It was the philosopher Hericlitus who said, “The only thing that is constant is change.” It’s easy enough to grasp intellectually, but many of us still struggle emotionally with change. So much so, that the central concept of Buddhist teachings is ‘impermanence’; that is, that we’d all be happier if we could just accept that nothing lasts forever.
Some of us have a higher threshold than others when it comes to how much change we can comfortably handle. Whether it’s a relationship break-up, changing jobs, moving house – these are widely acknowledged as being the most stressful experiences in life.
What’s important to understand is that an actual change in your circumstances can happen in an instant. You can move house (or even interstate or overseas) in the space of a weekend. Similarly, changing jobs, ending relationships or getting married – these things happen quickly. However, the psychological process that goes along with a change usually takes a whole lot longer.
Psychologist Bill Bridges refers to this process as the ‘transition’ and he suggests that it involves three distinct phases. He mostly applies the theory in organisational settings these days but it’s very relevant to personal change and I often refer to his theory when helping people to understand and navigate their way through life’s changes. (In fact, he wrote another book, “The Way of Transition: Embracing life’s most difficult moments” describing his own transition process when his wife died from cancer.) He describes the three phases as follows:
1. The Ending
In any change process, there is an ending to the way things are. If you have made the decision to end something, various emotions are usually present in the lead up, such as disenchantment, disillusionment and psychological disengagement. If the change is sudden and unexpected, there might be stronger emotions like shock, anger and denial. In this phase, Bridges says your task is to let go of your inner connection to how things used to be. It can be helpful to ask yourself, “What do I need to let go of?” and to give yourself the space to experience any emotions that come up at this time. Even with a positive change like getting married or having a baby, there can be an ending to your old sense of self and identity. It’s important to acknowledge it all.
2. The Neutral Zone
This is the time when the old way of life is gone but the new doesn’t quite feel comfortable or familiar yet. This can be a confusing and difficult period because the neutral zone is a psychological no-man’s land. For many people, it can be a time of reflection on your values as you make sense of the change that’s happening and slowly work towards feeling ‘normal’ again. Some people might find they withdraw socially a little while they work through their own emotions and navigate their way through a time when it can feel like there is nothing solid to hold onto.
There is no fixed timeframe for the neutral zone and there should be no rushing it. Sometimes the discomfort leads people to want things to go back to how they were or to launch into something new before they’re ready (for example after a break-up or loss). Tolerating the discomfort and allowing this process to unfold in its own time is the key to a successful transition.
3. A New Beginning
At some point in the future, there will be a way of life and sense of identity that feels familiar and comfortable again. New beginnings are often associated with optimism and anticipation, renewed energy and re-engagement with life. You may have adopted new values, attitudes and even have a new sense of self.
All the inner work that takes place during the neutral zone is worth it when you look around and realise you’ve happily settled into your new way of life.