Disruption is an incredible invitation. I know, I know. That statement sounds so Pollyann-ish with its sentiment of transforming upheaval into goodness. But stay with me.
I’ve conducted a decade’s worth of research on what happens to adults when things go upside down in our lives. For example, I talked with Jacob, a single biotech salesperson who struggled to make sense of the world after an unexpected job loss coincided with the departure of his long-time significant other. And Arushi, whose world felt upside down when her husband’s job loss created an urgent need for her to reenter the workforce after a 15-year absence. And Irene, a mid-40s mother of twins who was overjoyed to be getting remarried. Their words and those of hundreds of others convinced me that we as a society might be missing something — something important during moments of upheaval. As it turns out, disruption represents an invitation we too often overlook.
What is a disruption? We use the term to describe all manner of occurrences, from a traffic jam on the way to work to one’s spouse announcing they’re done with the marriage. Disruptions are breaks in the normal course.
Of course, not all disruptions are equal. Some disruptions — what I call gateway disruptions — deserve our full attention.
Gateway disruptions are characterized in two ways: those that impact our thinking about who we are, and those that influence our normal or baseline functioning. Seema, a 32-year-old banker and overall energetic type-A finance major from Georgetown talked with me about the time when her sense of who she was became dislodged.
It started with a call from her mother who announced she had breast cancer.
The news was shocking and disorienting. Immediately in its wake, Seema was pulled in opposing directions. She wanted to help her mother during her treatment, and she wanted to deliver on the unrelenting demands of her career. Her inability to resolve this conflict led her to question assumptions about who she was that she’d carried since high school. Was it so important to work around the clock to make another buck for the firm? She wondered.
Seema said, “I was most surprised at how scared I was to even envision something else for me because of my traditional way of being. I had no idea what the right move was. I felt like I was smothering. I had a recurring sense of anxiety, fear and self-doubt.”
Many of us land moments like Seema’s even though the circumstances that get us there differ.
My research revealed three no-nonsense steps to convert unsettling moments of disruption and instability in our lives into possibility.
1. Adopt new context and vocabulary
Two important terms are at play in moments when our connection to our sense of self gets buffeted — change and transition. Society teaches us to use these terms interchangeably even though they hold different meanings at such unsettling times.
Changes occur when we alter particulars. We land a new job. We find a new apartment. Or we adopt new habits. At the outset of a change process, we can articulate our desired outcome. For example, if we want a new job, we may not be able to exactly name our new employer, but we know our target role and the type of employer that offers such an opportunity. When we opt for change, we maintain our self-concept and make variations in particulars.
Transitions involve unknown outcomes related to our thinking about who we are. They typically occur when there’s a shift in what holds value and meaning to us. They invite us to re-examine the assumptions upon which we anchor our self-concept. With transition, we embark on a journey to update, refine, and expand the assumptions upon which we rely to set our expectations and definition for who we are.
We often make changes hoping for a transition. Both change and transition invite an intense emotional reaction — common when we decouple from familiar parts of our identity.
2. Get beyond emotional obstacles
Part of my research involved inviting 80 individuals to join me in testing techniques that could support someone experiencing bouts of depression after leaving a beloved career. We found that folks benefitted from two simple steps related to reframing emotions.
First, we asked group members to name the emotions they experienced. Naming took different forms for everyone — some shouted their emotions out loud, others wrote them down, still others hit record on their phones to keep a running tally.
By naming our emotions, we elevate and honor them. We make our experience of emotions worthy of space and time.
We also asked participants to bring their awareness to the meaning that they reflexively overlaid on their emotions. I was great at this one. When I lost my connection to the work I’d immersed myself in for nearly 25 years, I instantly thought, “What’s wrong with me?”
By asking group members to bring their awareness to this reflexive action of applying meaning, we created space between them and their emotions. That space is critical because it begins to establish a new relationship between myself and my emotions — one that lessons an emotion’s power over me.
For example, as I became aware of asking, “What’s wrong with me?”, I could slow down my thinking and ask myself new questions like, “How long have I been feeling anxious? Is this time different from the last time I felt this way? What would happen if I replaced anxiety with hopefulness?”
These two straightforward steps help reset our energy, a precursor to imagining what is next for us.
3. Recast your narrative
When the future appears to be a completely blank slate, how do we come up with an idea for what’s next if we have none? The most reliable technique to envision our future involves recasting our own story.
Our society conditions us to use chronology as the architecture of our stories. At the crossroads of our lives, however, we need to step away from this conditioning and switch to a new architecture, one that relies on those things that hold value and meaning to us. This technique helps us discover threads that can fill in a blank slate.
To use this technique, imagine that I asked you to reach out your hand and introduce yourself to me for the first time. Once finished, I would ask you to redo your introduction, only this time I’d ask you to rely on a values-based architecture for your story.
For example, my chronological introduction might be that I attended the Harvard Business School, became a founder and CEO of a venture capital backed company, joined as the EVP of HR and Administration at a Fortune 500 global business, and pivoted to advocate and write about a new way of thinking about the crossroads of our lives.
If I used a value-based introduction, I would say, “I’ve always been motivated by the concept of ‘being seen.’ I endeavor to help others be seen for who they are and it’s a throughline for my own life and career. I work with those at the crossroads, offering techniques so that they can ‘be seen’ in all the circumstances of their lives.”
By adopting new vocabulary and context, reframing emotions, and relying on a new narrative architecture, we can transform moments of uncertainty about who we are into enlivening and expansive opportunities to turn up the volume on our truth.