Figure it out.
Set some goals.
Get ‘er done.
During times of radical transformation, these phrases are part of a common narrative shaped by our capitalist patriarchal culture.
Uncomfortable with the unknown, with liminal space and with time that is spent “unproductively” in contemplation, grief or solitude, our society urges us, implicitly and explicitly, to get on with it. To move through change as though it were something to be tamed, managed, and exploited for “lessons learned” and upward mobility.
In fact, even beyond this cultural narrative, much of the research on life transition and adult development psychology tends to reinforce this linear path of progress “up and out” of the discomforts of transformation. (It’s not lost on me, also, that much of this research has been generated by and for old white guys).
In my work with women navigating radical transformations and modern-day rites of passage, I have come to learn that women “do” change uniquely, and in ways that haven’t been deeply explored or well-recognized by adult development psychologists, neuroscientists, mythologists and self-help gurus alike.
And these capitalist patriarchal narratives – both those that we hold internally and those that we are steeped in culturally – are not serving us.
In fact, I think they’re holding us back from the deep potential of radical life transformation.
There are three ways that I see this happening in my practice, and so I thought I would share them – and some new, rebelhearted narratives to explore – with you today, in the hopes that it might bring some awareness to your own process of life transition, perhaps offering you the opportunity to soften into what you’re experiencing with even more self-compassion.
1. You are an ecosystem, not a machine.
We humans are exquisitely complex, surrounded by a relational ecosystem of roles, responsibilities and realities that deeply influence the how, why, what and when of the changes we make – or that happen in our lives.
In other words: we don’t transform in a vacuum.
And so it is that you may want to quit your job, and you’ve also got two kids and a mortgage. You may be traversing a healing journey, and you’re also caregiving for your elderly parents. Your values have shifted, and you are also a member of a family or a community that really likes the old you.
Also, there’s an entire cultural and political ecosystem within which your life is transforming. You are navigating change in a pandemic, during Black Lives Matter and #metoo, on a planet that is slowly / not slowly being destroyed by human impact. Perhaps, in fact, like myself and so many of us, you are making change in your life because of these things.
All of this means that your process of transformation is relational – and it should be. In times past and places far away, radical life transformations and rites of passage weren’t about personal growth, they were about building community, by supporting people to become mature, wise adults that could lead with integrity. But because we’re so hardwired for individuality and progress, it can feel like all of these influences on our process of transformation are limiting. And yes, in many ways, they might make our process more complex and nuanced, and also: they are the root of our meaning-making system; they are what shapes who we are and what matters to us, not what takes us away from that.
2. You are worthy. Getting help doesn’t have to have an ROI you can bank.
The vast majority of my clients come to me wanting support for some kind of career transformation, regardless of all the other ways their lives might be changing too.
(This, in and of itself, is another form of internalized patriarchy which says: it’s okay to access coaching support for your career because working on bettering your career and finding your vocation is “worthy,” and because, let’s be honest, what if the coaching pays for itself? And so we give ourselves permission – or ask for permission from those we share investment decisions with – because we might be able to profit financially from the experience. And then we show up with goals that focus on that outcome – more on setting goals and how they’re often antithetical to the process of transformation in the next section!)
We start, like we almost always do, with creating a regular ritual of self-connection and self-tending. This is really uncomfortable for so many of my clients, because we’re taught that forward and upward motion in our lives comes from external action, not internal reflection.
What almost always happens next is my clients’ realization during their self-connection practice that this is not just a journey of career change. It’s very often also, or even mostly, a healing journey, or an untethering from long-held beliefs about worthiness and value from their family lineage, or a transformation in their health or their relationships or their self-care or their spirituality. For the people who show up with career goals, this usually feels like going backwards or getting off-track.
But then, without fail, as the process unfolds, with careful tending to the fullness of who they are and the complexity of the transformation they’re experiencing, my clients begin to find clarity and shape intentions for their career. It almost never looks the way they thought it would. And it almost always feels like coming home to themselves.
If it sounds gnarly, it’s because it is.
And if it sounds life changing, it’s because it is.
3. You can’t do your way through this.
So many of us try to “do” our way through change. We have internalized the belief that we just need to set better goals, or make better to-do lists and then find someone who can hold us accountable to them.
In truth, the vast majority of the women who come to me for coaching have absolutely no problem with setting goals and getting shit done. They are often good at it to a fault.
But deep, lasting transformation is not a change to the things you do. It’s a change to who you are. It’s a change to who you’re being, not what you’re doing.
And so it is that these women – and possibly you, too – don’t really need help with setting goals and then having someone check in on them in some kind of infantilizing accountability dance. They need support holding steady in the discomfort of not constantly doing and not always knowing. They need someone to remind them that they are still worthy even when they are not striving and hustling and achieving. They need permission to connect with their sense of inner knowing and inner authority rather than to defer to externally-defined expectations.
The truth is, when we try to bypass the discomfort of grieving or of liminal space, for example, and do our way through change, pushing forward at all costs, we either end up recreating the circumstances of our past, or plunging into What’s Next in a way that feels a lot like where you’ve just been – the wolf in sheep’s clothing of transformation, as it were.
There’s also a paradox at play when it comes to setting goals during the process of becoming. When it’s your very identity that is changing, then, by definition, in three months or six months or a year, you will no longer be the person you were when you set your goals. That’s why, when I work with clients, we take a developmental approach to transformation, which centres regular self-connection so that you are able to check in with how you feel about what is unfolding in your life. When we centre reconnection and reignite your sense of inner knowing, the path forward is always more authentic and in greater alignment with who you are and what matters most to you.
4. You’re going to go backwards, but there is no backwards.
Because your becoming doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and because it requires a great deal of being and sitting in the messiness of it all, the process of transformation is rarely as linear as we’d like it to be. I like to say it’s a spiral path, not a straight one. Just as we think we’re moving forward into What’s Next, we can become enveloped with grief for what is no longer. Or sometimes, the process of transformation begets more transformation and a seismic shift in one area your life can cause aftershocks throughout the rest of your reality. Seasons of your life – hello pandemic! – and of the year also deeply impact how we move through change.
One of my dear colleagues, birth educator Britta Bushnell, describes the “spiral path” of transformation like driving in a parking garage. You may spiral back around to a place that looks a lot like where you’ve just been, but you do so each time with just a little more awareness, just a little more resilience, and so you’re in fact on the “next level” of the parking garage, able to look down on where you’ve been with a bit more perspective.
And so it is that you might feel like you’re circling the drain, as it were, on your spiral path, but remember that there is no straight line between where you are and where you’re going: there’s a meandering path with detours that just might lead you to greater awareness, healing, and maybe even a little adventure along the way.