Why Even ‘Good’ Changes Can Make Us Feel Bad

Transition Management

We are living in a time of tremendous upheaval and change. Globally and locally, we’ve been assaulted by the realities of war, our struggling economy, and environmental disasters. The result is a sense of unpredictability, of powerlessness, and often hopelessness in the face of constant change. Hence, the concept of transition management has developed to support people through the stress of change.

Change happens when something stops or starts in our lives. Some changes are out of our control, such as the loss of a job, financial setbacks, the loss of loved ones or health problems. Other changes are of our making, such as marriage, retirement, geographic relocation, and career retreading. No matter how the change occurs, it is an event. We know it has happened, we can name it, and we can clearly define its ramifications.

But once the change has occurred, we find ourselves disoriented, grief stricken, confused and somewhat depressed, even in the case of “good” changes. These feelings are part of a process called transition. Transition involves the psychological work of grieving the loss of the old reality and adjusting to the new situation until it can be embraced and eventually incorporated into one’s identity. Transition takes a long time because there are many parts to it.

William Bridges, author of several books on transition, delineated three stages that people in transition experience. First comes the Ending, a clear completion of an old way of being or doing. In primitive or traditional cultures, such endings are ritualized to support people in letting go of the old, allowing it to die and celebrating its “funeral.” In our culture, there are few such rituals, so we struggle with other feelings such as denial, confusion, disorientation–all parts of what Bridges calls the Neutral Zone–the second stage of transition.

The Neutral Zone is that time when we’ve clearly left the old reality (job, lifestyle, relationship) but haven’t yet found or accepted the new. The result is a sense of wandering in a fog–feeling lost, detached from the mainstream, and somewhat helpless. Since our culture doesn’t allow for much time out between endings and new beginnings, most of us struggle through the neutral zone without even knowing why we’re feeling such grief. We keep on keeping on, so to speak, until the process somehow completes itself and we can discover and/or accept the new reality.

The third stage, then, is the New Beginning, the new focus, the sense of new energy marking a new chapter in our lives. Because most people are not educated as to the transition process, they often jump too quickly into a new beginning without allowing enough time to grieve and recover from the loss of the old way of being. The results can include prolonged periods of depression or despair; a fear of endings and hence an inability to let go of aspects of our lives that no longer serve us; and false starts in new jobs or relationships.

Since change is a given, why not look at the gifts that result from transition.

I had a vivid experience of transition when I hit burnout in my work after twenty years as a psychotherapist. During most of that time, I felt a strong sense of mission about my work and found it totally gratifying, so I was mystified when I began to get headaches, felt very tired by midday, and was depressed by days end. At the same time, I was single-parenting my teenage boys, the older of whom was graduating from high school and looking forward to leaving home for college. I pressed on with my work, feeling I needed to work at least two more years to see my younger son through high school before I could take some time off.

My body decided otherwise, however. Reluctantly, I wound down my practice and took a “sabbatical.” I spent the year being kind to myself–doing the things I enjoy most. But, instead of feeling a lot better, I ended that first year not yet ready to resume work.

Friends and colleagues were baffled by my behavior and could offer little support. So I began a personal journal, studying my own course through this wilderness. I also discovered the work of William Bridges, which gave the only explanations that fit my state of mind, my “neutral zone.”

Now, three years later, I have become an expert on managing transition. I can look back on my own journey and see that several endings had occurred simultaneously, but I’d not dealt with them. A shift in parental duties, the recent ending of a long-term relationship, my older son’s departure for college, a move from Oregon to Southern California–all of these changes required transitional support and understanding, yet I pushed myself to adjust and create new beginnings as soon as possible. That was all I knew to do. Now I know better!

In the process of exploring my own issues of transition, I discovered a new passion: educating and supporting people through their personal transitions.

Since change is a given, why not look at the gifts that result from transition; the necessity for rituals to acknowledge endings; the incredible fertility offered us in the neutral zone; and the unlimited opportunities for creativity and growth not previously available! And rather than waiting for a major change or crisis to throw us into transition, why not identify the many changes that go on for us all the time–the constant mini-deaths and rebirths that we encounter as we age, learn new things, travel, and expand spiritually.