“This Too Shall Pass”: Three Phases of Transition
A reoccurring theme in my posts lately is the topic of change. It’s not surprising, since not only have I spent the bulk of my adult life reading about and studying human development and change—I actually work with real people and organizations each and every day on making or adapting to change.
While change can be exciting and exhilarating, at the same time it can feel disorienting, uncomfortable, and foreign.
I talk to leaders every day who are promoted into an exciting new position—thrilled at the opportunity– but really struggling psychologically with the actual transition to the new role.
Leaving their old teams, relationships, locations, and even former knowledge and identities behind them, they suddenly feel they are faced with the unsettling prospect of re-establishing themselves. New team, new boss, new peers, new environment, new players—even in the context of the same organization — means reestablishing your credibility, competence, and your own confidence. In many ways, you are reinventing and transforming your own identity to align with the change.
This dynamic not only occurs at work, but also in the various life changes we may experience—marriage, parenthood, divorce, children going to college, retirement and moving to a new house or location, just to name a few.
I myself am not exempt from struggling with the same dilemmas we all do around change.
Case in point:
My husband and I made a big cross-country change in residence this past October– moving from the Washington DC metropolitan area to Southern California. I had spent the past 21 years in the DC area –so needless to say, I was definitely “settled” and comfortable there. I had a very large personal and professional network, knew the lay of the land, and had friends, doctors, dentists, and even a hairdresser I adored.
While the prospect of a move to California was exciting and a self-imposed change, that didn’t make it seamless. As I began to experience feelings of loss and being ungrounded during the initial months of the move, I reminded myself of William Bridges’ simple yet timeless description of the three phases we go through when we experience a “transition”. He makes an important distinction between the change we go through and the transition that accompanies it.
The change itself is just an event or an occurrence. The “transition” we must make inside ourselves to adjust to the change is a psychological one and is what most of us have some trouble with.
Keeping these three phases in mind can be incredibly helpful as they serve to “normalize” the experience when you are in it—and are a powerful reminder of the light at the end of the tunnel.
The three phases of transition he describes in his classic book, “Transitions”, are:
1. Ending/Losing/Letting Go
In the case of my move, this was the realization that the move was going to cause me to physically lose the things I had attached to and was comfortable and familiar with in Virginia.
The house I lived in, the visits with my friends, the office location, my favorite haunts, and the routines I had grown accustomed to and comfortable with would be lost. All of those things were ending—at least in the form they were in. I could still reach out to the people there—but it would now be different and from a distance.
Letting go of all the things and people I was used to and grieving that necessary detachment is all part of this first “letting go” phase of transition.
2. The Neutral Zone
Actually moving to the new location placed me squarely in what Bridges’ appropriately coined “The Neutral Zone”.
This is where I had left the comfort zone of the “old” location, but had not grounded myself yet comfortably in the “new” location.
I experienced this phase full force —needing an emergency root canal but not having any idea which dentist to go to, searching high and low for a new hairdresser I like (yes, as superficial as it sounds, this is at the top of the traumatic transition list), trying to adapt to and navigate my way through the unfamiliar roads and freeways while butting up against the subtle differences in driving protocol–and so on— you can fill in the rest.
The themes I experienced in this phase were about no longer feeling comfortable or grounded in a familiar location—and feeling “in-between” two places most of the time.
3. The New Beginning
Sure enough, things quickly started to come together. I began to reach out and meet new people, attend different professional events, found a great new doctor who practices integrative medicine, and was referred to an absolutely awesome hairdresser by an old friend. I found a yoga class I love. My husband and I are now considered “regulars” by the staff at our favorite local coffee shop, and we have established new favorite routines like walking to the beach to watch the sunset. All in all, six months have passed and it feels like “home” here now. I am starting to feel “grounded” again.
So if you are in the midst of a transition, whether it is the beginning or end of a job, career, or relationship, or even a move to a different house or location—remember that the psychological adjustment and discomfort you are experiencing is a natural part of the change process. Even if the change is welcome—the personal transition that accompanies the change is not like a light switch. It takes time and it can feel bad before it feels good or better.
Be gentle with yourself and learn to be comfortable with your own discomfort as you move through and navigate the unfamiliar territory of the neutral zone.
Before you know it—the unfamiliar will be familiar and the uncomfortable will be comfortable.
Give it time.
And fully savor and enjoy what this new beginning can bring…
As always, send me a note with your own experiences around this topic of transition. I love getting them…
If you are looking to make some big changes, check out my new program, Soul Search Sessions.
It is for people who are ready to change…