William Bridges originally published Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes in 1980, which is around the time I first came across it and began giving copies to friends, coworkers, and clients. So simple a paradigm for understanding your personal reaction to the things that happen to and around you, it barely qualifies in the world of academic models that took shape later in the decade and in later decades.
I always struggled with organizational development diagrams, pictures, arrows and circles, lines and boxes, and pictorials representing the theoretical flow of human energy or other intangible movement. I’m not sure if I’m just linear, or whether I start to digress as soon as I see something ambiguous, like the word “change.” I love the idea of change, and I’m a transition diver–I just go for it and see what happens–but the pictures tend to feel very controlling and unfriendly to me.
So the simplicity of Bridges’ model is that it isn’t really a model, it’s kind of a lens you can choose to use. In his view, change is what happens around you, it’s external. Transition is what you do to adapt. Before you can transition to a beginning, there has to be an ending, and after the ending there is a neutral zone. You pass through the neutral zone at your own pace, and eventually find yourself at a new beginning.
Neutral zones can be troublesome, because you are neither there nor here–not at an end or a beginning. When you long for the comfort of your old life, your old ways, your old self, just the longing itself lets you know it’s past, and therefore not present. You have arrived in the neutral zone. In the neutral zone, you aren’t really moving forward and you can’t go back, and that can create a lot of unconscious or subconscious maneuvering, as you try to hang on and try to move ahead, simultaneously. Physically, you might experience feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, sadness, pain, all the while looking for the happiness a new beginning can represent. Confusing, on a good day, but with all the potential for destructive action on the worst days.
We don’t always know the exact way in which we create what we think are safety nets, back-up plans, rationalizations, and alternatives, but sometimes they exert more power than the real deal, the intention or ambition that started the end of the old and the plan for the new. It helps to be self-aware and to know that the something that is going on inside you is healthy and a sign that you are adapting. You can hit the pause button, listen to yourself, and figure out what to do next.
I recommend Bridges’ book, now a classic, and in a new revised (2004) edition. It’s short, elegant, simple, and very straightforward. It applies to so much of our big and small changes in life, whether we are conscious of the neutral zone or just sail though it. Aging, illness, graduation, moving from one house to another, loss of job, new job, new partner, divorce, breakup, best friend moved, empty nest, promotion, new hobby sports injury, weight gain, weight loss, new boss, new president (!). . . .you get the picture; it’s a lens for clarifying why we often feel a bit stuck, unstable, or just not there yet.