Making a big career or life change can be tough. And we all have to face changes in our lives. You may want to move to a new job or start a business. You may face redundancy or retirement. You may need to move home, start a family, or return to work after a break.
An approach which can help you manage change comes from the work of William Bridges. Bridges describes the difference between the external change, and the internal process of transition.
“Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.”
William Bridges “Managing Transitions”
Of course, the two don’t always dovetail neatly. Often the external change happens before you’ve had time to make the internal transition. That’s when you can feel stressed, overwhelmed, confused or fearful. In this state, it can be hard to make important decisions about your future.
An aspect of change is that something is being left behind. It is important to acknowledge what is being lost. Even when you want the change to happen, it is valuable to recognise that something is finishing. It allows completion.
Imagine you’re returning to work after time at home with your children. You may be keen to start using your professional skills again, but also need to acknowledge the loss of time with family.
Or you may have been promoted to a management role. This is a positive change. But you may miss being part of your former team, with plenty of camaraderie and fewer responsibilities.
It can be particularly hard when the change is not of your making. If you’re made redundant from a job you enjoy, there is a clearly a loss. It is important to be able to “mourn” that in a sense, before you’re ready to move on. The moving on process can take some time, or it can happen quite quickly. Sometimes the recognition of the ending is all that is needed to free up energy to move forward.
This is an in-between stage. You’ve accepted that something is ending, but are not sure about or committed to what comes next. When you recognize that feelings of confusion, uncertainty and even fear are part of this, you can see that they will not last forever. And there are positive aspects to this phase if you allow them in.
You have choices; choices over how to react to the change, and choices about what to do next. You may find it helpful to re-frame your feelings of uncertainty. You can choose to see them as part of a process of research and ideas generation for creating your next steps. This can be a creative time.
Again, we may pass through the neutral zone quickly. Or it we may have to live in this stage for a while. This is particularly so with a big life change such as moving to a new town.
Mark was struggling with imposed retirement. He needed to go through the process of acknowledging his feelings about the loss of status and routine. In the neutral zone, he started to think about positive ways to spend retirement. He became involved in an active voluntary group fundraising for his community, and also volunteered to mentor younger people in his former line of work.
There is a difference between the start of something new, and the beginning. In Bridges model, the beginning is where we have come through the neutral zone and are psychologically ready to commit to the new reality. And it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the new.
If we have gone consciously through the previous two stages, then we may start to feel the excitement and promise of the beginning.
So for example, we can start a new job with our focus on enjoying and making the most of it, whether or not we would rather have stayed in our previous one.
Isabel had to make some difficult decisions about returning to work after having her daughter. She didn’t want to go back to the long hours and demands of her corporate job. So she researched her options. Her company didn’t want her to return part-time, and she found that local part-time jobs weren’t a good match for her skills. So she set up as an independent consultant in her field. She acknowledged the loss of income and job security through her decision. This allowed her to move on and focus on the increased freedom in managing her time and workload, and the excitement of being her own boss.
Like all models, this one is a simplification, and in real life there is an overlap between the three phases. The value comes in recognising where you are in the process. Trying to rush through a stage is counter-productive, and so is dwelling longer than you need in any one phase. You can assess your journey through the transition by noticing the shift in your thoughts and feelings as one stage moves into the next.
Would you like some expert support to help you work through a change or decision in your life? Coaching can be really helpful at times of change, and my style is warm and supportive. Please email me if you would like to book a complimentary consultation.