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Progressing home or personal reflections on change

After 14 years in New Zealand, the US and a brief time in Singapore, I decided to move back to Germany last month.

To say it has been a small undertaking, would be a lie. For the past nine months, I have been contemplating first the decision itself and then all the impact and possible challenges it might entail once the call was made.

I still remember when a US colleague challenged me earlier this year following an off-hand comment of mine stating “it might be time for me to go home.”

His response was very strong and clear: That I was in no way the person anymore who left Germany in 2005 and what I meant by “going home?”

At first, I felt almost a bit irritated by his question and inconveniently burdened because of the self-reflection that necessarily had to follow from it.

Yet, it was exactly what I needed, since his question stayed with me until shortly before I left Auckland. Until then, I would go back and forth between pretending I was ‘not going home,’ but simply moving back to a country where my aging mother and many of my friends lived. In other moments, I would indulge in the feeling of “oh, it will be lovely to be ‘home’ again and spend much more time with A, B and C and have unlimited access to some of my favorite German foods, traditions, etc.” You get the idea - I never really resolved the query and never really had a good answer for my original thought provoker.

When discussing the topic again with a UK colleague in New Zealand at the end of May, she offered me a couple of powerful thoughts that were really helpful. The first one actually had to do with the story of the Prodigal Son and the notion that experiences away from home can allow us to return in a transformed manner; Enabling us to reconnect with people or circumstances that we needed to leave behind and outgrow first before being able to fully embrace them. It offers the chance for familiar experiences and relationships to become better and more fulfilling because we look at them from a much-broadened perspective and with a whole new level of appreciation. Having lived abroad for so long, provided me with ample opportunity to expose myself to different personalities, life styles, cultural dimensions and regional, geographical differences.

The other term she introduced me to, and which I will always remain grateful for, is “progressing home.” Just like my US colleague, she clarified that naturally I was not returning back to Germany as the person who went away 14 years ago (as much as that might be desired by some.) And because of it, the return itself was setting me up for my next growth and learning opportunity, as I would need to find my way in the familiar land, people, and culture anew. Previous development will require me to progress further in order to make Germany work for me (again.)

I also started looking at my current endeavor in the context of William Bridges’ brilliant work describing the emotional underpinnings, which are typically associated—yet, sadly, often overlooked—with every significant change we undergo. His model has been one of my highlights as a practitioner in the field of leadership development and I use it with both my coaching and training clients on a regular basis. The reason why I find it so helpful is because it is one of the easiest ways for my clients to see how we tend to focus on all the “external” aspects of the many changes in our lives, yet, tend to under-appreciate that the emotional part of us might still be lagging behind and—if unaddressed—might never truly catch up. Below you can see how the Bridges Transition Model takes us through a U-shaped curve from ending and “letting go” of the past to embracing the “new beginning,” bridged by a phase called “neutral zone.”

If I apply the model to my own situation, I can tell that I am nowhere near the tip of the arrow, i.e., The New Beginning, no matter that my physical move has occurred a good number of weeks ago. In my great moments, my life feels super adventurous - unsettling and ambiguous at others, and flat-out scary when I feel low. I currently go through all the emotional states I normally take my client through. It is actually a good exercise in order to build even more compassion with the leaders I work with who go through so many transitions on a regular basis.

Luckily, it is not my first time either and the upside of repeated exposure to this process is that I know I always have found my way in the past and I will find it again. I am someone who tends to be almost insanely optimistic about life working itself out and that, with the right attitude and open-mindedness, I can create a sense of home and new beginning for myself wherever I am.

So yes, I am in the thick of the Neutral Zone and feel it every day that I am not really here nor there, and have a significant journey still ahead of me. Then again, I feel blessed for being able to undertake such a complex transition in the first place!

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