Transition is the inner process we must undergo in coming to terms with a change.  Increase your understanding of the three stages of a transition.

October 2011    Issue #24

Today’s topic:  Transition - The inner game of change

Dear friends,

All of nature is in a state of flux and change, as our weather cools and the leaves turn brilliant and beautiful, before falling.  Many of us are experiencing big changes in our lives.  So the topic of change and transition seems timely.

How we process change greatly influences the quality of our life journey.  Whether those changes are of our own choosing or thrust upon us -- we can find meaning in the midst of them, if we are willing to look within with compassion.

Warm regards,

Something to think about

It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.

                                           -William Bridges

Change is the one constant

This September my husband and I travelled East to get our son settled into his first year of university in Ontario.  We are now officially “empty nesters”.  While much in our life remains the same, we are discovering that this is a BIG CHANGE. 

This falls into the category of a “positive” change.  Our son is doing something we feel great about – and he’s happily challenged by this new adventure.  This definitely tempers our feelings of loss at his departure.  Having a new baby, starting a new job, taking a trip – such changes also fall into the “positive” category. 

Much more challenging are the changes we didn’t want or plan.  The loss of a job, a health crisis, the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage.  These changes may be more shocking in nature – and leave us feeling very out-of-control.

However all changes, planned or unplanned, create ripples -- and sometimes tidal waves -- within us.  How we ride those waves is the process which William Bridges refers to as “transition”. 

Change vs. Transition

Bridges has devoted his life and a number of books to the study of transitions – and all that is involved in making them.  In his book Managing Transitions Bridges makes a distinction between change and transition.  Change is situational:  a move, loss of a job, arrival of a new baby, etc. Transition is the inner psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. 

In my empty nest situation, the change is that my youngest has left home.  The transition is the inner process that each of us (myself, my husband and my son) is going through to adjust to that change.  Says Bridges, “Change is external, transition is internal.”

Change and transition have different time-lines

Changes and transitions don’t happen simultaneously.  A change can occur in a heartbeat, like the sudden death of a loved one.  However the process of coming to terms with that change may take considerable time. Conversely, some changes are a very long time in the making, like a long-awaited and anticipated promotion.  Much of the transition may occur before the change actually happens.

In my observation, the process of transition has a life and timing of it’s own.  Without understanding this, many people suffer and berate themselves for not “getting over” a change more quickly.  However it is difficult to get over something which hasn’t been processed.

The Three Stages of a Transition

William Bridges asserts that there is an inner and underlying process common to all transitions – whether it’s a change you’ve initiated or one that’s been forced on you.  This simple and profound process has three stages:

      1)    An ending or letting go of an old situation
2)    The neutral zone or in-between state
3)    A new beginning or launching into a new situation

Let’s look at each of these stages a little more closely.  As we do so, I invite you to reflect on a change and transition that you are currently experiencing.  Can you relate to these stages?

1)  An ending or letting go

This stage involves the realization that something has ended.  It could be a job, a relationship, a change in finances or health, a loss of a pet or person, a change in status or identity, the success or failure of a dream.  Even a “good” change involves letting go of something.

Letting go takes place on many levels and often involves grief.  Signs of grieving may include:  denial (refusal to acknowledge the change), anger (from grumbling to rage), bargaining (unrealistic attempts to escape the situation), anxiety (silent or expressed), sadness (quiet or teary), disorientation (confusion and forgetfulness) and depression (feeling hopeless and tired).  Not everyone will experience all of these, nor with the same intensity – however it’s important to give space for these feelings to work their way through.

 An ending leads into:

2) The Neutral Zone

This is a period of confusion, in-between-ness and distress.  I like to think of this phase as The Void – when life can feel empty and without meaning.  Says Bridges, “This is the no-man’s land between the old reality and the new.  It’s the limbo between the old sense of identity and the new.  It is a time when the old way is gone and the new doesn’t feel comfortable yet.” 

This is the stage that is least understood and most confusing.  Yet it also holds the greatest potential for creativity and innovation – as we are shaken out of old patterns and the familiar.  Once navigated, it leads to:

3)  A new beginning

This stage marks the launching forth into a new situation.  This phase denotes a new emotional commitment to do things a new way and to see yourself with a new identity.  The confusion and disorientation give way to a new clarity and a re-visioning of yourself and the situation.  Energy is released!

The new beginning may be accompanied by feelings of both excitement (for the new) and fear (of what it will take).  Although a new beginning seems very appealing, we may be surprised that we approach it with some ambivalence.  Why? Perhaps because a new beginning confirms the fact of the ending – which may re-trigger our sadness.  And as exciting as it is, trying things in a new way always involves the fear of taking a risk.

It’s not a linear process

Bridges points out that these stages are not separate stages with clear boundaries, but rather overlapping – with one of them being the most dominant at a given point of time.  This has certainly been my experience with the empty nest transition. 

Feelings of grief and sadness (the ending) came and went for a year before my son actually left home – and they periodically revisit since he’s gone.  I’ve also had moments of feeling lost and wondering what will give my life meaning, now that being a Mom is not the major organizer of my time and focus (the Neutral Zone).  Lately, I’m mostly excited, as I experience greater personal freedom and anticipate all the things my husband and I can do with this new-found time and energy (a new beginning).  I expect these cycles of transition will continue for awhile, until the “new normal” is fully established.

Turn, turn, turn

Transitions follow the pattern of the seasons.  There is a time of endings and death in the fall, followed by a fallow or empty time in winter, leading to new growth in the spring and the “new normal” of summer.

It’s not surprising that we take comfort and inspiration from the natural world – it is such a helpful mirror of the process we experience in transition.  Through understanding this natural process of disorientation and reorientation, as identified by Bridges, we can find meaning and coherence in the midst of the most challenging change.

Invitation to action

Identify a significant change you are currently dealing with.  Take a few minutes to reflect on these questions: 

  • Which of these 3 stages of transition resonates with me the most right now?
  • Am I resisting any of these stages? 
  • What would support me in surrendering more fully to the transition process?

Then lovingly ask for or give yourself the support you need.

Shirley’s Update

I’ve recently returned from the annual International Coach Federation Conference, a gathering of almost 1,000 coaches from 43 countries, held this year in Las Vegas.  Despite the somewhat surreal surroundings of Vegas, it was a heart-warming and stimulating exchange of ideas, tools, resources and cultures.  I particularly enjoyed a final blast of summer heat!

Another exciting development for me has been my recent coaching contract with a local non-profit organization.  After having worked many years in the social services myself -- it is so satisfying to provide coaching support to these hard-working and dedicated staff members.

Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over  20 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching.  She helps her clients get to the heart of what is limiting their success – in their work and in their relationships – and coaches them to make the changes they desire. Her Relationship Readiness Coaching helps singles and divorced avoid repeating past mistakes and create a game plan for finding the “right” partner.  Shirley’s clients appreciate her ability to listen deeply and without judgement, her compassionate wisdom and her support in staying focused. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session.  If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help.  Click on a link below or visit her website at
Copright 2011  Shirley Vollett  All rights reserved.
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