Navigating Life’s Transitions
Life is a ceaseless process of transition. The small transitions of daily life slip by unnoticed while the big changes — career, relationship status, geographic location, etc. — are worthy of celebratory social media posts. From the outside these changes seem to happen quickly, a snapshot in time that marks the spot where one thing ceases to be and the next begins. What doesn’t make it into a LinkedIn update is that the snapshot — what we see outwardly as a marker of change — is only a small part of a much longer, invisible, non-linear process.
At the beginning of the pandemic I left my career in tech to become an executive coach. With a coaching certification already in hand and a small roster of clients on the side, I thought the transition would be straightforward. I love coaching and was ecstatic to be able to do this work full time, but wow did I underestimate what the transition would ask of me. Two years in and I’m still in the process of transition.
The simple awareness of a transition is enough to begin the process, whether the transition itself is intentional or not. Faced with a new reality, people look for ways to orient around the change and understand what it means. It’s common to spend time reflecting on personal values to remind us of who we want to be in the world. Transitions can be an opportunity to shake off what felt compromising or intolerable in the past in order to live more congruently in the present.
William and Susan Bridges, some of the best writers on the subject, define transitions as: “the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become.” In theory this sounds straightforward but in practice we can easily fall into “identity paralysis” — the inability to move on from previous identities and embrace new ones, whether the change itself was positive or negative . Transitions inevitably unravel our understanding of who we are in order to make space for who we are becoming.
Letting go is hard work. What happens to our identity in the midst of transition isn’t an additive process in which a new identity gets layered onto the our current one. It is an undoing, a cleaning out, a shedding. My career as a tech executive was intricately tied to my identity and way of being in the world. It was how I signaled my value to society and how society saw value in me. It defined what occupied my attention and how I structured my days and weeks. Who was I without the complex flow of organizational life to define me? When the daily rhythms of company work disappeared, so did my sense of self.
The Transition Model
If you asked me a few years ago how transitions work, I would have said something like this:
1) The Ending: something happens that precipitates a change. In my case, I realized that something vital came alive as a coach and I wanted this work to be the focus of my days, weeks, and years. I put in notice at work, said tearful goodbyes to my team, and dropped my work computer in the mail.
2) The New Beginning: the new beginning begins! I put up a website, opened my doors, and began coaching.
But it turns out they look more like this:
1) The Ending: something shifts and alerts us to the closing of a cycle or period in life. At the same time, seeds of the new beginning are present along with a third space — the neutral zone — a liminal place of unbecoming.
2) The Neutral Zone: as we move through the stages of letting go, of grief, of understanding ourselves in new light and new context, the liminal space of the neutral zone grows and encompasses most of our awareness. We feel disoriented and uncertain.
3) The New Beginning: the new beginning takes shape and builds momentum. We are in conversation with the new situation while simultaneously in contact with the neutral zone and the process of metabolizing the ending.
Bridges’ model completely shifted my understanding of transitions in two fundamental ways. First, the existence of the neutral zone as a place of necessary disorientation was the key to bringing acceptance and compassion to my experience. And second, the insight that all three stages occur simultaneously over time helped me let go of the need to have it all figured out, let go of trying to control the experience and instead give myself over to the process of transition itself.
The Three Stages of Transition
Let’s look at the three stages of transition a little more closely.
Endings are a kind of symbolic death in which we must let go of the person we’ve been in order to create space for something new to emerge. This is sometimes scary, always uncomfortable, and absolutely necessary to truly take advantage of what transitions can offer in terms of personal and professional transformation.
Endings themselves have different aspects, making them more of a process than a singular event. According to the Bridges’ research, there are 5 key phases to endings:
1) Disengagement: the systems that helped support our identity cease to be a part of our environment. Things like calendars, communication channels, coworkers, and responsibilities are no longer a part of our world. It’s okay to let them go.
2) Dismantling: once we disengage from these systems, space opens up to unpack our relationship to our previous role and the identity we created in relationship to the organization, system, and team. The separation of dismantling is what needs to happen to move from ‘we’ to ‘I’.
3) Disidentification: as we dismantle and disengage, old ways of defining ourselves through roles, responsibilities, and titles begin to fall away. If we are doing this right, we will start to lose a sense of who we are.
4) Disenchantment: this is the time to let go of assumptions about reality and accept our own role in creating the specific version we have been inhabiting. We begin to sense that reality has layers and it is time to look below the surface.
5) Disorientation: a time of emptiness and disorientation, we no longer know which way is forward, and which way is back. This is the doorway to the neutral zone.
Endings can open up old wounds, particularly if we have done a good job of compartmentalizing and suppressing the pain of prior experiences. If this happens to you, know that this is very common and you are not alone. Friends, family, therapists, healers, and coaches can be supportive during this time provided the relationship is built on trust and safety. For a quick rundown of what this work entails, “7 Ways to Heal Your Old Emotional Wounds,” is a good place to start.
The Neutral Zone
The neutral zone is a liminal space, an emptiness between ending and beginning. It provides a pause between the old identity and a new one, a pause where the deep work of transitions can unfold. Being in the neutral zone invites us to sit with the discomfort of feeling aimless and undone.
Opening up to this space, to this in-between, gives us access to new ways of perceiving the world. The more we can let go into the aimlessness of the neutral zone, the more we have access to new levels of consciousness. We can tap into other ways of knowing such as deep imagination, intuition, and the dreamtime. When we allow ourselves to see the world differently we expand our sense of reality and connect to a deeper sense of purpose. The neutral zone is necessary in order to metabolize old identities and create the substrate for something new to emerge. Without the neutral zone we wouldn’t have access to this transformational magic.
The neutral zone works in a time outside of time. Personally, I’ve been sitting in the neutral zone for about a year and a half. By this point I’ve become familiar with the visceral process of excavation, sensing where the old identity is filling space that will be needed to support the emergence of a new beginning. It’s not easy though, the letting go.
“Really? This too?” I ask the Neutral Zone.
“Yes, even this too,” is always the reply.
And so I comply, gently, letting another part of my identity dissipate. Resting in the space of not knowing and trusting that this will, at some point, lead somewhere. Bridges calls this experience a kind of emotional wilderness, a place where we can tap into the alternate flow of time needed for internal changes to occur, for internal changes require much more time than external ones.
The New Beginning
“When we are ready to make a new beginning, we will shortly find an opportunity,” — William and Susan Bridges (p. 158)
The stirrings of a beginning, of a true beginning, happen inwardly. We are changed and transformed by the neutral zone, reconstructed in ways that support the adult we are becoming. And when that becoming has reached a certain point, when we are ready, a beginning beckons. Beginnings are organic, ordinary, and small — heralded without fanfare by hints from inner signals. According to Bridges, these hints can come in many forms: ideas, images, comments, impressions, and dreams to name a few. If we pay close attention to the words and visions that make us feel alive, that have a special kind of resonance, we will find poetic guides to a new beginning.
I thought my new beginning was becoming a coach, but in hindsight I can see it for what it is: an ending. I am still floating in liminal space of the neutral zone letting more of my identity wash away and releasing old ways of orienting myself in the world. The person I am becoming requires yet more space, more letting go, more unraveling. The deeper beginning is still unknown to me, but I can sense it rustling on the periphery, the faintest whispers of something new. I must be still to hear it. Only then will I be able to know what beckons.
The Transition Checklist
Transitions aren’t just about getting to the other side, they are an invitation to fully surrender to something that cannot be fully known by the cognitive mind. Understanding and accepting this doesn’t make the process any easier, but can be reassuring to know how it works. I encourage you to read Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes because it is a stellar companion to have along life’s journey. But if I were to encapsulate what I’ve learned about transitions into a quick list, I’d offer the following:
- Take time to reflect and welcome whatever is occurring for you.
- Recognize your thoughts
- Honor your emotions
- Tune into physical sensations
- Create a ritual or event that symbolizes the closing of a chapter in your life. Let yourself experience the ending.
- Create space for emptiness. Find a regular time to be alone.
- Accept resistance, and welcome it in.
- Listen for the new beginning.
- Craft a story to tie the past and the present together
- Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes
- Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward
- The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do
- When a Major Life Change Upends Your Sense of Self
- Learn to Get Better at Transitions
- Feelings Wheel
- Mood Meter