Transitions: Making Sense Of Life's Changes - by William Bridges


All transitions are composed of (1) an ending, (2) a neutral zone, and (3) a new beginning.

Being In Transition

We feel these unexpected losses because, to an extent that we seldom realize, we come to identify ourselves with the circumstances of our lives.

Although it is advantageous to understand your own style of endings, some part of you will resist that understanding as though your life depended on it.

Endings make us fearful. They break our connection with the setting in which we have come to know ourselves, and they awaken old memories of hurt and shame.

What are the events that have brought change into your life in the past year? And what are the areas of your life in which the changes are evident? Here are some categories and guidelines to help you answer those questions.

  • Losses of relationships.

  • Changes in home life.

  • Personal Changes. Getting sick (or well again); experiencing notable success (or failure); changing your eating habits, sleep patterns, sexual activities; starting or stopping school; markedly changing your life-style or your appearance.

  • Work and financial changes.

  • Inner changes. Spiritual awakening, deepening social and political awareness, or psychological insights; changes in self-image or values; the discovery of a new dream or the abandonment of an old one; or simply one of those nameless shifts that cause us to say, "I'm changing."

Relationships and Transition

" We're out on the frontier of our lives, exploring new territory."

Think of transition as a process of leaving the status quo, living for a while in a fertile "time-out," and then coming back with an answer. The British historian Arnold Toynbee pointed out that societies gain access to new energies and new directions only after a "time of troubles" initiates a process of disintegration wherein the old order comes apart. He showed how often the new orientation was made clear only after what he called a "withdrawal and return" on the part of individuals or creative minorities within the society. The needed transformation, it seems, takes place in an in-between state or outside the margin of ordinary life. That is so with individual lives as well: Things end, then you spend a time (or time-out) in the neutral zone, and then things begin anew. That is how life has always been and always will be. So make your time of transition a time of renewal and transformation. Come out of it stronger and better adapted to your world than you were when you went in.

Transitions in the Work Life

Whether the source of the transition is an external change or your own inner development, the transition always starts with an ending. To become something else, you have to stop being what you are now; to start doing things a new way, you have to end the way you are doing them now; and to develop a new attitude or outlook, you have to let go of the old one you have now. Even though it sounds backwards, endings always come first. The first task is to let go.

After that, you encounter the neutral zone--that apparently empty in-between time when, under the surface of the organizational situation or invisibly inside you, the transformation is going on. Everything feels as though it is up for grabs and you don't quite know who you are or how you're supposed to behave, so this feels like a meaningless time. But it is actually a very important time. During your time in the neutral zone, you are receiving signals and cues--if only you could decipher them!--as to what you need to become for the next stage of your work life. And, unless you disrupt it by trying to rush through the neutral zone quickly, you are slowly being transformed into the person you need to be to move forward in your life.

Two questions that you should learn to ask yourself whenever you are in transition. They'll help you to explore what the transition means in the developmental business of that particular time in your own life.

  1. What is it time to let go of in my own life right now?

  2. What is standing backstage, in the wings of my life, waiting to make its entrance? The answer is something internal, something subjective, although it may be presented to you as an external event or situation that brings it to your attention. Whether it is a thought or idea you can't get out of your mind or an incident that interrupts the ordinary course of your life, this thing is like a message to you, a message that something is standing just outside the door of your everyday awareness, waiting for you to pay attention and invite it in.


Since van Gennep's time, a kind of nostalgia has built up around the notion of rites of passage. We moderns lack them, for the most part, and many people have remarked on this lack. Because we also have great difficulty with life transitions, some people think it logical that we could improve our situation by re-creating ritualized transitions. But rites do not transplant well. They are not techniques for doing something but lenses through which to magnify the experience of something. Rituals of passage are simply a way of focusing and making more visible the natural pattern of dying, chaos, and renewal that was believed to operate everywhere in the universe. And without that belief, there is nothing to focus. Unless a culture and its members see life transitions in that way, the rituals will be rejected like a transplant from an alien organism.


  • DISENGAGEMENT. It seems to be a universal belief among traditional peoples that at times of inner transition people need to be separated from their familiar places in the social order.



  • DISENCHANTMENT. Separated from the old identity and the old situation or some important aspect of it, a person floats free in a kind of limbo between two worlds. But there is still the reality in that person's head--a picture of the "way things are," which ties the person to the old world with subtle strands of assumption and expectation. The sun will rise tomorrow, my mother loves me, the tribe will endure, the gods are just: These things are so, and if they are not, then my world is no longer real. The discovery that in some sense one's world is indeed no longer real is what is meant by disenchantment. Disenchantment, whether it is a minor disappointment or a major shock, is the signal that things are moving into transition. At such times, we need to consider whether the old view or belief may not have been an enchantment cast on us in the past to keep us from seeing deeper into ourselves and others than we were then ready to. For the whole idea of disenchantment is that reality has many layers, none "wrong" but each appropriate to a particular phase of intellectual and spiritual development. The disenchantment experience is the signal that the time has come to look below the surface of what has been thought to be so. It is the sign that you are ready to see and understand more now.

  • DISORIENTATION. Disorientation is meaningful, but it isn't enjoyable. It is a time of confusion and emptiness when ordinary things assume an unreal quality. Things that used to be important don't seem to matter much now. We feel stuck, dead, lost in some great, dark nonworld.

What is it Time to Let Go Of

One of the most important differences between a change and a transition is that changes are driven to reach a goal, but transitions start with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in. You need to figure out for yourself what exactly that no-longer-appropriate thing is. There's no list in the back of the book. But there is a hint that can save you considerable pain and remorse: Whatever it is, it is internal. Although it might be true that you emerge from a time of transition with the clear sense that it is time for you to end a relationship or leave a job, that simply represents the change that your transition has prepared you to make. The transition itself begins with letting go of something that you have believed or assumed, some way you've always been or seen yourself, some outlook on the world or attitude toward others.

The Neutral Zone

Even as we distort and misunderstand the neutral zone, we live it out unwittingly. Without quite knowing why, people in the middle of transition tend to find ways of being alone and away from all the familiar distractions. Perhaps it is a long weekend in a borrowed cabin by a lake, or perhaps it is a few days alone in a city hotel.

You should not feel defensive about this apparently unproductive time-out during your transition points, for the neutral zone is meant to be a moratorium from the conventional activity of your everyday existence. The activities of your ordinary life keep you "you" by presenting you with a set of signals that are difficult to respond to in any but the old way. Only in the apparently aimless activity of your time alone can you do the important inner business of self-transformation. But you don't do it as you do ordinary things, for it is in the walking, watching, making coffee, counting the birds on the phone wire, studying the cracks in the plaster ceiling over the bed, dreaming, and waiting for God-knows-what to happen that you are carrying on the basic industry of the neutral zone, which is attentive inactivity and ritualized routine.

For many people, the experience of the neutral zone is essentially one of emptiness in which the old reality looks transparent and nothing feels solid anymore.

It is tempting to think that we could recover and re-animate lost rituals, but that seldom works very well. Rather, we need to understand which neutral zone activities the old rituals were designed to facilitate and then discover our own ways of doing those things. The first of the neutral zone activities or functions is surrender --one must give in to the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it.

The second reason for the gap between the old life and the new is that the process of disintegration and reintegration is the source of renewal.

The last reason for the emptiness between the stages of the life journey is the perspective it provides on the stages themselves. Viewed from the neutral-zone emptiness, the realities of the everyday world look transparent and insubstantial; we can see that everything we ordinarily think of as reality is now an "illusion." Few of us can live in the harsh light of that wisdom continuously, but even when we return to the engagements and identifications of ordinary "reality," we bring back with us an appreciation of the unknowable ground beyond every image.

Here are some practical suggestions about how to find the meaning while in the neutral zone--and thus how to shorten the time you spend there.

  • Accept your need for this time in the neutral zone.

  • Find a regular time and place to be alone.

  • Begin a log of neutral zone experiences. Lost in the welter of moment-to-moment incident, the important experiences of the neutral zone are often difficult to recognize. But as you look back, at the end of a day or a week, they may stand out, like a path through the grass that was all but invisible as you walked it. The approach you take to logging these experiences is important, however, because it can easily degenerate into a trivial kind of diary keeping. What you want to capture is a day or a week of your experience: What was really going on, or even what was "trying to happen?" What was your mood? What were you thinking about, perhaps without realizing it, at the time? What puzzling or unusual things happened? What decisions do you wish you could have made? What dreams do you remember having?When you record your experience, you slow down and force yourself to put things into words. And out of the blur of your experience, shapes start to emerge.

  • Take this pause in the action of your life to write an autobiography. Because sometimes it is only when you see where you have been that you can tell where you are heading. Because recollection is likely to turn up some useful information about other transitions in your past. And because that "past" is an artifact from another time and probably needs revision.

  • Take this opportunity to discover what you really want.

  • Think of what would be unlived in your life if it ended today. As you stand here in the emptiness of the neutral zone, what do you think and feel about the past? What was unlived in that past--what dreams, what convictions, what talents, what ideas, what qualities in you went unrealized? You are at a turning point now. The next phase of your life is taking shape. This is an opportunity to do something different with your life, something that expresses you in some significant way. This is a chance to begin a new chapter.

  • Take a few days to go on your own version of a passage journey. The place should be an unfamiliar one and free of the ordinary influences from your daily situation, as was the initiate's journey of old. The simpler and quieter the setting, the more chance you will have to attend to your inner business. Your food should be simple, and your meals should be small. Leave at home the wonderful novel you've been meaning to read, and don't distract yourself with other entertainment. Take along a notebook to jot in, but don't feel that you have to write anything substantial while you are there. This retreat is a journey into emptiness and a time to cultivate receptivity. The more you leave behind, the more room you have to find something new. Do what you do attentively rather than distractedly while you wait for the real experience to come along. There are no secrets to taking a neutral zone retreat, no great topics that you are supposed to meditate upon. You are simply living for a little while in a setting that corresponds to your position in life. You've removed the old reality glasses so that you can see the world anew. For this special time, take note of your hunches and the coincidences that happen and the crazy ideas that occur to you and the dreams that you remember for those first few seconds in the morning. If you think of small symbolic actions you could perform in this place, go ahead and do them.

You Finish with a New Beginning

It is often difficult to be sure whether some path leads forward or back, and it may be necessary to follow it for a little way to be sure. But there are two signs that are worth looking for before you start. The first is the reaction of people who know you well: not whether they approve or disapprove, but whether they see what you propose to do as something new or simply a replay of an old pattern. The second indication comes from the transition process itself: Have you really moved through endings into the neutral zone and found there the beginning you now want to follow, or is this "beginning" a way of avoiding an ending or aborting the neutral zone experience?

It is out of the formlessness of the neutral zone that new form emerges and out of the barrenness of the fallow time that new life springs. We can support and even enhance the process, but we cannot produce the results. Once those results begin to take shape, however, there are several things that can be done. The first, very simply, is to stop getting ready and to act. "Getting ready" can turn out to be an endless task, and one of the forms that inner resistance can often take is the attempt to make just a few more (and then more, and again more) preparations.

The second thing you can do is to begin to identify yourself with the final result of the new beginning. What is it going to feel like when you have actually done whatever it is that you are setting out to do? All right, then, say it's done. There, you did it. You are the person who does that sort of thing. People look at you now as "the-one-who-did-it," and by seeing yourself through their eyes, you realize what self-confidence is: experiencing yourself as one who can do things like that.

The third thing to do is important: Take things step by step and resist the siren song that sings about some other route where everything goes smoothly and events are always exciting and meaningful. In making a beginning, you can become so invested in the results that whatever you have to do to reach them looks pretty insignificant. Trudging from appointment to appointment, licking stamps, adding columns of figures, making reminder phone calls, and explaining your idea for the hundredth time--these are the trivia from which vital new ventures finally emerge. But by comparison with the goal, they seem hopelessly dull.