These events can strike without
warning and leave us struggling with a personal crisis
characterized by denial, anger, depression and withdrawal.
But not all transitions arise from negative experiences.
Marriage, a new job, a move to a new location, the birth
of a child, reacquaintance with an old friend – these
events, which may be planned and expected, may also
lead us into a life transition.
On other occasions, life transitions occur because we find ourselves in a rut. We may have the nagging feeling that something is wrong, although we can’t quite put our finger on the reasons. Our lives are not going the way we thought they would, and time is passing us by. We feel that it is time for a major change. This can happen at any time, but it is most common during what Gail Sheehy has called the “predictable crises of adult life” which often accompany our decade changes (that is, our twenties, our thirties, our mid-life years, older stages of life...)
As William Bridges points out in his book, Transitions, our life transitions are composed of an ending, a “neutral zone,” and a new beginning. When a transition occurs, we need to give up our old definitions of the world, our old ways of doing things, as we are challenged by the process of “letting go.” Endings are difficult for most people, even when we are unhappy with the way things used to be. What is known is more comfortable than the unknown. Once we let go, however, we enter a period of feeling disconnected from the past but not yet connected to the present – the neutral zone. This is a time that can engender great self-reflection, an assessment of what we really want out of life, and a time to reorient ourselves toward the future. Finally, the new beginning completes the successful transition. This is when we embark on a journey of new priorities and the sense of a renewed future.
Bringing Our Old Situation to an End
Most of us try to avoid endings – and this may be surprising since endings occur throughout the entire life cycle. Some people mistakenly deal with the task of letting go by clinging tenaciously to their old ways of living, forgetting that submitting to loss is a necessary condition for entering into a period of self-renewal. Think of the parent who is not able to let the children grow up and live independent lives. This situation can cause substantial conflict, both for the children and the parent. People sometimes think that if they can hold on to their old ways, they can avoid the pain of change – but in reality more pain results from holding on. In contrast, other people deal with the difficulty of endings by dismissing the old as if it didn’t count. These are the people who see a therapist and announce that they are not interested in looking at the past and want to focus only on the present and future. They fail to recognize that we need closure on the past, a true appreciation of the life lessons we have accumulated from our histories, before we can continue with a productive transition. Refusing to look at the past is one way of allowing the past to continue to haunt us – and a condition which makes moving on difficult. A successful transition takes courage.
Bridges has identified four stages of the ending process.
|Disenchantment occurs when we are no longer under the spell of the old reality. We question our
assumptions and begin to see the world in new ways.
Disengagement – We need to make a break from the roles, activities, and settings of the former situation. Until this break occurs, we are prone to seeing the world in the old way, and this makes a successful transition difficult. Disengagement does not necessarily mean physically leaving or moving – as long as one can psychologically disengage from a situation, one can gain the perspective to begin to define the old ways more objectively.
Disidentification – Not only do our activities change, but we begin to give up our former self-definitions. A person in the so-called mid-life crisis, for example, needs to abandon his or her identity as a “younger” person. To avoid this change is to postpone the inevitable, to invite continuing inner conflict, and to forego the advantages of moving into a different stage of life.
Disenchantment – Once our situations and our former self-definitions change, we may wonder about what is real and what is not. In a sense the world is made up of many levels of reality. Our old lives helped us to create one way of looking at things – our old reality (“This relationship is for life,” or “I’ll always have this job,” or “My health will last forever”). Disenchantment occurs when we are no longer under the spell of the old reality. We question our assumptions and begin to see the world in new ways, to look at other levels of reality. This opens the door to a healthy transition.
Disorientation – This is a stage of discomfort. Our old situations, self-definitions, and views of reality have been challenged, and we are left confused with the feeling that we have jumped into the void. We get by everyday by taking things a step at a time. Things that we had once thought were meaningful are no longer so. We all have a tendency to hope that things are constantly improving throughout our lives, but it may be more realistic to view things as they occur in the natural world – a series of expansions and contractions. We gain and we lose. Day becomes night – and then day again. We need to empty our cupboards before we can fill them up again.
|Some people try to initiate a beginning before they accomplish the work of the ending, mainly because endings can be painful. For example, they may try to find a new relationship before putting closure on the old one. This creates a situation where the old structures, the old realities, are still in place and it blocks us from doing the work associated with a healthy transition into a new relationship. Before finding a new relationship, it is preferable to spend some time alone, think about what the old relationship meant and what was wrong with it, as well as to assess what this stage of life can now bring. To do this, we must confront the challenge of the ending and then move into the neutral zone. A life of integrity demands nothing less.
The Inner Work of the Neutral Zone
Other societies provide in their transition rituals some ways of dealing with the neutral zone. For example, the vision quest, where the person goes into the wilds alone in search of answers that may come intuitively, is a way in which some Native American tribes provide a transition between childhood and adulthood. Lacking such rituals in our society, we may not know what to do with the neutral zone. We may feel lost, confused, and disoriented, and may show symptoms of depression. This time of confusion, however, can set the stage for self-examination and answers which guide us out of the transitional phase and into the future. The neutral zone is a period of personal reorientation.
Nothing much happens in the neutral zone, at least from the outsider’s perspective. People in the neutral zone often say that they need a few days, or even longer, alone just to think – or pray or meditate. Without the old definitions of the world and our accustomed activities to fall back on, time in the neutral zone can create substantial introspection and heightened self-awareness. And out of this primal stew can emerge intuitions and insights, which provide the recipe for the new beginning. This is a time to examine the course of our lives, to reacquaint ourselves with the nature of our inner selves, and to think of ways to make our dreams come true. Renewal arises from an examination of our inner resources.
Embracing a New Life
Genuine new beginnings emerge when we realign our ways of looking at the world and renew our energy. We may mistakenly look for external signs to guide us into a beginning, but our inner attitudes toward life, our renewed self-knowledge, and our intuition are really the hallmarks of our new beginnings. By relying on our inner voice to tell us where to go in life, we are likely to have more motivation than if we were to depend on the traditional expectations provided to us by others. When the directions we must take in life become clear, it is time to take action to make things happen, identify ourselves as traveling on a new course, and then complete the process step by step. New beginnings incorporate some continuity from the past. We never give up the old completely, but use what we need from the past as a resource for our journey into the future.
|We may mistakenly look for external signs to guide us into a beginning, but our inner attitudes toward life, our renewed self-knowledge, and our intuition are really the hallmarks of our new beginnings.
Transitions are a natural and inevitable part of life – and because we find comfort in our old familiar ways, they can be difficult. Psychotherapy is an effective way to make the most of our transitions – a way to understand the old, to look inward, and to discover that flame which represents our true inner selves. In therapy, we can then determine the direction of our new beginning.