Sara Slattery on making it through the messy middle

Posted on October 5, 2023 by Sarah Robertson

Sara Slattery supports values-led women and organisations through mentoring and coaching. In her contribution to This Creative Life, she explores the nuances of navigating the messy middles in our lives and work.


I used to find it so annoying and rage-inducing, quite frankly, when someone would say things like “It’s all about the journey”, “Enjoy the process” or in the early days of motherhood “Just embrace the chaos, they grow up in the blink of an eye”.

I understood what they were saying, but it always felt so trite – like when you were a child, and your parents would say “It doesn’t matter that you lost, it’s the taking part that counts”. Well, yeah, true, but can we also allow for the feelings of disappointment?

Accepting the messy

What misses the mark with these seemingly wise, philosophical comments about enjoying the journey is the absence of a whole pile of other stuff, primarily the intense feelings that go on during this tangled time. It’s like saying “Everything happens for a reason” when your house has just burnt down.

Ok, maybe you can look back on this situation after many years and see how it led you to a more positive place, but right now – in the moment – the rage, loss and grief need to be felt. The process of change is inherently uncomfortable, often excruciating, and what I’ve learned (annoyingly so!) is that welcoming and accepting the discomfort does not mean that something is going wrong. It IS the way ahead.

For me, the process is only something I can learn from by looking back from the other side as, while I am in it, I find it hard to access the presence and the lessons. As someone with a 3 / 5 profile in Human Design (a fusion of diverse disciplines and systems, blending age-old wisdom with modern technology), the 3 suggests that I am here to trial and error, learn by doing and learn from my mistakes by bumping into things.

As a recovering perfectionist, this is not something I have embraced easily! But I don’t think this applies to just 3 profile lines. We can all learn about embracing the messiness of change because we are going through it all the flippin’ time. We are cyclical beings, never static, always in some micro or macro-cycle, with no straight lines in our lives and work.

Client quotes

We are not all starting from the same blank sheet where hard work and effort always win.

I have helped people navigate thresholds for over 20 years in various settings. Some were still kids who had left school early with no qualifications and wanted to enter the job market. Others were young men leaving prison, wishing and hoping for a shift in their lives, but were up against it due to poverty and social circumstances.

In recent times, I’ve supported women realising that following the “right path” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. People looking for new models of how we can live and work, and mothers leaving down the identities of who they were before they had children and reclaiming new ones.

Many of these people have different life circumstances and opportunities afforded, and yet the process of change across the board had so many commonalities.

Noticing the changes

Some typical threads I observed were:

  • Hope – a desire for something to be different
  • Fear – being afraid of breaking norms
  • Vulnerability – going against the grain can be tender and exposing
  • Community – people need to be seen and supported
  • Review – supporters can help you review how far you’ve come
  • Reminders – they can also remind you of your bigger vision
  • Flexibility – plans and goals change, and we transform with the ebbs and flows
  • Vision – holding a bigger picture is a great support when we’re uncomfortable

Of course, this doesn’t gather the full complexities of people’s lives, but these are the themes I have witnessed through the cycles of change.

The long and short of it is that it’s not always easy – especially when there are wider socio-economic factors at play – to embrace the messy. We are not all starting from the same blank sheet where hard work and effort always win. And even with opportunities and privilege, it can be tough. Once we acknowledge this and accept the process and the support, we can stop beating ourselves up about being flakey, not good enough or someone who can’t see things through.

Our minds want success and completion now or, at least, with an end in sight. And, of course, it can be useful for some to have goals set with deadlines attached to them. But for change to be sustainable, it needs to happen gently, with help, with our nervous systems intact so that we can feel safe enough to move forward. This still won’t be comfortable, but with enough expansion it’s possible to find a new normal and start again from a new standpoint.

Client quotes

We begin with all our experiences present, the resources we have in place, the stories we tell ourselves.

The messy middle is a liminal space, which can feel uneasy and sometimes chaotic. Rather than wishing it didn’t exist, how about we embrace it? And if welcoming it feels too twee, we can begin by acknowledging its existence! And accepting that this is how it is, and set up validating practices to assist us.

Transitions happen in all areas of our lives, big and small, life and work, relationships and friendships. Feeling like it is just you and “why can’t I just manage it” is unhelpful individual thinking. Everyone is going through some sort of mess and change at any time. Not just you.

Releasing old patterns

So we begin, but not from nothing. We begin with all our experiences present, the resources we have in place, the stories we tell ourselves. There is no vacuum. But we start; we try new things, we learn new things. Some work, some don’t.

Regardless, we grow, letting go of old patterns, programmes and people, and we test new ways of being. And through all the fear, not-enoughness, low confidence, and inner criticism that comes out to play, we accept that it will be awkward, difficult and stretchy. This is the reality.

We are all making it through the messy on numerous levels: individually, systemically and collectively. So, let’s be more compassionate towards ourselves and others because nobody has it all figured out.

As Brené Brown would say, strong backs, soft fronts and wild hearts are required for these times.


Sara Slattery is a facilitator, mentor and coach, supporting values-led women and organisations to live and work in new ways. You can learn more about Sara on her website, follow her on Instagram or listen to her podcast, The Messy Middle.

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Sara about all things humanness in business. You might like to tune into the episode.