Have you ever had your life turned upside down by something completely unexpected?
I can relate.
It reminds me of a trip I took to the islands of Malta and Gozo with my daughter a few years back, it was our first proper trip abroad. We created some wonderful memories that week and got to see some of the country’s many attractions.
And none so stunning as the Azure Window. A natural limestone arch standing at 28 metres tall, it was even more impressive up close.
Looking up as we rode a small boat through it that day, it felt like it would be there forever.
So imagine my surprise when barely 2 years later the Azure Window was no more.
Following heavy storms it had collapsed into the sea.
‘Heartbreaking.’ lamented the Maltese prime minister.
‘A sad day for Malta.’ some said.
‘A disaster!’ was the cry all around.
And isn’t that exactly what it feels like at times when you’re going through a life-changing experience? Especially when it’s unexpected or unwanted.
An important relationship in your life breaks down.
You’re fired from your job.
That ‘sure thing’ of a business venture collapses leaving you penniless.
Your life as you knew it changes overnight.
And yet, if you’ve lived long enough then you’ve learned this one thing.
Nothing lasts forever.
People leave, friends and lovers. Some you’ve shared your deepest thoughts with, others you’ve loved and wanted to hold on to forever. They sometimes drift away.
Look at your own life. Haven’t you changed?
Your job? Your location? Your desires?
Your circumstances are changing all the time.
Change is the one certainty in your life and yet it’s the thing you struggle with the most.
Why is it so hard?
Why does it feel like the end of the world when it happens?
When your world is falling apart
Something’s happened and your life is in chaos. It feels like your world is falling apart and in one sense that’s true. Something’s gone and you’re struggling to figure out who you are without it.
As human beings we cling to people, beliefs, material things and become attached to them. You’re struggling because at some point you started to identify with your job and your possessions. You defined yourself by the roles you played in your relationships.Your whole sense of who you were was rooted in them. Now you’ve lost those things and your identity as you knew it is gone.
William Bridges in his book ‘Transitions: making sense of life’s changes’ describes this as The Ending the first of three stages in the process of change.
Dealing with an ending can be difficult because there’s nothing in that moment to take its place. You’re literally looking out into a void and that understandably can be terrifying.
Embrace the emptiness
And yet it’s only by letting go of what used to be that you can begin to make room for something new. Your life appears to be falling apart, but what if it is really laying the foundation for something new? What if the emptiness of loss you feel is really an opportunity to explore?
Bridges calls this the Neutral Zone and its the second stage of change. It’s a strange and uncomfortable place because in the Neutral Zone you’re in limbo.The old reality is gone along with your identity as you knew it. You’re caught between old and new, battling to let go of the past while trying to look forward to the future.
That discomfort and pain can tempt you to rush in and fill it with something, anything, so that you don’t feel so horribly exposed. The key, however, is to stick with it.
As Bridges puts it: ‘The neutral zone is simply a temporary state of loss to be endured.’
So don’t resist. Instead, allow yourself to feel the uncertainty, anguish and disappointment.
Because if you’re open to it, in the neutral zone you will discover many things:
- That you can’t control everything and you can’t change the past. To fight that is to remain stuck.
- That holding onto the past is a sign that you’re afraid. Afraid that you will never feel that way again, that you’ll never again have a person or thing like that in your life.
- That you can’t depend on anyone or thing for your sense of worth, you’re worthy whether someone says so or not.
- That if you look deeply enough you can find something positive in your seemingly negative situation.You can look at the experience as not what you lost but what you gained.You can focus on what you have, what you’ve learned and the endless possibilities that the future holds.
- That you will lose things that matter to you. You will feel pain and there is no escape from it. The key is to acknowledge it, allow yourself to feel it, express it and then let it flow out of you. Don’t get stuck in it.
- And that time does indeed heal all wounds. You know that because when you think back to the painful experiences you’ve gone through before, you somehow survived. Deep down you know you will get through this too.
The neutral zone can be a time of growth and preparation for what is to come.
Turn your breakdown into a breakthrough
It was tough and at times you felt like giving up but you made it through the neutral zone. You’ve come out of it stronger and more resilient, you know that you are a survivor. You learned from your experiences and they’ve shaped you hopefully for the better.
That courage you gained has taught you how to take action in spite of fear. It’s taught you that you can create something new and exciting out of the ashes of what used to be.
But the funny thing is, the first day of your new life probably felt like any other day. There was no special sign or grand fanfare.
- Instead, it started when you came across a book that got you excited, you were buzzing with so many new ideas you wanted to explore.
- The seed was planted by a talk that inspired you to dream even bigger. It compelled you to get off your behind to take action.
- It came through an unexpected opportunity that opened up for you at work.
- It grew from a chance meeting with someone who turned out to be your future mate. You met at that new club you joined on a whim.
The Beginning (Bridges’ third and final stage of change) isn’t always obvious. It’s only when you look back that you realise and can pinpoint those moments and decisions that changed your way of thinking, your direction or totally transformed the course of your life.
Your future awaits — grab it
Yes, it’s often in hindsight that we realise our catastrophe wasn’t the end of the world. What seemed so terrible then makes sense now … looking back.
On that day in March, 2017 it seemed like disaster struck when the Azure Window crumbled into the sea. It had become part of the fabric of the country itself. What would Malta and Gozo be without it?
Yet barely a year later the location had been reinvented. It’s now one of the hottest dive sites in the Mediterranean. Some have even gone as far as saying its destruction was the best thing that could have happened to Malta.
Malta had somehow created a whole new identity.
It’s a reminder to us all that we never have the full picture. That sometimes on the flip side of ‘disaster’ is an untapped opportunity.
Maybe you’re going through a challenging time in your life right now and worry about how it will all turn out.
No one knows for sure. Only time will tell.
But accepting that doesn’t mean being a victim to your circumstances. What you can control is how you choose to react.
You can keep going knowing that however horrible it is right now, it won’t last forever.
You can trust that it will work out in the end.
You can refuse to spend your time and energy holding on to what used to be and what could have been.
You can choose to let that go and look forward with hope, anticipation and excitement instead.
And who knows, one day you may look back and think:
‘That was the best thing that could have happened to me.’