- Julius de Jong
How to embrace life’s continuous transitions (Episode 35-39)
Relax, and lean into our dynamic nature
‘Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture’ (Bridges, 2004). Transitions are a continuous and ever reemerging part of life. Transitions alter us, and/or our circumstances. Transitions, and change in general, can make us feel uncomfortable, and even scared. We are wired for seeking safety and predictability. Changes therefore are typically uncomfortable to us. Because changes mean that we don’t know how things will turn out. However, as in nature, everything is continuously changing. The stability we presume is an illusion. Therefore, personally, for as long as I can remember, I have been seeking out the unknown and the uncertain. Not knowing what will happen is very interesting to me. I am a very curious person, and uncertainty, turbulence and change are things I enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I too get anxious and nervous about not knowing how things will turn out or what will happen, but both curiosity on one hand, and trust in things turning out okay on the other, make this an enjoyable and rewarding experience, nonetheless. Most of the times… at least.
In fear of missing my deadline for this post, I reached out to some of the people I had previously interviewed. Ruth Gotian, with who I have talked about mentoring, recommended me to reach out to Michael Alcée. What I read and found about him resonated very much. Michael is a clinical psychologist from New York who has specialized himself in helping people navigate the continuous changes in their lives and themselves. For this, he taps into a wide range of resources. Creativity, improvisation, and play are essential parts of his approach to dealing with this. I was instantly intrigued, and grateful for the opportunity to explore the topic of dealing with change and transitions. Perhaps it was the surprise and newness of this so very actual and current topic that triggered my curiosity?
Three phases of transitions
All transitions include three phases: letting go of old patterns and ways, a “neutral zone”, and a new beginning (Bridges, 2004). This is important. Too often we hold on for dear life, instead of embracing the change. We need to be able to let go. We need to learn to become comfortable and familiar with the ever-changing nature of life, and ourselves. We need to be able to let go and move into the unknown. This is scary business, I know. However, without accepting (and embracing!) this fact of life, we are truly missing out and keeping ourselves small and stuck. According to William Bridges, most endings involve the following five “D’s”:
Disengagement. Separating yourself psychologically from the old status quo;
Dismantlement. Gradually changing your behavior patterns;
Disidentification. Letting go of your old identity or social role;
Disenchantment. Discovering the flaws in your assumptions about yourself or others;
Disorientation. Losing the motivation to pursue your former goals. The poet Robert Frost described this as becoming “lost enough to find yourself.”
The ending of something is important. I know that I at times have held on to the old for too long. Only when I actually was able to let go of the old, could I really engage with the new. It was often as if life was waiting for a moment. Then, when I finally made the leap into the unknow, the safe landing presented itself miraculously. However, that leap itself can feel extremely scary. After the ending, according to Bridges, and the letting go, we enter into a “neutral zone”. It’s like crossing a street. You can’t safely stay there too long, as you might get hit by passing traffic. You’re fragile, and at risk, and have to move quickly. However, we must make ourselves vulnerable and take risk to cross the road, or to jump into the unknown. This neutral zone can be scary. It can involve a disintegration of one’s personality. ‘It is frightening to discover that some part of us is still holding on to what we used to be, for it makes us wonder whether the change was a bad idea’ (Bridges, 2004). ‘Transitions always include a disconcerting sense of “in-betweenness’ (Bridges, 2004). The neutral zone can be a time of distress, confusion, emptiness, and loss. However, ‘[i]t’s [also] exciting when we don’t know the outcome of something. It can capture us fully. The unknown is exciting. Uncertainty engages us, and makes us feel spellbound’ (Schwartz, 2017). Therefore, ‘[w]hat we need as people is learning how to lean in and enjoy the […] changes rather than fear them […]. What we can make of them is really part of the joy living is all about’ (Alcée, 2022). Then, when we have given in, we can begin anew. From there, the cycle will repeat itself, inevitably.
Uncertainty, curiosity, creativity and happiness
Although we seek stability and predictability, we also seek novelty and surprise. Some more than others, but it is always an important element to our wellbeing, I believe. We don’t do well being stuck in a rut. Mel Schwartz wrote about this: ‘Over the years of my working with people in therapy and facilitating workshops, it has become clear to me that our attachment to certainty can have debilitating consequences. I have encountered so many people whose struggles with anxiety and depression are caused by being overly wed to certainty. [T]he greater our dependence on predictability, the more we experience anxiety’ (Schwartz, 2017).
Studies have shown that we are particularly curious when uncertainty is high. Also, ‘[c]reativity thrives on surprise. But it’s a surprise that’s enjoyable and safe and not too shocking. When surprise is shocking it becomes traumatic’ (Alcée, 2022). Delight and surprise are what triggers creative imagination. There is a paradox to this, as shared Michael during our talk, as creativity also triggers a feeling of loss (Alcée, 2022). This then is related to why we do not like changes, or why they at times make us feel anxious. ‘There is a big part of us that likes to know who we are and where we are and doesn’t like to lose that. We love and crave variety, but we also love stability’ (Alcée, 2022). A study in Nature by Van Lieshout, de Lange and Cools found that uncertainty increases curiosity, but decreases happiness. They found that ‘Curiosity increased with outcome uncertainty, irrespective of whether the outcome represented a monetary gain or loss. By contrast, happiness decreased with higher outcome uncertainty’ (Van Lieshout, de Lange and Cools, 2021). What I believe this tells us perhaps, is that when we experience chance and change, we aim to maximize information, hence our curiosity is triggered. More information means less uncertainty. However, I personally am not sure if that alone would result in happiness. Perhaps more, it’s about the perspective we hold. Changes are not problems, but instead are opportunities. To illustrate this further, ‘[c]onsider the word uncertain. Does it evoke a neutral, negative, or positive feeling? I believe that for most of us the answer is negative. “I feel uncertain about my future” should imply the possibility of a positive future as easily as a negative one, but ordinarily that statement would be seen as expressing fear or anxiety about what’s to come.’ (Schwartz, 2017).
Thus, whether we are experiencing happiness or not, due to perceived stability or uncertainty, in the end it is all a matter of perspective. Following the premise that all is connected, when ‘we are not separate from what we are looking at, we must be open to the consideration that our consciousness—informed by our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings—impacts and therefore alters what we are observing’ (Schwartz, 2017). Whether the glass is half full, or half empty makes all the difference as to how we perceive the world around us. In the end, it is up to us. The same is true for how we experience transition, change, and uncertainty. Therefore, transitions in their majority are internal reorientations. ‘They are primarily psychological in nature and require adapting emotionally to new circumstances’ (Bridges, 2004).
We’re changing all the time
In Michael’s upcoming book ‘Therapeutic Improvisation: How to Stop Winging It and Own It as a Therapist’, of which he has been generous in trusted me with the manuscript prior to publication, Michael fittingly starts the introduction with a quote from jazz musician Charles Mingus, who said, ‘In my music, I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time’. I think this is very much fitting to life, at least from my own experience. We’re changing, growing, learning, and transitioning all the time, yet at the same time, we’re expected by society to be consistent. This contradiction results in tension. Society teaches us we need to be consistent. If we change our opinion, we’re flakey. Yet in nature, everything continuously changes and evolves. This is a part of growth. However, for some reason, for our minds, personality, habits, and connections, this often seems like a somewhat unnatural process. As mentioned before, we’re expected to be consistent, which in my view is in part a limiting trait. Through being dynamic, evolving, we can grow as nature does. Michael illustrated this contradiction greatly during our talk where he shared about a conversation he had with an astrophysicist whom had told him; ‘“Mike, when you look at that table right there, it looks totally solid. But physics tell us that it’s constantly in motion. But even though its constantly in motion, we have to perceive it as if it’s stable”’ (Alcée, 2022). ‘It’s the same with psychology; we do need a sense of stability and order. I can rely on myself, and rely on some core, which is important. But it turns out, the core comes from being aware and in touch with how dynamic we are’ (Alcée, 2022). ‘We’re built to be contractionary’ (Alcée, 2022). Our left and right brain function completely different, but ‘together they create dimension’ as Michael beautifully said during our talk. One of our key challenges is recognizing we are such dynamic and multifaceted beings, who are changing all the time.
Creative expression of ourselves and our experiences
To grow as individuals and as the persons we are evolving into, we need to be able to experiment, experience, and express freely. I believe this to be an essential part of becoming ourselves. This means we need to feel safe, free from judgement both from others and ourselves, and have a space where we can explore different versions of ourselves. During my talk with Michael Alcée, we came to talk about the universal human need for wanting to be seen and heard. Michael mentioned an interesting angle to this, namely that we have different sides of ourselves which are surfacing to be expressed and explored, and to be heard and seen. A lot of the conflicts, anxieties and issues Michael sees as a therapist with his clients are often because sides of self aren’t adequately witnessed and heard (Alcée, 2022). This is such an interesting thing to me, as not being able to experiment safely with different sides of us inevitably results in some form of tension I imagine. Often, we push these parts away because we judge ourselves for it, or because it doesn’t fit with our environments. However, until we allow these sides to be seen and heard, we cannot become our whole self. Michael makes the fitting analogy with musicians. They don’t avoid dissonance – the lack of harmony between the notes – but embrace it and make music out of it. ‘It’s the back and forth between dissonance and consonance that makes a beautiful composition’ (Alcée, 2022).
The importance of witnessing
‘In order to fully become ourselves, we have to be seen by another’ (Alcée, 2022). Many times, we confuse witnessing with agreeing. But this is not the case. Empathy is not endorsement. We can witness someone who has a different opinion. Hearing them out, and understanding their motivations and reasoning is often a very good thing as it expands our perspectives and for the other person to play with their experiences and what they are expressing. Not all we say is carved in stone. I know I have said things realizing that those things weren’t what I was or am about by actually saying them out loud. When we witness, we do not endorse or support. Actually, it allows us to become more critical constructively (Alcée, 2022).
The process of witnessing and being witnessed is very important for us when processing experiences or exploring different sides of ourselves. When I talked to Michael Kolb, discussing honesty, he mentioned the importance of expressing freely and radically honest. Not to prove a point, and not to convince someone or make them wrong, but instead to just express the experience and get over it. I believe the same is true for this process of finding ourselves and transitioning through different ways of being. Similarly, we have to make the mistakes in order to learn. We have to be in a certain way, experience how it feels and how it makes other people feel, to know if that’s how we want to be or not. That, we can’t do theorizing in our heads. I don’t believe it. A very personal example of this has been the experience of freedom I’ve enjoyed in terms of travel, work, relationships, and all kinds of creative experimentations. Having experienced these, I now feel I am transitioning into another phase of life, and also into another phase of who I am, and want to be, as a person.
Our dynamic nature
As children, we have the natural ability of dynamic change and play. Children can switch quickly between roles and scenarios while playing. Switching is part of the joy of play. As an adult, we can reclaim this childhood improvisation and embrace it. Similarly, this is about merging the beginners mind with the expert’s mind. Both are valuable, and both expand on the other. In life, we toggle back and forth between in-depth engagement on the one side, and exploration and imagination on the other side. Instead of censoring these creative and dynamic sides of ourselves, we need to learn to trust them and their wisdom as argues Michael accurately. We are not fixed creatures with static identities. We change and evolve over time and through our experiences and from what we observe and learn. ‘We [therefore] need to shift from concepts of fixed identity to a vision of process. Rather than taking a frozen snapshot of our identity, we should embrace an unfolding sense of self that has us perpetually reframing, recrafting, and rethinking ourselves and our experiences’ (Schwartz, 2017). We do well then to focus instead on becoming. Trusting, and relaxing. Throughout this 39 Ideas for Life project, I have kept seeing the importance of relaxing, letting go and releasing of tension. Maybe I am biased, but I truly believe that a big key to happiness, achievement, love, and lasting growth lies in the ability to relax and let go and relax. When we relax, we can see things for what they are, without judgement. Then, we can also see the dynamic nature of ourselves, and others while embracing experimentation and creativity.
Refrain from judgment
It serves us very well to refrain from judging the experimental and creative side of ourselves. Society rewards conformity and predictability. However, it’s the dynamic and creative part of us that leads to innovation, advancement, and growth. Allowing ourselves, free from judgement, to experiment and explore is therefore critical. We have all different sides to ourselves, and I believe we do very well in exploring them and learning from those experiences. In the end, it will make us a more whole and complete human being. Exploring these different sides of ourselves, without judgement, in the end allows us to make better and more educated decisions about life, ourselves, our relationships and who we want to be.
A third place
During our talk, Michael explained that we apart from this dynamic nature, we also have a core to our being. The more we explore, the more articulate our core will become. Then it is not a reflection of those around us, but instead it becomes the center median of our dynamic nature. Once we can realize we are both dynamic and have a core, we can reach a third place where we can embrace both. By freely expressing and being, we can become aware of what is central at our core. This is through expression and experience, and becomes very well discernable. ‘It’s a lot like riding a bike; you get a sense of stability from motion’ (Alcée, 2022). The third place is where we can appreciate and perceive both sides of ourselves. Our dynamic nature and our core. It’s the place where these sides of us meet. Referring to the works of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, Pablo Neruda, Virginia Woolf, and Walt Whitman, ‘writers and poets have seen that we are built with this polyphonic self; these many different selves all operating at the same time’ (Alcée, 2022). Instead of seeing this as a problem, it is really a very interesting creative opportunity as Michael argues. I have to agree. This, even more, makes people so interesting. Then, the dynamic nature of our beings can allow us to fall in love over and over again with our partner if we can remain present and deal with the uncertainty, and permanence, of change. ‘We’re all built like this’ (Alcée, 2022).
‘As we grow up, parents, teachers, friends, the experiences with them either support different sides of us or they inhibit or even shame different sides of us. Because of this, we lean on certain aspects of self, versus others’ (Alcée, 2022). Because of this we start to priorities parts of ourselves that are more accepted, and feel more like “good me”, and neglect the parts that feel like “bad me”, as perceived by those around us. The most difficult part is when something starts to feel like “not me”, as this part feels so embarrassing or shameful, that we refrain from even being able to talk about it with ourselves (Alcée, 2022). We could then argue that there is our core, our dynamic and creative selves, that third place which brings them together, and even a fourth place which is induced and influenced by what those around us expect us to be and is deemed acceptable. When we can integrate both the dynamic and core parts of ourselves, in spite of what is societally accepted, we can truly develop creativity and embrace the dynamic nature of our being without shame and fear of judgement. When those sides of us can interact freely, something interesting emerges, blending both the known, and the unknown. The third place is where we can tap into the power of these paradoxical qualities, we carry with us as human beings, free from shame and the judgment from ourselves and people around us.
Differentiating between your own and another’s process
‘We are sophisticated emotion regulation machines’ (Alcée, 2022). Or at least, we’re trying to be. Either way, we are highly empathetic beings. ‘We are built to empathize extraordinarily, so much so even that we might not even realize it’ (Alcée, 2022). When someone else is sad, it is easy for us to become sad too. Both on an emotional but also neurological level. Hence, we are like chameleons, taking on the colors of those around us. Hence, it becomes important to stay present and recognize what is our own experience, and what we are internalizing. This can be confusing at times, when it is hard to differentiate between what is our own, and what is them. One of the big things for dealing with this according to Michael Alcée, is to really learn about what is happening inside of us when the different parts of us are being summoned, but also at the same time noticing what characters in them are being summoned at the same time (Alcée, 2022). In distinguishing here, we can reach the beforementioned third place, where we observe, as objectively as possible, what is ours and what is someone else’s, and what of that other person is truly her own, or perhaps induced by emotion or the moment. It helps with this process to be curious about how our emotions, and those of the people we interact with, influence our focus, state of mind, and what we (and they) are showing tot the world. ‘We are like chemical reactions with each other’ (Alcée, 2022). It is important to cultivate awareness of this, and remain constructive and critical in our thinking. Question thinking, as outlined in the book of Marilee Adams can be very useful for this.
We need each other
We are independent internally with our right- and left brain. ‘So too are we interpersonally interdependent’ (Alcée, 2022). We have to give and take and help each other find their voice. Through taking turns giving and receiving, together we create a third thing, over and over again, in a dynamic fashion. It’s in this space in between where creation happens and where creativity resides. This too is true within ourselves, between our before mentioned core, and the dynamic every changing and evolving self. ‘We are such creative beings, and we can tap into this transcendence by learning about this’ (Alcée, 2022).
Staying intentional, and unite our left and right brain
How can we continue to stay intentional while being improvisatory and creative at the same time? ’In order to be found, you have to partially get lost’ (Alcée, 2022). Thus, we need to trust and allow ourselves to get lost enough so that we find new things, and new parts about ourselves. In this process, it is an exchange between our creative right brain, and the structured left side who categorizes and finds structure in our newfound inspiration. We need both sides. We want to both locate and familiarize the strange, while at the same time appreciating the mystery of it (Alcée, 2022). ‘We want to be equal partners between our right and left brain’ (Alcée, 2022). The left brain we are pattern makers, creating structures. We have to lean into that just as much as we do in letting go and surrendering based on our right brain thinking. Sizing up and figuring out, ‘there is the discerning quality that is wisdom’ (Alcée, 2022). We can trust in both sides of ourselves.
Relax! …and give into change and transition, over, and over again
‘The fear of change roots many of us to fixed attachment to our identity’ (Schwartz, 2017). I too catch myself doing that at times. When I wake up to this realization, allow myself to relax, and lean into the unknown, I am able to start the process again. Let go, arrive in what William Bridges referred to as the “neutral zone”, and finally, begin anew, discovering yet another part of myself, and those around, again and again. I love it!
Image: Transition, print by Helena Wierzbicki.
Life is continuously changing. We are continuously changing. This makes being and staying ourselves challenging from time to time. To learn about dealing with life’s continuous transitions and the essential ingredient of creativity for this process, I have talked to Michael Alcée, a clinical psychologist from New York.
Michael has specialized himself in helping people navigating the continuous changes within their lives and themselves, while tapping into a wide range of resources for this process. Creativity, improvisation, and play are essential for this process. Michael is also the author of the book ‘Therapeutic Improvisation: How to Stop Winging It and Own It as a Therapist’, which will launch on May 17 of this year.
It was an absolute pleasure talking to Michael; he taps from a rich tapestry of sources and disciplines and has a keen understanding about how we function, and how we’re such dynamic beings. In case you want to make better sense of your sometimes confusing and multifaceted self, you’ll definitely appreciate this talk. Enjoy!
Website of Michael Alcée: https://michaelalcee.com
Adams, Marilee, 2016, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 12 Powerful Tools for Leadership, Coaching, and Life. https://amzn.to/3rOAOjR
Alcée, Michael, 2022, Therapeutic Improvisation: How to Stop Winging It and Own It as a Therapist. https://amzn.to/3OFtrFk
Bridges, William, 2004, Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. https://amzn.to/3Lf7URn
Comstock, Beth, 2018, Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change. https://amzn.to/3EK7EaN
Hodgson, Philip and Randall White, 2001, Relax, It's Only Uncertainty: Lead the Way When the Way is Changing. https://amzn.to/3Ljq3xv
Markel, Adam, 2022, Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-term Resilience. https://amzn.to/3EIIdq9
Schwartz, Mel, 2017, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live, and Love. https://amzn.to/3kdSDV8
Van Lieshout, Lieke, Floris de Lange and Roshan Cools, Uncertainty Increases Curiosity, But Decreases Happiness. Scientific Reports 11, 14014 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-93464-6