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Making Sense of Life’s Changes

by William Bridges Copyright 2004 © by William Bridges. Published by Da Capo Press, a subsidiary of Perseus Books LLC 194 pages

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• A change is an alteration in your external circumstances. • Transitions are the major milestones that mark your path through life. • All transitions include three phases: letting go of old patterns, a “neutral zone” of exploration and a new beginning. • Ancient societies helped people navigate life transitions with rituals. • You must let go of the past to accept the future. • Your self-image consists of your roles, your relationships with others and your life circumstances. • Couples in transition often discover untapped inner resources in themselves and their partners. • Your dreams, hopes and plans change when you do. • Do not spend too much time planning for a new life stage. Just do it. • When you’re ready to change, new opportunities will appear almost magically.


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Today. All they know is that everything suddenly seems “up in the air. which you experience in an order that may seem backward: the end. you’ll identify and understand your personal development timeline and learn to use change to your advantage. It is primarily psychological in nature. Recommendation In 1970. Abstract Changes and Transitions Ancient societies intuitively recognized and honored major life milestones. was experiencing a difficult time in his life. William Bridges. Transitions usually involve painful. unknown and even threatening situation. such as the all-important move from childhood to adulthood. They require you to give up old. a transition is an internal reorientation. You get married. often mark the process of maturation with what Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep called “rites of passage” – “coming-of-age” rituals in which youth enact death and rebirth. and it requires adapting emotionally to new circumstances. result in achieving real growth. Unfortunately. Its nature and boundaries are not obvious. They may not even recognize what is happening to them. A change is a modification of your external situation. Bridges leads you through an often angst-ridden process. and they proceed in three stages. But they get into trouble during life’s transitional periods. he taught a course in it.” In contrast. With his advice.” an experience that can be deeply unsettling. which quickly became the definitive source on the topic. With insights. similar to the ancient ones. New World families originate in an act of migration. an English professor. Its meaning is clear. information and concepts that you’ll be able to apply to everyday life. blind groping from a settled phase of life to a new. You go on a diet and lose weight. A scholar. “Americans have always been in transition. today’s societies rarely mark life transitions the way the old ones did – even though people continue to experience them. then he developed his ideas into a book. You leave one job and take another. Today’s traditional societies. 4) Which three components characterize every stage of a transition. or even a new relationship or lifestyle. both spiritually and psychologically. the “neutral zone” and the “new beginning. you will learn: 1) How transitions differ from changes. Whereas Old World families trace themselves back to a place.Relevance What You Will Learn In this Abstract. 2) How ancient societies handled transitions. A transition is not simply a change. 3) Why you should go through transitions in stages. Rites of passage often involve taking a new name to symbolize a new identity.” Transitions © Copyright 2007 getAbstract 2 of 5 .” “Without a transition. counselors and other mental health professionals recognized it as a breakthrough self-help text. Psychologists. a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. getAbstract recommends this classic book to people anticipating or in the midst of professional or personal turning points. Transitions always include a disconcerting sense of “in-betweenness. constant change is a fact of life. comfortable ways of doing things or interpreting experiences and to find entirely new ones. Eventually. People easily manage the move to a new job or home. You pack your belongings and move to a new city. he decided to learn all that he could about the psychology of transition. Transitions.” They are difficult and painful. ultimately. and 5) How to make transitions less painful.

adults lead each youth to a lonely stretch of desert or forest. Moving from what you know toward something you don’t seems crazy. Young people surrender their childhood. The new beginning can take the form of a new relationship. for many. 5. The poet Robert Frost described this as becoming “lost enough to find yourself. 2. which. for it makes us wonder whether the change was a bad idea. In many traditional rites of passage. as a plant does during its winter dormancy.“Every phase of life has…a task. whack us on the back and get us functioning again. where the youth must remain long enough to experience the loss of old connections. confusion. accepting transitions is the only path to personal growth. emptiness and loss. “Disengagement” – Separating yourself psychologically from the old status quo. Transitions © Copyright 2007 getAbstract 3 of 5 . Ultimately. It is where you live. reconciling themselves to an ending is excruciating. “Disorientation” – Losing the motivation to pursue your former goals. 4. which can be difficult and frightening. not planned. with the flip of a switch – as much as you might wish it would. The neutral zone is a time of distress. Indeed. project. and many people who find themselves in this phase look for “psychological obstetricians” who can “get us out. However. Modern societies have little understanding or appreciation of it. 3. place or even way of thinking. “Disenchantment” – Discovering the flaws in your assumptions about yourself or others. you gain a new. “Our whole way of being – the personal style that makes you recognizably ‘you’ and me ‘me’ – is developed within and adjusted to fit a given life pattern. “Dismantlement” – Gradually changing your behavior patterns. you have established yourself in your familiar world. They view emptiness as the absence of worthwhile activity. A new beginning is like a rebirth.” “There are ways of facilitating transitions. you know how to get things done. The new phase doesn’t go on like a light bulb. Therefore. and failing to complete it satisfactorily means that you make the transition into the next phase accompanied by unfinished business. In it. identity and even reality.” A Fresh Start The boundary between the neutral zone and the new beginning is not necessarily clear. They fiercely hang onto their old ways. It is usually accidental. To do the work of the neutral zone.” “It is frightening to discover that some part of us is still holding on to what we used to be. you must first surrender to it and accept a return to primal “chaos. it is also a time to recover from burnout and to store up new energy. After all.” The End The first stage is the end of the “good old days. many people have great difficulty during this stage. These periods of solitude evoke feelings of emptiness and loss. but you must go through it if you want to get to the other side. and they begin with recognizing that letting go is at best an ambiguous experience. Most endings involve these five “D’s”: 1. you can’t safely stay in it for too long. Many eventually end up taking a “little time away” to reorient themselves – the contemporary substitute for going off into the wilderness. was the only reality they knew. most people in transition don’t know that they’ve reached the end of one phase of their lives and begun another. Indeed.” You may experience frightening personality disintegration.” In Transit The neutral zone is like crossing a street. wider perspective and some spiritual distance from petty life concerns. “Disidentification” – Letting go of your old identity or social role. Nevertheless.” You must let go of comfortable patterns and habits. until that point. you must understand that beginning a new life phase is not automatic.” But just as doctors now realize that birth is not a mechanical process.

That’s your psyche trying to protect you by avoiding endings and change.“One way or another. in fact. as they find life partners and have children. or the anxiety of the neutral zone. though. his wife experienced his “help” as yet another of his attempts to assert his control over her. in this view. He was baffled. They try to shorten the transitional process. However. they are signals that a chapter in the joint story has ended. fleeting urges – to go into business for yourself. ultimately. For example. “Were you born to be 17 or 70? Are you a perennial 25-yearold. Instead. a transition turned upside down quickly becomes frightening and unintelligible. or to return to college. a man whose marriage was coming apart thought he was doing his wife a favor when he reorganized the kitchen for her. 2. Re-examine the transition process: Are you trying to flee the uncertainty of the neutral zone? During a new beginning. this was the last straw. Some people find their life’s work only as they get older: Mohandas Gandhi was 50 when he developed nonviolent resistance. by beginning the new phase before they’ve properly said goodbye to the old one. To check whether you are entering a new phase or merely repeating old patterns. Often. pay attention to subtle inner messages and signals. These signals may make you feel defensive. “Whether it is a minor disappointment or a major shock. Indeed. Miguel de Cervantes did not write Don Quixote until he was even older. discounting their experience or ignoring its significance. [disenchantment] is the signal that things are moving into transition. they shortchange themselves and distort the arc of their lives.” To recognize a new beginning. Never run from a transitional period. most people in transition have the experience of no longer being quite sure who they are. Nothing was where she had left it. for example. 3. Transitions © Copyright 2007 getAbstract 4 of 5 . Sometimes they come in dreams – which the ancients wisely trusted more than modern people do. Moving from childhood dependence to adulthood.” What Not to Do Many people cannot handle their feelings of loss during the ending phase. cut yourself some slack. or are you still waiting for your entrance at 50?” For some people. you’ll probably experience an ebb and flow of countless transitional phases. Allow yourself to explore and experiment. when. Some people try to avoid the pain of transition by burying their feelings. “I never used to help around the house before. You may think you’re exhibiting a brand-new behavior pattern. However. However. For her. She asked him to move out. they imagine that they have no control over what is happening. Your mind uses dreams to prepare you for something new. entering their thirties is deeply significant. Types of Transitions Most people experience three transitions during their lives: 1. you can’t. Shaking up assumptions and starting over in midlife. As a result. like the lives that come together to form it. Transitions are the way your life unfolds. are not…flaws to be corrected. Others have a midlife crisis during their forties. has its seasons… Problems. Distinguishing between a new beginning and your defensive responses can be difficult. Establishing relationships and a career. Forget about results. these take the form of sudden. moving everything around and labeling the cabinets. and she couldn’t work there.” “A relationship. you’re desperately trying to maintain an old way of relating or thinking. Instead. They refuse to look within. most lives do not have such clearly marked crossroads.” he said. consult a friend.

being fired and other job changes. I am getting there. try to understand its benefits. or a change in lifestyle or appearance. Physicians and psychologists have documented the stress that often accompanies transition. If you are a gym rat.” [ – Lao Tzu. or self-image changes. However. or illness. pursue that which is not meddlesome. articulating your feelings may help you clarify your thinking. work out. imperfect. diet or exercise changes. • “Take care of yourself in little ways” – When the world is coming apart around you.’ and then coming back with an answer” – Any transition. the laundry. interruption of sleep patterns.Common Transitions These life changes often signal that you’re entering a transitional period: • Home life alterations – A birth. • Inner-life changes – Increases in political. Be willing to live temporarily with a situation that you would not accept long term. If you feel your friend or spouse forced the change on you. savor that which has no flavor. represents a time of self-renewal. and your progress may be slow. “I am not the new person that I eventually will be. or income decrease or increase. Turn a difficult situation into one from which you can learn and grow. an empty nest. During transitions. slowly but surely. You can’t simply turn it on and off. not a sprinter. Follow these steps if you’re experiencing a relationship transition: • “Take your time” – Although a significant change in a relationship can happen in an instant.” About the Author William Bridges is a lecturer. If you are a music lover. • “Think of transition as a process of leaving the status quo. Tao Te Ching] Is Your Relationship in Transition? Relationships as well as individuals go through transitions. • “Arrange temporary structures” – A relationship in transition is. • Financial or work changes – Retiring. living for a while in a fertile ‘time-out. psychological or spiritual awareness. It always takes time. Don’t rush the process. consultant and author of several books on life transitions. you are a marathon runner. Transitions © Copyright 2007 getAbstract 5 of 5 . or the death of a spouse. marriage. go to a concert. a friend or even a pet. even the most painful. take comfort in the continuity of small things. • “Find someone to talk to” – Even if you don’t need advice. • Changes of a personal nature – Illness. such as losing hair or gaining weight.” [ – Zen proverb] Go Easy on Yourself Transition is a process. • Relationship losses – Divorce. • “Don’t act for the sake of action” – Don’t act before you’ve come to terms with the ending of your old relationship or way of relating. which can be so severe that it impairs your physical and mental health. During transitions. maintain good exercise and dietary habits. “After enlightenment. move to a new home. reorienting yourself to the new reality always takes time. by definition. • “Explore the other side of the change” – Is the change something that you initiated? Try to consider it from the other person’s perspective. Your motto should be. “Do that which consists in taking no action.