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. We believe in change as long as the wheel of fortune spins in our favor. However, when it doesn't, we may begin to question our preconceived expectations about life.
Throughout the centuries, philosophers, theologians, and psychologists have tried to chart 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. 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 doing so, 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." Some cultures have created entire rituals around this concept; at least one tribe in Africa makes their pubescent boys live in the wilderness for weeks to teach them about the transitional space between boyhood and manhood.
As the neutral zone is uncomfortable, 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.