“Life is full of change. The good passes, but so does the bad. Nothing remains the same in this unstable world…if we only wait a little, the cycle, the endless unfailing tide of things will sweep us up. Without darkness, we would not appreciate the light.” Kristin Zambucka, author
We live in a world that is constantly changing; nothing stays the same. While all of us face modern-day transitions, it was more than 2,000 years ago that Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that change is the only constant in life. So, if there is no such thing as a life w/o change why is adapting to change so challenging to us? Are there ways to manage transitions that don’t involve a couch and the fetal position?
The truth is – we human beings generally resist change – we are creatures of habit – and we are somewhat lazy – so we don’t always welcome it, especially change that’s imposed on us by circumstances we can’t control and didn’t choose.
In order to learn how to roll with the punches at any stage of life two things have to happen: (1) We must accept that we can’t always control what happens to us, but we do have a choice about how to respond. In other words, we can choose to play the victim and blame someone else, or we can choose personal accountability and take the future into our own hands. It’s up to us. (2) We need is to understand the difference between change and transition. Change is external; transition is internal. Change happens when something starts or stops in our lives. Transition, by comparison, is the psychological process we must go through to disengage from the old and become oriented to the new. As you might suspect, it’s not the changes that can do you in, it’s the transitions.
The over-arching idea is that there are three stages: endings, neutral zone and new beginnings and before you can begin anything new, you must acknowledge what has ended and go through the sometimes uncomfortable in-between time. Lucky for us, there’s been years of research on this process, and there are certain things we can expect to encounter.
- You have to end before you begin. We don’t talk much about this because endings are not a comfortable subject. We try and act as though we won’t ever have to let go of anything – including our finite human lives on this earth – or we act as though we don’t really care. It is helpful to remember that it is more often the fear of change, rather than the actual reality of change, that makes us upset. My work as a celebrant tells me that honoring the past is essential to having emotional closure before we can make a new start. So mourning has a role to play; a time to cry and feel sad; a time to talk about our losses associated with the ending; a time to recognize that the old days are truly over. To quote Shakespeare: “He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend.”
- After the Ending and before the New Beginning, there is a confusing in-between time called the Neutral Zone because it is not like the old or the new. It is in-between – Like how Linus feels when his blanket is in the dryer. In the neutral zone we can lose heart easily and we need support and patience.
- The Neutral Zone can be a time of great creativity. The same things that make it difficult can also reduce our resistance to new ideas and new behaviors. It’s gives us a time to step back and take stock, to try out new things, and to view problems as a chance to let go of outmoded habits and invent new ones.
- While change can occur randomly, transition is developmental and full of personal meaning. What ends in a transition is often not just a particular situation, but an entire stage of development. Ex, when a couple decides to start a family, Mother Nature gives them a 9 month pregnancy to get ready – and when the baby’s born it’s not just a physical change that’s happened with this new member added to their family – but their whole life has changed. It’s a brand new day and the old world no longer exists. They each have a new role, a new social status, a new daily routine, and lots of new equipment like strollers, baby bottles, diapers, to get used to!
- Transition is a primary source of personal renewal. Life either moves forward gradually, or with occasional jumps. These jumps are like leaps in nature which release energy. That’s why people come out of a painful crisis with renewed energy. Ex – I facilitate monthly Death Cafes and people often tell personal stories about how a life-threatening illness or accident brought them close to death and when they recovered they decided to reorder their priorities and use their new found energy to make a new life.
- People go through transition at different speeds and in different ways. Some will get strung out along the path of a transition like runners in a marathon. Some of the lead runners had a head start so they may feel more in control of the process or they may not be as personally affected by the change as those who are behind them. Some people thrive on change, others fear it and the majority of us are somewhere in the middle.
- Most of us are running a transition deficit most of the time. Too often we haven’t had time to complete one transition cycle before the next change happens. This leaves us with unfinished business and that can cost us our health, and our happiness. It seems that we have difficulty letting go of what is familiar even when the familiar does not work well. And when change you don’t want is forced on you – like being laid off – some of us fall into what is called the “shame spiral” where we blame ourselves even if it had nothing to do with us, and that can keep us stuck. We need to be able to acknowledge the feelings and move on. We don’t have to hold onto that burden.Fortunately every transition presents us with a chance to go back and complete any unfinished business we left undone and to heal before we move fully into the new life we have chosen.
- Each of us is accountable for our own transitions. We are meant to grow from our life experiences. An important part of going through transitions is acknowledging that we “own” them; they are our unique learning opportunities. A budding science called “affective forecasting” shows that we human beings aren’t very good at predicting how an event, good or bad, will affect us emotionally in the future. As a result, a promotion at work probably won’t be as thrilling as we anticipate; but a job loss won’t be as devastating as we fear, either. Importantly, most people recover after even the most difficult of changes, so we can take heart. We are resilient, resourceful and we are strengthened by each transition we successfully navigate.