Change isn’t so scary if you know what to expect.
Change is the one constant in life. And yet, we are often surprised when it comes. Parents reward us for mastering routines of hygiene and self-discipline. Our educational system grooms us for progressive levels of security, reinforcing the belief that skill mastery yields the predictable comforts of a settled life. As we age, we are measured by our gains, not our losses, our stability, not our vulnerability.
That’s why so many people are devastated when the temple of their familiar world is shaken through unemployment, divorce, disease, death, and similar forces of upheaval. We believe in change as long as the wheel of fortune spins in our favor. When change defies our expectations with unpleasant results, a lifetime of conditioning can become suspect, unleashing the dark designs of our imaginations.
Throughout the centuries, philosophers, theologians, and psychologists have attempted to illuminate the nature of change, from the ancient hexagrams of the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Change) to the stages of loss identified in the last century by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D., who describes a non-linear progression through denial, sadness, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. One of my favorite frameworks, however, was written by a little-known English professor whose last name is practically synonymous with change—William Bridges.
In his 1980s groundbreaking book “Transitions,” Bridges maps out the cycle of change into three discrete stages that is at once counter-intuitive and overly simplistic. According to Bridges, every transition begins with an ending and ends with a beginning. In between endings and beginning is a discomfiting neutral zone that most people would rather avoid but is essential for personal growth.
Why begin with the end? Writes Bridges: “Divorces, deaths, job changes, moves, illnesses, and many lesser events disengage us from the contexts in which we have known ourselves. They break up the old cue system that served to reinforce our roles and pattern our behavior.”
Within the rubric of “endings,” he identifies five fundamental tasks one must master in order to successfully move to the next chapter. They are disengagement (separation from the familiar), dismantling (letting of what is no longer needed), disenchantment (discovering that certain things no longer make sense), disidentification (reevaluating one’s identity) and disorientation (a vague sense of losing touch with one’s reality).
Once endings are complete, people progress to an uncomfortable but growth-filled neutral zone which Bridges describes as “an empty in-between time when… everything feels as though it’s up for grabs and you don’t quite know who you are or how you’re supposed to behave.”
Most people would prefer to skip this stage. However, by attempting to leapfrog past the neutral zone, they may miss important insights and gifts, putting them at risk of poor decision-making in the future. Bridges explains that, not unlike the concept of meditation or the Sabbath, “only by returning to the formlessness of primal energy that renewal can take place. We need it just the way an apple tree needs the cold of winter.”
As the neutral zone is discomfiting, beginnings can be anti-climatic. Usually, there are no bells, whistles, or red carpets, just a “faint intimation of something different, a new theme in the music, and a strange fragrance on the breeze.” Although some individuals may feel invigorated by beginnings, often it takes time to become adjusted to a new identity or situation. Even a beginning considered positive by societal standards—like getting married, having a child, or getting promoted—can be extremely stressful as those affected become attuned to an unfamiliar landscape.
Although no one can escape life’s inevitable transitions, people’s coping styles vary depending on a variety of factors from biology to their family of origin. Talking to a trusted friend or mental health professional can be helpful if you or someone you know shows signs of depression and anxiety. Reflecting on Bridges’ framework, however, may help demystify transitions so they don’t seem quite so scary or overwhelming. Liberated from our fears, we can dance courageously with the unknown, mining important life lessons from every little step.