How to Deal with Big Life Changes: Endings, Neutral Zones and New Beginnings

When I moved to San Francisco a few months ago, I was very unprepared for the cultural shock that followed.

I didn’t think it would be such a shock moving from one English-speaking country to another. But it was, and the most upsetting part was that I was no longer certain who I was, what I liked, or how I defined myself in a city full of new faces. Unlike my husband, I didn’t move for a specific job or company: I had to figure a lot of things out on my own.

So I started to make friends, go to events, and things started to feel familiar. Getting to know people was as inspiring but also challenging. It was inspiring because they are all successful and accomplished, but challenging because the pace of life and learning in San Francisco can make you feel very conscious about how and what you spend your time on.

It was easy to forget that my friends had plenty of time to build their knowledge, networks, and reputation. They’ve been here for years, whereas I was fresh off the boat just a few weeks into my new life.

Changes vs. transitions

The good thing is my friends have been incredibly supportive with time and advice. Someone recommended a book called “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes” by William Bridges. It’s about a human-centric approach to organizational change (I think of it as therapy for organizations), but also happened to be useful for managing personal transitions with a bit of adaptation.

Bridges explains that things don’t change just because you’re suddenly doing something differently, or you stated that you will. Change and transition are two different concepts that go hand-in-hand. Change can be an external factor (you moved into a new office building). Transition is a psychological 3-step process people go through as they internalize and come to terms with their new predicament.

Bottom line: you can’t expect people to behave differently just because their physical circumstances changed, when their minds and identities haven’t yet made the leap.

“People expect to be able to move straight from the old to the new. But this isn’t a trip from one side of the street to the other. It’s a journey from one identity to another, and that kind of journey takes time.”

Thinking about transition as the journey from one identity to another helped a lot. When I first moved, I fought against the sadness and the stagnation. Why was I sad when I was moving to such opportunity? What kept me from embracing this new life?

After reading the book, I realized that I was approaching the whole situation the wrong way and didn’t have a mental framework for how to tackle it. The book said I had to 1) let go of my old identity, 2) make my way through an uncomfortable ‘neutral zone’, and 3) emerge on the other side with a new beginning and identity taking shape.

From Bob Von Der Linn

They say some people are better at transitions (the green arrow in the picture above) while others aren’t (red arrow). So I thought I’d go through some of the things I did and how I adapted the book’s advice on three stages for a personal transition (rather than a corporate one).


The three stages of transition

1. Loss: let go of the old ways and the old identity

Nothing is so dear as what you’re about to leave.” — Jessamyn West, American writer

This first phase of transition is actually an ending: and end to who you used to be. You have to take stock of your losses and mourn them.

Photo by Sandis Helvigs

When you move to another country, you experience many endings: an end to your job and to the sense of identity you got from it, an end to time spent with friends and family and all the daily rituals, and an end to being in a culture where you know the norms and feel safe and comfortable.

The talk about end, loss and mourning may sound grim but it’s helpful. Your old identity is proverbially “dying” and you’re here to acknowledge how far it got you and say, “that was a good run.”

Three pieces of advice from the book helped me deal with the ending:

  • Take the time to list all the ways in which your new life will be different. Think of all the changes you can, and the knock-on effects on other areas of your life. Set aside time to persevere and go granular. I had about 50 items on my list, with things like “I won’t have my disposable income to spend for a few months” and “I’ll have to go out of my way to meet new people every week because no one knows me” or “I won’t know the streets and neighborhoods by heart and always have to check a map.”
  • Take the time to mourn losses. No, really. Expect and accept signs of grieving and don’t confuse them with low morale or failure. It’s OK to feel angry, sad, frightened, depressed, and confused. Don’t feel that you have to make the feelings go away. It’s even better if you can share that with a partner (if you’re moving together) or friends and family you’re leaving behind.
  • Define what’s over, and what isn’t. It’s not all sadness and tears. Look at the big list of changes and group them into themes: interesting patterns start to emerge. My themes were really my fears: loss of autonomy, reputation, comforting rituals, etc. Some things would be gone forever because they were bound to a time and place (those I had to deal with), but not everything had to end permanently. Some things needed to be be transformed or adapted to my new situation.

The big question that drove the point home was:What can I do to balance what’s been taken away?” If you acknowledge a loss takes place, you have to find other things to replace what used to be there and work on those.


2. The neutral zone: the psychological no-man’s-land between old and new

“Every exit is an entry somewhere else.” — Tom Stoppard, British playwright

The neutral zone is the core of the transition process. It’s an in-between time when the old is definitely gone but the new you isn’t fully up and running. Heck, you don’t even know what the new you could or should be.

Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

It was the most painful and disorienting part for me because it takes a while but you don’t know how long and you can’t force it either.

“The neutral zone takes a heavy toll on most people’s self-confidence because it is a period of lowered productivity and diminished feelings of competence. It may also, if it resonates with past difficulties in a person’s life, activate serious problems of low self-esteem.”

The neutral zone is both dangerous and full of opportunity. It’s a great opportunity because it acts like a pruning mechanism: old habits get replaced with new, useful ones. But it’s dangerous because you can overthink, overload yourself, and get in your own way. It’s as tempting to rush things as it is to fall into a depressive lull where activity grinds to a halt.

A few pieces of advice were key to help me through this bizarre time:

  • Accept that it’s normal. It’s normal to not have everything figured out in a day, week, or even a month. It takes as long as it takes, and if you follow the steps and trust the process you’ll start to see results. You’ll know when you see the light at the end of the tunnel. Good people will tell you they’re jealous of your time to reflect. Bad people will say things like “what, you haven’t found a job yet?” or “It took me a week to figure it out when I did it.” Whatever. For them, you need to make it clear that this is a deliberate, thought-out process. Because it is, which brings me to my second point.
  • Create a sense of achievement and of movement. Getting things done helps counter the feeling of meaninglessness and self-doubt. The good thing about transitions (where you don’t work) is that they can be great for learning new things, and you can define what success looks like. Apart from your key objective (e.g. “Get a job”) you can create a few other goals that stretch you into new, different directions. Don’t go moonshot-level crazy — you want to give yourself a chance to succeed. And you can reward yourself modestly or symbolically when you achieve them. I started learning new skills I had on my “one day” back burner list, and it felt good to master some basic concepts and have better conversations with people who know what they are doing.
  • Give yourself structure and strength. It can seem like nothing important is happening and it’s easy to feel discouraged. You need to set re-occurring activities, create boundaries between your daily tasks, and reserve time for physical and mental well-being. You have to ask for help and not be too proud about it. My biggest mistakes during this phase were that I stopped working out, and I was too vague with my questions for others who could help.

The most important thing in this phase was to question “the usual” way of doing things. The whole idea is to look for opportunities, and new answers to old problems instead of longing for how things used to be.

Side note: Agile, but for your life.
How do you set goals and hold yourself accountable? Some people do bullet journals. Others have complex personal productivity frameworks. I loosely applied Agile concepts to my life because the process favors results over activity. Getting things done with results to show, rather than being a busy fool.
I had big themes, week-long sprints and goals and daily task. Some weeks I did a lot of resumes (didn’t have a good success rate). Another week was about coffees with product managers. Another one where I went to every event I could find. And so on.
Agile was good because it made me think of these steps as intelligent failure. They were methodical, informed approaches to my challenges. Not all of them worked. But every action could be improved or adapted, and it felt like no week was truly lost.

The neutral zone helped me discover that I had a lot of things to offer people personally and professionally, helped me articulate them through practice, and made me realize I don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on training (not immediately anyway). That counts as personal growth to me.


3. A new beginning: a new identity emerges

“One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea” — Walter Bagehot, British journalist, businessman, and essayist

A new beginning is when you can feel a new identity forming, have a new sense of purpose and a ton of newfound energy to make it happen.

Photo by Austin Chan

You’ll recognize a new beginning when you go through it. It’s not about “fake it ‘till you make it.” It feels like reaching the light at the end of the tunnel.

You entered the wilderness of your own mind, came out at the other end, and you can see clearly. You explored who you are, what’s important to you, and what you need to feel fulfilled. The experiments and baby steps paved the way to small achievements, confidence, and new ideas taking hold. Eventually, the new ideas gave you a renewed sense of energy and inspired you to take action.

“A start can and should be carefully designed, like an object. A beginning can and should be nurtured, like a plant. Starts take place on a schedule as a result of decisions. Beginnings follow the timing of the mind and heart.”

A new identity is a funny thing: even though you feel 100% certain you want it and set yourself in motion, it may take a while to fully convince yourself that this is actually you doing the thing. It took me a few days to adjust to the fact that I would start walking into a new office every day — even though that was the whole point of my neutral zone exploration and experiments.

Three bits of advice from the book helped me deal with the new beginning:

  • Picture the new beginning. Visualization is a powerful mental tool. One of the biggest losses you experience is that your old mental image of yourself and your surroundings falls apart and there’s nothing new to replace it. You have to work hard to picture your new beginning and what it will feel to be part of it without abusing the power of the tool to imagine a land of milk and honey that might never materialize. For me, this involved visualizing what I’d be doing as my new identity took shape: going to work, the new things I’d put on my desk, the meetings I might go into, and so much more.
  • Have a plan, milestones, and check-in moments. How do you know that new beginnings work? When things start to change in your life you need to create some achievement milestones and build in time for reflection. I created a few moments (30, 60, 90 days in) to see if this is working out for me, and if it’s the kind of life I want. And if it’s not, it’s much better to be honest and cut losses sooner rather than later.
  • Symbolize the new identity. Transitions are emotionally charged moments. There’s excitement and nervousness too. Everything takes on a symbolic hue, even things that are outside of your control; everything means something. You can take advantage of this and create symbols and outward signs of this new identity. They can be as serious or as silly as you want. New work clothes, new notebooks, new business card designs, new desk plant. Whatever it is, it becomes a small thing that reminds you and others that this is the new normal (good for when you might have trouble believing it yourself).

New beginnings are great. You can’t mistake the feeling you get when you start one. My new beginning only happened 3 months after I moved to San Francisco, and took a lot of work and emotional discipline to get through.

Parting thoughts

If you’re moving country or going through a similar personal transition, I hope this adaptation was useful. I had lots of “trust your instincts” advice sent my way, but my instinct only works if I do too. And the book’s framework helped me work smarter.

PS: if you’re interested in how to lead a company through a transition, I highly recommend the book.