As we talked about in our previous blog post, everyone undergoes many life changes (external) as well as transitions (internal) from babyhood through childhood and adulthood. Some transitions are expected, some are unexpected, some come from unfulfilled expectations, and some are so gradual that they may not be noticed for a while.
We find it helps to look at transitions as a bridge to cross. It can apply to all kinds of life transitions—people who are moving to another country or returning to their home country, graduating from high school and moving on to college or the work force, being a parent expecting the birth of the first child, making a move to a new job or city, losing a spouse to death or divorce, entering the empty-nest stage, and many others.
Let’s look at the different steps or stages in this bridge:
1. OLD NORMAL (or Settled): We are in a place where the land is solid beneath our feet. It is a phase of life that is known to us, predictable, comfortable, and familiar. We have a place that we call home, a routine, a defined role, a sense of purpose, and relationships with those around us. We know the “rules of the game”. We probably feel stable, secure, peaceful, but we may also feel bored, complacent, restless, or stuck.
For each phase, we’ll give real-life examples that illustrate some of the characteristics.
- NEW BABY SCENARIO: We had been married for about two years and spent a lot of time and energy really settling into our relationship and adjusting to being a couple rather than just two individuals. We spent a lot of time together as we both worked out of our home, had the same co-workers and many of the same friends. We were really enjoying this stage of “just the two of us”. We were starting to be able to predict how the other would act and react, we were comfortable in our relationship, and we enjoyed the rhythm of life that we had established (especially leisurely having coffee together in bed in the morning and staying out late with friends).
- MOVING SCENARIO: Mark was on staff at a church and I was a stay-at-home mom. We had bought our first house and had made it comfortable for us. We had four kids under the age of ten. We both had responsibilities and rhythm to our days. We had good relationships with our neighbors and church family. We knew our preferred places in town to eat, shop, and go for fun. We had a great community of friends.
2. LEAVING: Leaving usually begins when we encounter an Inciting Event or Decision. That event might look like graduation from high school or college, being fired or let go from our job, the giving of an engagement ring, a pregnancy test coming back positive, the sudden death of a spouse, or a natural disaster. Or it may start with an inciting decision. We find that our job and our personal values no longer match which moves us to turn in our resignation, or maybe we become convicted that we are called to live and serve overseas, or we may come to the breaking point in a toxic relationship. Behind each of these is a rising discontent that propels us onto the Transition Bridge.
We step onto this swinging bridge of transition with fear and excitement. We are in stage where we realize we are leaving our place of comfort. We may have mixed emotions about this. We may have both a sense of excitement to begin something new and at the same time feel guilt that we are abandoning people. We may feel both anxious and impatience to “get on with it”.
Leaving usually requires a stage of Preparation. The high school graduate scouts out future options for college, the discontented employee updates their resumé, prospective parents decorate a nursery, the bride-to-be scouts out wedding dresses and venues, the partner of a terminally ill spouse begins thinking about a funeral and what to do with the house. The big change hasn’t arrived quite yet, but you can feel it in the wind. Sometimes, however, there are inciting events that don’t allow for preparation: a sudden death, a destructive tornado, a miscarriage. These occasions have us leap right over this step to the next.
Leaving also brings with it Endings. Our normal routines are broken, our role is changing, As we realize this, we may begin to loosen our ties to people, put up walls, and back off from our responsibilities and commitments.
Our Ending might include celebration: a going away party, recognition at work, or a graduation party. But it could involve grief as well: final goodbyes in the hospital, a funeral, sadness at leaving a home or a community.
Throughout this stage of Leaving, we might feel courageous, eager, passionate while also feeling nostalgic, doubt, regret, guilt, and sorrow.
- NEW BABY SCENARIO: We were thrilled when we were expecting our first child, but as the due date came closer, we also experienced a sadness that our marriage was changing. I had read What To Expect When You Are Expecting but still felt anxious about caring for a tiny human being. My sleep was already getting interrupted, and I was uncomfortable, but I couldn’t wait to welcome this new member to our family. We were busy picking out nursery essentials and figuring out the expectations of new parents in Irish culture.
- MOVING SCENARIO: We had been anticipating this move to Southeast Asia and knew it would be crazy to make such a major move with a family of six. We began sorting through our possessions (a process we would undertake several times before actually getting on the plane), saying good-byes to friends, and visiting our favorite places one last time. We were excited about this adventure, but unsure of the medical care that would be available to us and our kids in our new country. We were in a weird tension of letting go of roles and responsibilities while adding new ones to our plates. There were days we were overwhelmed with the logistics and legal requirements of moving and the endless lists of things to do, buy, and pack. Sometimes we would lay awake at night and second-guess our choice and decision.
“All change involves leaving behind part of ourselves. The new might even be better (logically) but it means little to people who have lost their familiar turf, their sense of self-worth and many of their good friends. It isn’t the changes themselves that the people in these cases resist. It’s the losses and endings that they experience and the transition that they are resisting. That’s why it does little good to talk about how healthy the outcome of the change will be. Instead, you have to deal directly with the losses and endings. ” —William Bridges
3. IN-BETWEEN: We look down and see we are in the middle of this swinging bridge, suspended over a chasm of swirling confusion and ambiguity.
This stage begins with Chaos when we actually leave our place of comfort and ends at Acceptance when we make the conscious decision to settle into the new place. And there can be a huge chasm in between those two that seems like an impossible gap called a Liminal Space.
The Neutral Zone was described by William Bridges as “an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational.” It is “the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one.”
In Chaos, we may feel like we don’t know who we are, what’s expected of us, and we have no idea what we are doing. We may feel confused, unstable, misunderstood, ignorant, and incompetent.
We might be exhausted, overwhelmed, indecisive, and out of control. It’s not uncommon for us to blow things out of proportion and have exaggerated reactions to things which wouldn’t normally phase us. Old weaknesses and unhealthy coping habits may rear their ugly little heads.
- NEW BABY SCENARIO: “Congratulations!” Our son, Benjamin, was born on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. Three. Weeks. Early. Nearly everyone told us that the first baby usually came late, and we believed them. So we weren’t ready. And all the reading in the world couldn't prepare us for the onslaught of changing routines, lack of sleep, joy of motherhood, fear of making a fatal mistake, shifting identity, weird bodily fluids, exhaustion, amazement, and anxiety over whether or not they are still breathing when they are sleeping. This was a whole new world. There were days it felt like we were enveloped in a fog, overly emotional, and out of our depth. We loved this little person more than we could have ever imagined, yet we missed the uninterrupted intimacy we used to have.
- MOVING SCENARIO: What in the world were we thinking?! We had been telling our friends and family for months about this great opportunity and now it looked anything but great. We landed in our new country jet-lagged and exhausted. With a 12-hour time difference, we were completely backward on the whole awake/sleep thing. It was hot. Our luggage had not arrived so we had to go buy new clothes for the whole family. And it was hot. We had no idea where the shops were to buy anything and had no language skills to use even if we could find the shops. And did I mention it was hot? We moved in March, so we had to figure out the kids’ schooling pretty quick so we felt stressed. We had gotten rid of most of our things but wanted to make this new house feel like home so we felt out of sorts. We couldn't speak the language so we felt incompetent. Mark was learning a new job so he felt overwhelmed. It seemed like there was no rhyme or reason for things we observed in the culture and there certainly didn’t seem to be any traffic rules, so we felt judgmental. And we were hot. All the time. And maybe just a little bit cranky.
“It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear … It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.” —Marilyn Ferguson
The second part of the In-between is the Liminal Space. The word liminal comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold.” It is a space that partially sits on both sides of a boundary, not totally in one or the other. It’s a space where you have left something behind, yet you are not yet fully engaged in something else.
The Liminal Space can bring us face-to-face with our inner fears about who we are, how we show up in the world, our strengths and vulnerabilities, and our successes and disappointments. It can cause us to question the very core of our beliefs, practices, and identities.
Herein lies the power and the gift of the liminal space. The liminal space shakes us out of our habitual lives. It draws us out of what we have known, yet does not allow us to know what is coming next, or when. It’s the chrysalis stage for the caterpillar. The caterpillar may instinctively know from its genetic programing that it must weave itself a cocoon, yet it probably has no conscious sense of why, for how long it will be there, or what will happen in the cocoon. In a similar way, we may instinctively weave ourselves into a liminal cocoon, yet at first, not even be aware that we have drawn this space around us, or know why it’s important to be here. —Alan Seale of The Center for Transformational Presence
In the Liminal Space lies an unexpected gift: a chance to step back and look at our life, to examine if the patterns, practices, and relationships that were present in our previous life still serve us well. When we are going through Chaos, it seems like everything is up in the air, which can seem unnerving and confusing, but we can also choose to make the space to reflect and consider what we would like to become or how we would like to behave and what things we would like to subtract from our lives going forward.
After a time, which unfortunately can never be predicted, we begin to feel something new stirring. Like a fog gradually lifting, we begin to move out of the Liminal Space.
We have come to a place of Acceptance that the old normal is gone and something else is ahead.
4. ENTERING: We can see the land on the other side of the bridge and it maybe looks promising.
The bridge doesn’t feel quite so precarious and our knuckles are no longer white from grabbing so tightly to the side of the bridge. We enter into Beginnings as we take the tentative shaky first steps of settling into this new stage.
We find new routines and rhythms. We begin to know the places to go, the people who can help us, and start to reach out to others and take some risks. Hopefully, we begin to make new friends and try out new roles. As we feel out this part of Exploration, sometimes those work out, and sometimes we feel like an idiot. We make mistakes and missteps. We can feel lonely and overwhelmed. We really begin to grieve the losses of what was back on the other side of the bridge. We probably have a mix of hope, a sense of accomplishment, exhaustion, a new-found set of skills, and relief. It feels like we have begun to know Adaptation.
Entering can often be the longest part of the bridge.
- NEW BABY SCENARIO: After a few months, we had a new rhythm to our days that felt normal. We didn’t feel so tentative in caring for our baby (as in, we aren't afraid we were going to break him all the time). We found a good pediatrician but still had to figure out the whole vaccination thing. After a while, we were all sleeping through the night again. We missed the late nights out with our friends and the coffee in bed together in the mornings. And it took a while to sort out the shift in responsibilities in our home.
- MOVING SCENARIO: It took quite a while for us to learn the tonal language and not feel like complete idiots all the time. We slowly made friends with our co-workers, but with the added dynamic that almost none were American—which was both lovely and frustrating at times when we misunderstood each other or our different cultural ways bumped up against each other. We felt the tension of trying to create a new norm for our family while still holding on to some traditions.
5. NEW NORMAL (also called Re-Settled): Finally, we reach the other side and have our feet back on solid ground! We have a new normal along with routines, defined roles, solid relationships, new skills, and a settled identity. We feel calm, secure, reflective, wise, and confident. Although we may also experience disappointment that this new phase or place is not what we expected. Overall, we feel like we belong.
- NEW BABY SCENARIO: We were in love with this kid and all his cuteness. We now had some parenting skills and new knowledge about things like diapers and the best music for babies and prams and baby medicine. We had transitioned from a being a newly married couple to being a family. We felt cohesive and hopeful for the days to come. We couldn't imagine life without him now.
- MOVING SCENARIO: Mark was now a capable English teacher and people all over town knew him. Our kids got settled in school. We had learned enough language to get around and function in daily life in the community. We had our favorite shops, restaurants, and fun places to go on outings. We had settled in to our new routine. Our house felt more like home and we entertained friends there. Things that seemed scary and hard during the first few months now seemed easy. We even (mostly) got used to the heat, the roosters crowing, and the slower rhythm of life. We could begin dreaming about the next season and set new goals.
“One’s life is not as fixed as one believes. Surprises may lie in store for you, the unexpected often tends to happen, sometimes bringing in its train the most delightful change in one’s life or circumstances.”— Elizabeth Aston
The helpful thing to recognize as we navigate life's transitions is that the stages, unlike a bridge, aren't usually linear. We will probably step forward and back a few times before we actually reach the other side in the land of New Normal.
As you face your current or next transition in life, remember that there are a lot of paradoxical thoughts and emotions that accompany each stage: it's normal to feel both excitement and anxiety at the same time and it's okay to hold both anticipation and grief in your hands.
We hope through our continued look at transitions, we can help you navigate them with hope and grace for yourself and those around you.
Side note: We find two authors in particular very helpful as we try to understand transitions. The first is William Bridges, a change consultant who wrote several books, including one called Transitions. The other is David Pollock who was the founder of Interaction International and co-author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. He created the original word picture of the Transition Bridge.
What transition are you in or have recently gone through?