Discerning Transition from Change

I recently pulled William Bridges' The Way of Transition: Embracing Life's Most Difficult Moments, off the bookshelf and am finding it incredibly useful, both for my work with clients and for thinking about this period of major change in my own life. What immediately caught my attention was Bridges' emphasis on the difference between change and transition. As he wrote, change is a "situational shift"--getting a job or losing a job, for example--whereas, transition is "the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become." This more abstract language became instantly concrete in the second chapter of the book, when Bridges described losing his wife to cancer.

His partner, Mondi, actually provided some of the most poignant renderings of transition. Bridges included excerpts of her written "updates" to friends and family about her experience with cancer. This update, in particular, moved me:

I really like new beginnings. I like the challenge of finding meaning in heretofore impossible situations...I like being in the middle of what's true and what's real, and what's at the center of things. I've always liked thinking about death, and I've always thought of death as a new beginning. Now I have to put my money where my mouth has always been. I accept that challenge. I'm willing to be awake and conscious if and when I become ill and die. For a person like me, who has such a strong interest in her spiritual development, having cancer is quite an opportunity. I also hate new beginnings. It is devastating to me to think of not seeing my children become middle-aged and my grandchildren grow up. It tears my heart apart to think of leaving Bill--he whom I have spent 37 years of my life with, for better and worse and everything else that happens in a good marriage. My friends are my treasures. I don't want to let them go...Who am I if I'm not a therapist? It's not that I don't think I'll still be here, therapist or not, but I'm just not too familiar with that non-therapist woman. And what about leaving this body? I've lived in it for fifty-six years, and it has served me so well. I don't know who I would be without this body, thought I feel quite certain I'll still be me and I'll be around.

Bridges went on to say that Mondi began to see transitions everywhere as she became more ill. I took his and her larger point to be that we can relate to big and small moments in our lives as transitions--as opportunities to begin anew on a daily basis--if we so choose. His words eloquently capture this possibility of perceiving new beginnings around every corner:

There are beginnings and endings all along the path. You are constantly letting go of who you thought you were and how you thought your life would be...To the extent that you can let go of who you used to be and honor the experience of being in-between lives, you discover a rich and wonderful way of living. There is no beginning that doesn't require an ending, and no ending that doesn't make possible a new beginning.

The "in-between" space he described seems to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the transition process for those of us who are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Bridges called this state the "neutral zone" and emphasized its potential for creativity if we allow ourselves to live in this chaotic space while "a replacement reality and a new self is gradually being formed." He also challenged the idea that our life revolves around stages, as is frequently found in human development literature (e.g., the adolescent stage). Instead, he asserted that the transitions are the focal points in our lives, while stages often serve as the rest stops between them.

Importantly, Bridges underscored that endings and losses tend to signal transition. Rather than view such events as disasters to avoid, he recommended the following response to such alarm clocks, which can wake us up if we let them:

Whatever its details, an outer loss is best understood as a surrogate for some inner relinquishment that must be made, but one that is difficult to describe. What it is time to let go of is not so much the relationship or the job itself, but rather the hopes, fears, dreams and beliefs that we have attached to them. If you let go only of the job or the relationship, you'll just find another one and attach the same hopes, fears, dreams and beliefs to it. And, on the other hand, you may find that you can let go of those inner attitudes without actually terminating the outer situation.

Upon facing such a loss, he therefore advised that we ask ourselves, "What is it time for me to let go of?" This inquiry draws attention to what we need to unlearn--not add on. As Bridges noted, we can easily miss the inner message of the transition by focusing all our attention on the outer change, such as finding a new job, place to live, or romantic relationship. I also want to highlight his emphasis on the futility of asking, "Why is this happening to me?" We really seem to love quests for causal explanations in the United States, but the hunt for clear causes can distract us from the letting go process that permits us to grow and begin anew. In his no-nonsense words, "forget speculating about the identity of the sender and ('Hey, time to wake up!') read the message."

So why go through all this deprogramming, chaos, and uncertainty? Because transition renews us if we open to it. I again defer to Bridges' powerful words: "It is as though the breakdown of the old reality releases energy that has been trapped in the form of our old lives and converts it back to its original state of pure and formless energy."

I could go on and on about this book, so I'll close by recommending you experience The Way of Transition for yourself. As Bridges pointed out, "until something makes sense in the context of our experience, it is just hearsay."