search for the RIGHT ACTION to take us toward our goals. We may pay some lip service to the emotions that go with these transitions, but we don't tend to spend a lot of time on the emotional aspect because to be "professional" is to have control of our emotions, especially any emotions that threaten to become "messy."
In the work I'm doing with long-term unemployed individuals (unemployed for more than 6 months), this plays out as an obsessive focus on revising the resume, creating a great LinkedIn profile, finding the hiring manager, etc.
In the work I'm doing with startup entrepreneurs (many of whom are also long-term unemployed), they are consumed with creating a website, marketing to customers, getting that first deal in the door.
There is a place for action, no doubt, and I spend a lot of time helping people figure out the right actions to take. There are ways to conduct a job search that are more or less likely to result in success and I can share those. There are ways to start up a business that are more or less effective and I can also share information about that.
But this is where I've been experiencing the challenge.
I'm sharing the information, showing people the "right ways" to do things, but many people are still stuck.
I've encountered this before, of course, and I've certainly worked with people's emotions about change. But the sheer volume of people I'm encountering who struggle with being stuck has forced me to really dig more deeply into what's going on.
Change vs. CHANGE
What I'm realizing is that there's change and then there's CHANGE. And what qualifies as "change" (with a lower-case "c") and what qualifies as CHANGE really has to do with whether or not this is puts someone in a "liminal" space.
As Heather describes it in her post:
Liminal originates from the Latin word “limen” which means “a threshold”. In anthropology, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.” (from Wikipedia)
A liminal space, then, is a period in which something (social hierarchy, culture, belief, tradition, identity, etc.) has been dissolved and a new thing has not yet emerged to take its place. It’s that period of uncertainty, ambiguity, restlessness, fear, discomfort, and anguish. It’s the space between, when a trapeze artist let’s go of one swing and doesn’t yet know whether she’ll be able to reach the other swing. There is nothing shallow about liminal space.
In the article Grieving as Sacred Space, Richard Rohr describes liminal space as “…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. It is no fun.”
The people who struggle the most to implement their plans are dealing with a liminal CHANGE. They are moving in some very deep ways into the unknown (often against their will) and they don't yet know where they are going to land.
But because this change is happening in a professional context, there is less recognition of the nature of this change and fewer resources to help address it. We understand on some level that the death of a loved one or a divorce or even getting married are liminal events and we make some space for emotions in the personal realm. But in the professional realm, I find that we have less awareness of and compassion for liminal experiences.
Here's why. Liminal transitions are deep and gut-wrenching. They push our personal buttons and often bring out our most feared emotions. They bring us face to face with our own raw vulnerability, self-doubt, fear, shame and rage. We are also confronted with our own dreams for ourselves and whether or not we have the willingness to make hard choices.
Liminal changes make us seriously question who we are and what we value. They challenge our marriages, our friendships, our role in our families and even our role in our communities and the culture at large.
How do you go through this kind of transition and remain "professional"? You don't. You can't.
Liminal transitions are by there very nature messy and emotional, so pretending that this change is simply about having the right resume or creating a good business plan is ludicrous and damaging. It leaves people isolated and alone and believing that there's something wrong with THEM because they can't just move forward.
Liminal transitions are about a changing sense of self and anytime we must change our identities in deep ways, we are bound to resist and to struggle. We will always have messy emotions. It is the nature of the beast.
So now I find myself intensely engaged with looking for ways to acknowledge these liminal changes in a work setting and for ways to support people in a deeper way as they travel through this space. I feel that we're doing tremendous damage to people when we fail to address the fact that liminal transitions are qualitatively different from other kinds of change and our insistence on keeping work-related changes "professional," is a big problem.
I'm playing with some different ideas for working with these issues that I'll be sharing in the coming weeks, but also would love your input and thoughts on this topic.