Change management: Your personal transition - Endings, neutral zone and new beginnings

Following my short video on the emotions during major changes, many people said they are feeling disoriented and disconnected during lock down. It’s no surprise as the changes have been immense and the impact of isolation is underestimated. But I recall – from my work as a psychologist and coach – that some of the feelings are a natural part of transition. The Coronavirus has accelerated many of our transitions – personally and professionally, at work and at home. So a framework (endings, neutral zone, new beginning) from William Bridges in his 1980 book “Transitions – Making sense of life’s changes” may be useful to you as you consider your personal transition. The subtitle of his book is “Strategies for coping with the difficult, painful and confusing times in your life”.

Planned change vs Transition

What’s interesting to me is that some of the feelings being experienced are about endings – things that we have lost and the realisation that some things will never be the same again. Bridges says “Every transition begins with an ending”.

Furthermore, the enforced “time out” we have endured during lock down has given us space to think about what we really want from life which may have accelerated our own personal transition.

I often use William Bridges’ quote during change management training courses:

“Transition is about letting go of the past and taking up new behaviours or ways of thinking. Planned change is about physically moving office or installing new equipment or restructuring, Transition lags behind planned change because it is more complex and harder to achieve. Change is situational and can be planned, whereas transition is psychological and less easy to manage”.

He starts his book with reference to Alvin Toffler’s early 1970 description of “Future Shock” and that really resonates right now. He explains that transitions are about “the difficult process of letting go of an old situation, suffering the confusing nowhere of inbetweeness and launching forth again in a new situation”.

Life’s transitions

There are many theories about how humans tackle major transitions in their life. Most people know about the possibility of a “mid-life crisis”. But we don’t progress through life’s changes in a similar way.

Some of the models of life’s transitions that are well-known include Erik Erickson’s eight stages. Bridges refers to Oedipus’s sphinx riddle seeing life as a morning (child), afternoon (adulthood) and evening (old age). This compared to Levinson’s research suggesting a “novice” period between the ages of 22 and 33. Bridges offers reassuring messages about people who embarked on major changes late in life – including Gandhi, Handel, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mother Teresa.

He refers to literature and myth too. For example, Odysseus’s journey symbolising 1. Unlearning what bought us success during the first part of our lives 2. Resisting the desire to abandon the development journey and 3. Recognising that it will take real effort to regain our inner “home”.

Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the term “rites of passage” and saw three phases in most ceremonial occasions – separation, transition and incorporation.

Bridges reflects with sadness that in modern life there are rarely rituals to help us make major transitions – whether these are based on your personal life (e.g. the end of a relationship) or professional life (e.g. redundancy or embarking on a new career). He spends time looking at the particular issues when one person in a relationship is on a different stage of their transition journey to their partner.

The transition process

Bridges’ model starts with endings. The feelings he describes during his Endings are remarkably like that that many are experiencing during lockdown. It’s interesting to reflect on how you have managed endings in the past – actively or passively, slowly or swiftly.

ENDINGS (“Endings begin with something going wrong”)

– Disengagement (separation from psychological or physical familiarity)

– Disidentification (a sense of loss of identify – not quite sure who you are anymore)

– Disenchantment (disappointment when you sense your past or present is no longer real) “The disenchanted person moves on but the disillusioned person stops and goes through the play again with new actors”

– Disorientation (feelings of emptiness, being lost, without goals or direction and confused)

THE NEUTRAL ZONE (“a period of confusion and distress”)

– Time out alone (“find ways of being alone and away from all the familiar distractions” – surrender – give in to the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it)

– Disconnected (between the process of disintegration and reintegration)

– Lonely and frightened

THE NEW BEGINNING (“when we are ready to make a beginning, we will shortly find an opportunity”)

– Find a new purpose or vision (which is often sparked by an idea, impression or image)

– Inner realignment, reintegration and self-renewal (identify yourself with the final result of the new beginning)

– Take action step-by-step

– Transfer your purpose from the goal to the process of reaching the goal

He includes a helpful transition checklist:

1. Take your time
2. Arrange temporary structures
3. Don’t act for the sake of change
4. Recognise why you are uncomfortable
5. Take care of yourself in little ways
6. Explore the other side of the change
7. Get someone to talk to
8. Find out what is waiting in the wings of your life
9. Use this transition as the impetus to a new kind of learning
10. Recognise the transition has a characteristic shape

If these ideas resonate, you should read Bridges’ book. It is easy to read and beautifully written – drawing on examples of tough transitions that people have had to face, insights into how different cultures manage transitions and references to international literature and classical myths.

More information on Bridges’ transition management.

Other relevant change management posts:

Emotions when reacting to change

How to change when change is hard

Are you ready to change?

Neuroscience for organizational change

Building resilience

Why a third adapt more easily