Progress feels a lot like floundering. For those of you who don’t know what floundering means it is to struggle, to lose footing and show confusion. Think of pulling a fish out of water, perhaps a flounder, and it flops about in search of water, gasping and lost. That for me sometimes is what progress feels like. Ugly, gasping, confusion and second-guessing steps in trying to obtain any type of footing. Floundering is what transition feels like, what progress feels like… it feels awful.
Every transition in my life whether it be career, moving to a new state, starting a business or even a serious relationship is herky jerky, fraught with anxiety and worrying pauses between action. It is humbling. We can chalk it all up to learning. Learning something new is rough on our ego. We feel like we are out of our depth, stupid, inadequate, like a loser. These feelings are true and real and live in the second stage of learning something new. New meaning, something foreign to our current knowledge, experience or understanding. That new can be how to register your car in a new state, how to do a new job, what to do when the fire alarm goes off when you make crepes in a cooking class at the mall.
There are four stages to learning. The first is that we are unconsciously incompetent. We are unaware of our lack of knowledge, we don’t know, what we don’t know. This is called happy.
We then face change, whether it was something we embarked on or that was thrust upon us we start down a path. Progress, a transition, moving forward into the unknown. We are now trying to do something new, whether it is leaning a new skill, being single again, struggling as a new parent, etc. We have now entered the floundering zone.
Noel Burch, an employee with Gordon Training International, developed the Conscious Competence Ladder. His model calls the floundering phase being consciously incompetent. We are acutely aware we do not know what we are doing or what is expected of us. The expect of us can be that of others or more frequently the bossy inner voice with unrealistic expectations and might have a German accent.
Being consciously incompetent is the danger zone. This is where may people give up because it is difficult, we feel terrible and if you are learning guitar your fingers hurt like hell. We crave normal, something easier, something we know and that makes us feel competent. The hard part is that those somethings of our past in reality didn’t fit and caused us to stumble up the road in search of new. Going back is a lot like trying to fit into your favorite outfit from 7th grade. It was wonderful in the time, but we have outgrown it. Trying to make ourselves fit no matter the reason is never the answer.
Staying with the foundering is painful, it’s an awkward dance of “I got it, I got it… oh hell I don’t got it.” It is one step forward and two back. It is not even being sure if the step you just took was in the right direction, because we don’t even know what the “right” direction is.
The right direction, however, is anything that our gut, our deep-down selves that got us into this journey pushes us to do. Frequently that direction and intuitive step is also terrifying. We are pushed to pursue things that are scary, seem daunting and might even be. But so was everything we have done prior to this. All the previous struggles we have mastered and pushed through to success and mastery. Afterward we think back and wonder what the big deal was as we rush on down the road. Many times, we don’t even think about our prior fears and struggles we just push on forgetting our previous learning, with our eyes focused on what is next.
So, what can we do when we are floundering, and feel awful? How do we trust in the forward motion while being in the dark?
Here are some ideas:
-The first thing is to remind yourself you have been in the unknown before and learned your way. You have been successful. You might want to look at a journal or talk to someone who supported you then and look for the tools you used that helped.
-Recognize that you are uncomfortable and remember that discomfort in learning something new is normal and it will pass given time and effort.
-Focus on the next small step, then after that is completed the following small step. Don’t look up or out at where you are going, just celebrate, take a breath and take another small step.
-Be very kind to yourself. Try to catch that bossy voice in your head that is preaching about timelines, underachieving, blah, blah more mean stuff. Shut that voice down to a whisper.
-Find things that you feel good about and do them. Whether that is fishing, yoga or reading mysteries. Find things that comfort you or support you in your journey. Now double that for effort in finding people to do the same thing for you.
-Remember we don’t own the timeline; it takes as long as it takes so let go of expectations. You might have to remind yourself this about 10,000 times a day.
-Even when we get to the other side we are in a new normal, or consciously competent so things still feel kind of shaky.
We eventually get to unconsciously competent. That looks like when we have driven home after work and it was so automatic, we didn’t even remember the drive. Very different from the first time you got behind the wheel of a car or even when you started to master it but were still careful and present as you drove.
The unconsciously competent stage is then our new normal. This is what mastery looks like. Progress is transition after transition. This cycle over and over. Growth, awkward growth in all arenas of our lives. Remembering this cycle when we are floundering and flopping about can help in understanding there is an end in sight, that we have done this before and will again. Each time being kinder, gentler with ourselves and others as they flounder. I believe that grace is born from this transition over and over. So, a better way to see our floundering is our transition into grace.