Change is one of the unending challenges of life and we all go through it. Sometimes we are the initiators but often a change occurs and we have to deal with the repercussions. In his book, Transitions: making sense of life’s changes’, William Bridges goes a step further in expanding on this experience. He sees change not simply as an event or events that we react to but rather as a process. He calls this process a transition.
The book in a nutshell
In his interactions with many people in varying circumstances, Bridges found that regardless of whether the individual was young or old, had instigated a change or not, there were three common elements to all of their change experiences. He called these the three stages of transition: an ending, a period of neutrality which he calls the neutral zone and then a beginning. Understanding this natural cycle of the change process he believes could make what is really an inevitable part of life easier to deal with.
A transition, as Bridges describes it, is a set of steps that takes us from the end of something through a period of limbo to a new beginning.
It starts with an ending
In this stage we often don’t know who we are, our identity as we knew it is gone. We lose our connection with what was because how we used to define ourselves or our relationship to others is gone (syn)
‘Letting go is hard because we come to identify ourselves with the circumstances of our lives.’
However, the author makes the point that:
‘We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new’
This ‘letting go’ is both an outward and internal action. Often we make many external changes before we actually realise that we haven’t properly ended the old. You start the new relationship or the new job for instance but internally you’re still operating to the rhythm and with the mindset of the old.
The neutral zone follows
Perceived as a period of being in limbo this is an unfamiliar place where a person is ‘stripped of the old reality’ and no longer has the old identity. It can be an uncomfortable time, that hazy area between old and the new, where we can find ourselves struggling to let go of what was and look to a future of new dreams and beginnings. The challenge, as the author describes it, is that we tend to see that emptiness as the absence of something and as a result we rush to fill it sometimes with anything. Bridges reminds us that:
‘The neutral zone is simply a temporary state of loss to be endured.’
It can be frustrating and painful but used wisely it can be a time of growth and development. We learn about ourselves and the choices available to us.
Finally a new beginning
This can appear innocuous and often comes without a ‘big bang. We see that they were in fact new beginnings in retrospect. The key feature of this stage is that opportunities come when we are ready. We pick up the book lying on the table that totally changes us, we meet our future mate at a party we didn’t even feel like going to. Genuine beginnings require an alignment on the inside rather than simple external adjustments.
A big message from the book is the idea that change is natural and so too is transition. It gets easier when we stop fighting it, go with it and accept that we can’t remain the same person all our lives. We need to allow ourselves the time to fully experience all phases of a transition whether that is in our personal or professional lives.
A profound insight for me was that we often make changes but don’t allow ourselves to go through the transition. The author even makes the point that many people use change to avoid transition. How many of us are no longer in relationships yet still hold on to it mentally and emotionally. We are unable or unwilling to let go and properly move on.
The book’s core message is this: to experience true, profound change we have to let go and say goodbye to parts of ourselves in order to let the new experiences in. Only by learning how to let the old thing go, allowing ourselves to be comfortable in the nothingness of the ‘in between’ while getting reacquainted with ourselves can we really learn and evolve into the next phase of our lives. This book was first published over forty years ago but it’s message and insights are still relevant today.