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When it's time to change...
on May 26, 2003
In a recent survey, people were asked to list the most disturbing and disruptive things in their lives, and rank them according to difficulty to handle. It was seen that the highest proportion of difficulties involved transitions in people lives -- moving, new jobs, divorce, marriage, new child, death, etc. Surprisingly, there is not a great body of work dealing specifically with transitions and methods for coping and dealing with transitions in life. William Bridges provides a useful, accessible, and needed book on this important topic.
The book is divided into two broad topics: The Need for Change and The Transition Process. There is a brief epilogue following.
Part 1: The Need for Change
Americans seem, much more than people from more traditional, more grounded, and more static cultures, to always be in a state of transition, moving from one thing to another, both personally and professionally. This can be seen in the increasing pace of career-change, personal relocation, divorce and remarriage rates (which only scratch the surface of the larger transitional base of undocumented relationships), and so on. One could say that American culture is built upon constant transition (and some Marxists thought they were developing a system of institutionalised revolution -- they could probably never outdo modern American society for that!)
Being in transition is natural, but sometimes a confusing state, not simply because of the situational difficulties, but because they are not supposed to be difficult to handle.
`The big events -- divorce, death, losing a job, and other obviously painful changes -- are easy to spot. But others, like marriage, sudden success, and moving to your dream house, are forgotten because they are 'good events' and therefore not supposed to lead to difficulty. We expect to be distressed at illness, but it is a shock to find recovery leading to difficulty.'
Anyone who has returned from a big holiday trip knows the truth of this -- how often does one feel 'I need a vacation to recover from my vacation'?
Modern psychologists have identified different stages in life -- different psychologists offer up frameworks that vary in the particulars, but what they all have in common is a recognition of struggles and adjustment periods as one makes transition from the various stages, from childhood to adolescence, to young adulthood, etc. These are transitions that underlie the situational transitions. Like the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx, the answer to dealing with transitions depends upon understanding what underpins the human being.
The two greatest areas of transition that are addressed in this text surround those issues involving love and work. Other transitions occur, but few concern us that do not concern one of these issues. All our relationships with others, as well as our internal integrity issues, relate in some way to these two issues. Bridges provides some background, as well as a checklist to follow for understanding the transition.
Part 2: The Transition Process
It seems somewhat trite to say, but every ending can be a new beginning. The essence of the transition process lies in this statement. What most people overlook in making this statement is that most transitions are not smooth progressions from point A to B. There is a disruption, a confusion, often a sadness, sometimes an elation, but in every case some period of adjustment to the positive and negative changes that have occurred. Some cultures have specified timeframes for grief and mourning that assist in times of death; the honeymoon is meant to be a transitional period after marriage (a term co-opted by others who wish to have a smoother period of introduction after a change -- as in political honeymoons after a transition of government).
It is unfortunate that most neglect to properly grieve for things that are important but are not the 'actual death of a person'. We don't allow ourselves to grieve for the lost job, the lost relationship, the lost community when one moves -- we know and recognise there has been a change, but we are reluctant to call it grief, and thus not always able to deal with the issues properly. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of Bridges -- to put processes together to permit adjustment periods. Only when this is done may the truly new beginning be made. The conclusion of Part 2 deals with new beginnings.
The importance of keeping our grounding as human beings is emphasised over and over, so that we don't rush ourselves into a new beginning prematurely -- even if circumstances require the change (your job ended, and a new one starts immediately), you can work through the transition process to internally cope better with the change, giving up the old and embracing the new in a healthy manner.
Bridges uses the story of Psyche and Amor, and the trials of Psyche in her task to be reunited with Amor, to illustrate the power of transitions. There will be help along the way, but the greatest task still remains one of personal responsibility. There are no guaranteed happy endings, either.
This book is an interesting and helpful guide to understanding the constantly changing milieu in which we live from the standpoint of personally coping with change. As a society, we are undergoing various changes, the dramatic nature and radical impacts of which are unlikely to be fully known for years, if not decades. If ever a book on coping with transitions was needed, it is now.
The author, William Bridges, is a writer, lecturer, and consultant on human development. He taught at Mills College (California), and operates transition seminars in the western United States. He was president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology.