How to Navigate the Messy Middle
We are in the midst of major collective and personal upheaval. Here's how we can navigate through challenges for a brighter future.
All of us can relate to having life quakes — those defining moments that change our lives so significantly we describe time in terms of before or after.
Life pre-kids, after moving out of your parents house, or after a serious illness.
Bruce Feiler's recent research shows that most of us have a handful of these during our lives. What's valuable about how he outlines transitions is that they are not the same as disruptive events. Transitions are a process of adapting and growing that is often helpful following a major life disruption. It's a skill we can gain and improve upon as we continue to encounter change.
What about collective quakes? Like the depression, a world war, or a pandemic?
Right now we are in the midst of this kind of collective shake-up. Huge shifts forcing us to see with fresh eyes, feel different constraints, and reprioritize.
The pandemic kicked off our year of collective quaking. Quickly followed by a flurry of deadly violence against Black people awaking a massive shift in how we see and respond to racism. Many are working to be more aware of what systematic racism is and actively working on being anti-racist. But measurable changes in the form of policy or reduction in white supremecist activities remain elusive.
And there is more! Alarming examples of climate change are popping up. From record breaking fires in California to Canada's last ice shelf collapsing, our year of upheaval is peppered with reminders that climate change is present and growing more significant. The sky is orange and opaque in many states battling fires, making imagined climate change impacts feel real, present, and disturbing.
Collective and personal quakes are more intense
Many of us are experiencing personal quakes related to our collective quakes. Parents are being forced to reduce hours or leave jobs to facilitate virtual learning. Loved ones are getting ill and sometimes not getting better. Some communities are experiencing deep grief from violence against Black individuals and unrest following protests and counter protests calling for change.
So how can busy, multi-passionate people best navigate this collective and personal season of change?
Brené Brown recently talked about how we are in Day 2 — the "messy middle". We had our wave of firsts earlier in the year and are now in the middle of actually figuring it out. It's not fresh, it's full of tough learning and discomfort.
There are a few important aspects of being in the middle of change. We need to recognize and accept that there is no stepping back to the past.
More clearly: accept that things will never be able to be as they were before.
This is echoed in Bruce Feiler's book as well — times of transition require us to say goodbye to the past. This doesn't always happen first, and can often become more obvious in the "messy middle". In some ways it's realized from a rising tension from some part of us still clinging to past ideas and expectations of how life should be.
Because change can be so disorienting, it can feel hard to understand where you are now and what you are even saying goodbye to from the past. We've developed a simple guide to help!
Grab a free downloadable Messy Middle Guide here.
The point of these prompts isn't to race you to the end. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we all have to sit in discomfort in order to learn new and better ways to live in light of major life changes. These prompts simply help become more aware of what has changed, where you are now, and help you imagine the possibilities of a better future.
The tension of now
Grieving the past and imagining the future are two parts we have to hold in tension during the messy middle.
What are some useful things to keep in mind while navigating this tension?
Psychologist Jordan Litman categorized two kinds of curiosity — the kind that is a joyful exploration and the deficit-bound fact finding. Joyful exploration is an intrinsically rewarding process, making for a more enjoyable journey. Deficit-bound fact finding has a problem searching for a solution.
Considering we don't yet know the destination, curiosity as a joyful exploration is ideal for unearthing unknown possibilities. We also know that when the process of behavior change is enjoyable, we are more likely to make change happen.
However the reality is that some life and collective quakes don't lend themselves to joy. There is real pain from the past. I think Dr. Brené Brown's most recent podcast featuring Dr. Scott Sonenshein beautifully addresses growing through times of constraint and stress.
The biggest takeaway for our current: adapting to stressors and being more connected to what is really important is where growth can happen.
This doesn't excuse or affirm the quakes that are happening — it gives us some hope that amidst this we may be able to find better ways to personally and collectively live.
It's hard to not dwell on how things used to be, for better or worse. Or just hope for a different future. But staying present and focused on what's in front of your for the day can help keep you moving forward.
Think about how you want to feel at the end of the day today. What are things you can do today to help you feel that way? Are there actions in alignment with your values, goals, or priorities? To make sure you don't just think about future experiments, start today. And when you break down actions into something you can try and evaluate within a day makes it easier to repeat.
When we practice acts of generosity with our friends and family, we are creating seeds of change for everyone.
If you want to get nerdy for a minute, there are many studies that point to the benefits of offering social support for others. For example, one study showed that when we give to others there are neurobiological feedbacks to the parts of the brain that manage stress, reward, and caregiving.
What was their extremely quotable conclusion?
Being generous with ourselves can go well outside of trendy ideas about "self-care", which have their value. During personal and collective upheaval self-compassion meets this moment in a more meaningful way. It includes self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. Dr. Neff, an active researcher and practitioner, is a great resource for exploring how to practice these three elements of self-compassion.
If we are concerned about the planet and desire a climate positive future, a simple and useful habit to have is getting outside daily.
When we get outside everyday, especially when we feel stuck, we immediately disrupt our focus seeped within a specific environment. Even more, a large body of evidence shows us that being outside is good for our mental and physical health.
And as the saying goes: where your attention goes, energy flows. If we pay attention to trees, and butterflies, and our local creeks, we are more likely to invest time and energy into supporting our ecosystems.