Polar Bears & Funny Bones

“Are you ok?” My boss asked. “You sounded kind of heavy on that last call.”

I was surprised. I hadn’t realized I had let it show.

I go through these phases, I explained, where I am trying to integrate new information and figure out how to navigate with this new information. Much of the time, I feel like I am going full speed ahead, knocking roadblocks out of the way, making progress. And then I’ll receive new information, new direction, and I need to stop and figure out how to integrate that into my flow. I stumble around for a little bit, trying different things, making mistakes. Eventually I figure it out and move forward again.

It’s called learning.

If you’ve read my blog before, you may know that one of my favorite change management models is Kurt Lewin’s Frozen – Unfreezing – Refreezing.

It came up again yesterday, as I spoke with a new colleague. She’s been with the company for about a month and has been experienced a level of disorientation. That’s normal. Even when change is positive, something you chose (like getting married or moving to a new job), your brain has a lot of work to do, figuring out the norms and relationships, what the expectations are for you, how to take what you know how to do and do it in this new place. It is wildly disorienting.

Your brain is learning.

I shared Kurt Lewin’s theory with her. It’s like everything you know for certain is frozen – think about a polar bear on an ice sheet. The sheet is solid, dependable, the bear can run on it across with confidence, building up speed, going somewhere. Frozen.

Then the bear hits a soft spot, the ice is breaking up. Suddenly what the bear knew is no longer true. The ice sheet breaks up into smaller pieces, when they bear steps on them, they are unsteady. Or maybe they look solid but sink under the bear’s weight. The bear is uncertain. As well as they swim, sometimes even a bear doesn’t want to have to jump in the icy water. Unfreezing.

Eventually, the bear reaches a larger sheet, more solid. That feels right. That small berg runs into another one, separate but not unstable; that’s more solid, too. And eventually she reaches an extended solid patch, she begins to trust what she knows – this ice is solid – and to pick up speed. Soon, the bear is loping along without concern. Refrozen.

Despite our connotations, it’s not a bad thing to be Frozen – it means that your brain has solidified information, formed synapses, it gives you confidence and speed. Things feel certain.

And despite its scariness, it’s not a bad thing to unfreeze: that’s when you can learn, when you can admit new information, when you find new ways of doing things. It wakes you up, keeps you on your toes. Gives you experiences that increase your compassion for others who may find themselves in similar scary situations.

Refrozen is not bad either: your brain solidifies new information, enabling you to call on it, to depend on it, as you move forward in a new direction.

It helps to look at it objectively this way, as I sometimes do. When things start to feel chaotic around you, when you start to feel pressure, it helps to say to yourself, Oh, I recognize this – this is that awful unfreezing period again. I’m going to have to find new ways of doing things. Slow down, be patient with myself, pick my way carefully while I figure this out. I’ve been here before. As bad as it feels, I can navigate this again.

Sometimes that helps.

And it helps to have a buddy who recognizes it and can remind you that things will get better, more solid, eventually. That they’ve been in the messy, chaotic state that you are in, and that you will come out the other side, too. Someone to help you remember when you’ve done it before and that you can do it again.

It also helps not to get too attached to the messiness of the unfreezing. Not to obsess about it and beat yourself up for it and blame others and try to distract yourself from it. It’s like when you hit your funny bone: it hurts! But you know it will go away eventually. If you swear, and rant about how much it hurts, it doesn’t go away any faster. If you coddle it and weep, it still takes the same amount of time to dissipate. If you berate yourself or the person who was nearby and accidentally bumped your arm, or didn’t stop you from bumping your arm, it still takes the same amount of time to go away.

All you can do is let it be and eventually it stops screaming.

Frozen > Unfreezing > Refreezing >

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