“The only constant is change.” It may be true, but that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with.
Long before it was popularised by ’60s band The Byrds, one of the most oft-quoted Biblical passages at celebrations of births – and commemorations of lives passed – was this: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted …” and so on.
The resonance of this verse is its reassurance in hard times that it is natural for things to come and go, and change us as a result. It provides perspective – a broader view than the one we are struggling with or stuck in.
The changes a person may go through in a lifetime are various: leaving home; starting a first job; ending a relationship; getting married; having a baby; changing jobs; divorce and retirement. Throughout history and across cultures, transitions are marked as rites of passage or important milestones to be commemorated.
According to the aptly named William Bridges, a career transition coach, in his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (De Capo, 2004), there is a distinction between external changes to our life situation – such as the situational changes mentioned previously – and transitions, that are internal processes involving a psychological re-orientation; a different way of viewing ourselves in relation to the external change. He suggests that life changes often prompt or prepare the way for changes in perspective.
While we may have originally been happy to secure a job in our company of choice, two years later we notice the same job has mundane elements; our skill set may have grown and we crave a different position with more challenge. Interestingly, even when external changes are seen as positive (for example having a baby), we can go through the same process as if the change is negative (for example, being made redundant). This might seem counterintuitive – why would we need to adapt to the good fortunes of life?
The Three Phases
A helpful way of understanding transitions is provided by Bridges, who divides them into three phases: an ending, a neutral zone and a beginning. He suggests that acknowledging all three parts of a transition can help make sense of the sometimes contradictory thoughts and emotions that can turn up. I have summarised the model here:
We are often in a rush to get to the new beginnings in our lives, without fully appreciating the endings. Generally, we are not very good at endings. How often have you heard people say that they hate airports or hospitals? Could this be partly because both places evoke emotions associated with goodbyes and uncertainty?
A good question to ask yourself if there is a change in your life is: “What is it time to let go of?” Something may no longer be appropriate to your life situation. A business that has always been successful finds with the economic recession that customers are tightening their belts and the once valuable product or service is no longer a must have.
Because on the whole we identify ourselves with our life circumstances, this ending process can be painful, especially if it is unexpected, and can mess with who we thought we were. The temptation may be to hold on tightly to what we know, and replay our patterns with different people.
In the neutral zone, Bridges identifies feeling disorientated, lost and confused, where we are not sure of our plans for the future. This doesn’t seem particularly neutral to me – questioning and doubt tend to drag most of us into rumination and self-analysis.
A common need at this stage is to find a time and place to be alone. Our rituals and habits are disrupted – the stakes in the ground we have worked towards seem irrelevant and meaningless. It is hard to accept that life is still moving as it should. The analogy of winter time seems appropriate – leaves have fallen off the trees, leaving them barren. From the perspective of one winter day, the season lasts forever, and yet looking back from spring, the important work still occurred despite appearances.
One of the hardest questions to answer is, “When is a transition over?” It’s not as though there is an unmistakable signal that heralds a new beginning. There may be times of overlap with the other stages. Often, according to Bridges, the beginning is non-verbal and can come in the form of an image or a dream that sticks around and becomes stronger over time.
Taking the example of the birth of a longed-for baby to illustrate the three stages, the ending may involve saying goodbye, at least temporarily, to one’s sense of self as a paid worker in the role of successful career woman, and perhaps goodbye also to the freedom of going out spontaneously with one’s partner or friends. The neutral zone may be sitting with the possibility of not knowing when and if part-time or full-time work may be feasible. The beginning may involve a sense of uncertainty about what to do next as a mother, perhaps swinging from a sense of incompetence to a rush of warmth when the baby smiles.
In interpersonal therapy practised by psychologists and other helping professionals, dealing with role transitions is seen as integral to resolving mental health issues. Depression and other problems are lifted when the role transition is successfully navigated.
The Role of Expectations
People in transition may have different expectations and stereotypes around life stages. One of the common questions that people who seek counselling ask is, “When is it normal to be in transition?” versus “When has it taken too long?”
For example, from my clinical work, at the end of significant relationships people may have expectations about how long it should take to ‘get over it’ and find they are disturbed by how often they think about their ex-partner, believing themselves somehow abnormal. They may then question whether the change of relationship was a bad idea, especially if memories are overwhelmingly positive. Thus expectations may bring a degree of black-and-white thinking to transitions, which tend to be untidy, not-easily-classified processes.
TIMES OF CHANGE
If you are facing a transition, the following exercises may help you to think through your change within the context of your life.
Remember, we are all influenced by our past experiences. Reflect on what your experiences with endings are: were endings acknowledged, denied, ignored, dramatised or celebrated in your family of origin? What about new beginnings? How might this history influence you now?
Handling transitions is easier if it means something in the context of our lives. If we can see a reason for our suffering it is easier to bear. If our present discomfort is not related to a larger big-picture view, then it can be more distressing.
When things are in transition, it is tempting to try to repair life to make it just the way it was. For example, Sam* – in his 40s – was made redundant from his accounting position. For some time he looked at jobs exactly like the one he’d had, in the same industry. When he considered his working life from a fresh viewpoint, he realised the industry he was really interested in (sports coaching) was unrelated to what he had done previously. Though it was tough to be out of his comfort zone, Sam is now pleased he didn’t jump right back into the same type of position.
Start a timeline of your life in five-year stages and record milestones. Can you identify one thing you learned at each stage? Timelines can help in valuing the past. How would someone narrating your life notice you have changed?
Remember that everyone has different thresholds for what they find stressful about being in transition. Transitions for one person will often affect those around them – for example, family members.
Use positive psychology and other psychology tips to enhance your experiences of life. Be mindful that things change even when we don’t want them to, and savour the pleasure while it lasts.
Ultimately, we might all comfortably experience a lifetime of transitions if we are able to be open to experience. As T S Eliot wrote, “To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”