A significant change impacts not only what we can observe on the outer side of things; it is also a process that is deeply felt. On a day-to-day basis, however, we tend to forget this is so. We are comfortable with the familiar and are focused on getting things done. But when confronted with change, it can feel like a shock or deeply disruptive experience.
Change – whether sought or unwanted – disrupts our routines, pulls us out of our comfort zone and forces us to navigate new territory. We come face to face with the fact that change is a process initiated by something that has come to an end.
In his book Transitions (1980) William Bridges refers back to Arnold van Gennep’s anthropological work and names the three phases of change: 1) endings, 2) the neutral zone and 3) new beginnings. Of course, moving through the middle phase is not as dispassionate as the word ‘neutral’ would suggest—but more about the second phase in my next post.
Every transition begins with an ending. We have to let go of the old before we can pick up the new. Writing about endings, William Bridges introduces us to four facets of the ending process: disengagement, disidentification, disenchantment and disorientation. Even just reading these four words right after each other, we already begin to grasp the deeper nature of significant endings.
Invariably a significant life transition leads us to disengage from an old situation; an aspect of our lives that we were familiar with and able to count on has come to an end. This could be leaving a significant relationship or place of work, moving across state, finishing a significant project, or sending your child off to college. Disengagement is an outwardly visible process. We are moving away from a known situation. Disengagement may be as simple as no longer returning to an old place of work. At other times breaking away may be more of an iterative process and it will take time to become disentangled.
Ending our connection with the familiar impacts our sense of self. We lose ’self-definition’ and often our self-confidence will be shaky for a while until we are more certain about what is next. When we make a significant career move, for example, it takes a while to let go of the way we have internalized our old role and it will take a while before we are ready to fully inhabit a new one. In a way the new a role needs to “grow on us” over time before we feel it is truly ours, especially when the role is more demanding. When however it is not clear what the next role is that we are stepping into, we can feel an immense sense of feeling lost.
Leaving the old evokes memories and experiences of disappointment and we move through a period where old dreams carry less meaning or fade away altogether. We become disenchanted, sometimes even nearing a felt sense of depression, which helps us with the process of letting go. For as long as the old dream is alive it ties us to the past and our old hopes. In a way when the dream dies we are truly freer to let go of our old reality. Disenchantment represents the necessary death of the dream and prepares the way to dream anew.
When we leave the familiar and enter new territory, feeling disoriented is to be expected. All the customary signs are gone and the “I-know-where-I-am-going” feeling is replaced with a sense of being lost or feeling undecided about which direction to turn. Bridges alert us to the meaningfulness of disorientation. This disorientation signals that we are taking the necessary steps toward emptiness. In many indigenous cultures this emptiness, while not enjoyable, is celebrated. Rites of passages are designed to lead the person toward the threshold of that emptiness. The emptiness represents a kind of death which is an essential step in process of becoming ready for the new.
The ending phase leads to an in-between place that is often likened to a threshold or turning point. But often this threshold is more like a tunnel or a journey through the wilderness where we are neither attached to the old or the new. Hence it also referred to the neutral zone. In my next post entitled “Betwixt and Between,” I shed some light on this phase.