Transitions – Make Them Transformational

By Charmaine Sullivan

Everyone has changes in their life. Some are known or planned – moving away to go to college or your first apartment, marriage, a first child. While others are unplanned – the death of a spouse, the loss of a job, the multiple adjustments due to COVID. These are examples of external transitions, and there are also developmental or internal transitions that happen. Adolescence, midlife, and aging are all natural, inner transitions that leads to new ways of experiencing the world.  Each of these changes can also be seen as a transition, where one way or stage of life is ended and there can be a move to a totally different way of life. In his seminal book “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes”, William Bridges gives a model that provides a conceptual picture of transition and advice on how to work through the different stages. At its simplest, with transition, there is an Ending, then a Neutral Zone and only then a New Beginning.

Endings come first during the transition process. Loss is the first step, and even good changes begin with a loss where you have to let go of something. Before you can move into the next phase, the Neutral Zone, you need to acknowledge what is ending. A big transition may take years, while small ones may take just days to work through. The Neutral Zone is a place where new ideas and identities can emerge. It is the place in between chapters. This is the place where a lot of personal “work” needs to be done before you move on to the next phase of New Beginnings. Launching something new can be exciting as well as frightening. Your New Beginning may or may not be what you imagined, so work done in the Neutral Zone is critical, as well as being open to new possibilities.

Endings and New Beginnings seem to get a lot of attention, so we will focus on the Neutral Zone portion of the Transitions model. Per William Bridges, a transition can be thought of as a process leaving the status quo, living for a while in a fertile timeout, then coming back with an answer. Traditional cultures have rituals for times of transition which we have lost in the modern world. Think of the child-to-adult rituals. These include sending the person away from the familiar to an unfamiliar area creating an emptiness where they learned what to do by soliciting spirit guides, heightening their awareness by meditation, chanting, fasting, using sweat lodges and sometimes being aided by psychotropic substances. They were taught to translate symbols and dreams to help them define their new role in society, as well as giving them a new name. This is all missing into today’s modern world, so we need to think of our own rituals and to look for ways to carve out time to experience the emptiness that is needed to recognize our own New Beginning.

Make your transition a time of renewal and transformation. Take this opportunity to discover what you really want. What are the possibilities that life holds for you? Here are steps you can take during this process that can help you discern what you really want. First, it can be disconcerting when there is no clear path laid out and you’re feeling overwhelmed. This would be a good time to think of creating temporary structures that you put into place for a short period of time. This will give some continuity as you pull together the new pieces of your life. Recognize that you are going to an unfamiliar, empty space. This is where you get separated from your familiar “old’ life, and have the space to create what your new life will be.  Not everyone has 40 days they can spend in isolation, so look for ways you can grab even short blocks of time in the Neutral Zone. Use the 30-45 minutes before the family gets up, while you’re on a jog or a walk, driving alone, or sitting quietly after dinner. Try to make these blocks of time a regular feature of your day, and log your experiences and thoughts during this time. Here are some good questions to ponder and things to be aware of:

  • Think back to other transitions in your past and how you handled them.  Do you notice any common threads?
  • What did you dream of becoming when you were a child?
  • Think of what would be unlived in your life if it ended today.
  • What keeps popping up in your life lately?  What news stories are you noticing?  Are there any symbols or metaphors that are more predominant now?
  • Be aware of the people and connections that keep crossing your path.  The universe may be sending you a lifeline or a messenger.
  • Collect pictures that are meaningful into a Vision Board.

Then visit and revisit your log or journal. Look for threads that are being woven into your New Beginning.  If you have a trusted friend, ask them to look at them too.  Often others can see patterns that we might not see because we are too close to the subject. You will know you are on the right path when the themes resonate with you. This will serve as the guidepost as you move to the New Beginning phase.

Charmaine Sullivan spent much of her career at Procter & Gamble in global product development and consumer research working on Women's Care brands. She founded and led the Women's Care Virtual Category. Since retiring, she splits her time between Michigan and Ohio, traveling, spending time with family and making wine.

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