“The only constant is change” – a well-used cliché, and of course, the reason it sticks around is that there is an element of truth in it. Yet at the same time there is the stuff we get used to, become comfortable with and describe as ‘normal’. As human beings we are hugely resilient and adaptable to change. The famous, and equally cliched, quote from Darwin “It’s not the strongest or fittest that survives but the one most adaptable to change” again highlights a truth that is part of the human experience.
So how can we manage the sense of change that this pandemic brings and rapidly adapt to whatever will become our new normal?
There are many transitions we face throughout our life, many we actively choose, some are chosen for us. There is no doubt that a sense of agency or control often makes the transition easier, but we don’t always have that luxury. What we are facing right now is seismic change – no one chose it, no one wanted it and the repercussions from it will be significant on a personal and societal level. Where we do have some potential for control is how we chose to deal with it and perhaps, what shape the world on the other side will look like.
I have studied transition and identity shift for over ten years.The main reason for picking it as a topic of research was primarily to make sense of my own transition out of the world of sport. What I have learned along the way has definitely helped make sense of what is happening around me and has accelerated my capacity to adapt.
Lacrosse was my sport of choice, but it came to represent much more than a game I played at the weekend. From a Maslow perspective it became the environment where I was able to find the answer to all my needs. My sense of ‘self’ became consumed within an identity I created for myself as ‘athlete’ and ‘lacrosse player’. And it served me well, I found success and importantly, a sense of purpose and meaning. It was the foundation for my work, my relationships and allowed me to grow not just as an athlete but as a human being, taking on different roles such as captain and coach.
Yet the time came to step away from lacrosse, missing out on selection for the World Games in 1994 was a chance to re-evaluate and consider what else I wanted to do beyond being ‘lacrosse player’. So, I travelled, took up new sports, started new jobs, formed new relationships but somehow my identity still remained anchored to lacrosse.
I didn’t recognise it then but there was something missing, something that I was searching for that I’d lost when I stopped playing. And because I didn’t know what I was looking for I was chasing around without much direction. I thought what I had given up was the training and the commitment to a team. Rather than finding the freedom I was looking for I was left without access to some of those fundamental needs.
It was only through looking deeply at what was missing that I began to realise that the route back to a fulfilled sense of self was going to require a very different approach. I had been lucky that the single environment of sport had given me almost everything I needed – connection to others, a sense of belonging and purpose as well as the recognition and status rewards of being good at something.
There were also deeper needs, those things that were difficult to admit. The search for mastery had, in some way been fuelled by trying to address deficiencies in my own self-esteem – success was a means of external validation and recognition, two things that I struggled to find within myself. I have written before about the sense of ‘not enough’, the pursuit of excellence had been a way trying to address this.
Armed with a greater awareness of what those needs were, I recognised that there were different opportunities ahead that would allow me to deal with these transitions whenever they arose.
One realisation was that it would be unlikely that any single environment would provide me with all those needs in one place. I began to think of my needs as buckets that needed filling. Once I had named that bucket and figured out how big it was, I would begin to look for different places to top them up. Sport could still play a vital role but there was a need to look elsewhere into different environments. This was a chance to embrace new worlds and discover new ways to gain the sustenance I needed.
The other, more difficult, journey was to see how I could use my own internal resources to fill some of those buckets. This wasn’t about total self-sufficiency but there was definitely some work to do. Searching outside of yourself for external validation can be exhausting – it often doesn’t come at the time or in the quantity you need it the most. Yet becoming my own source of validation and recognition was, at first, a significant challenge. Fighting against old habits and beliefs takes effort, facing some of my own demons has been tough at times. What it helped me to see was that I was often the thing that was actually causing those buckets to empty. Softening my own self-critical voice was the first step to becoming more internally resourceful.
What all of this does is provide a more effective mechanism for navigating change. I am much more able to identify my own specific needs and much better equipped to recognise which buckets are running empty. I am more capable of being kind to myself, more willing to ask for help when I know that I need it and more likely to know where to look to replenish what is missing.
If we are going to successfully transition through this pandemic then it will help to understand the specific things we need, recognise how much we already have and then look at how, together, we create an environment that can truly nurture us.