Three Phases of Transition

Yellow cover of Transitions by William Bridges, 1980 edition

William Bridges wrote Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. It’s a slim book, only 159 pages. But it holds a perspective that has helped me navigate many transitions, over many years.

Bridges distinguishes between change and transition. Change is the  external difference—the new job, the new baby. Transition is the internal redefinition—I am a P&G employee, I am a mother. Change is situational. Transition is psychological.

According to Bridges, there are three phases of transition:

  • Endings
  • The Neutral Zone (AKA The Wilderness)
  • New Beginning

It was the order of the phases that surprised me when I first read the book, back when there was only the 1980 edition, not the 1993 edition, or the fortieth-anniversary edition that was released last December.

He’s right.

A New Beginning can’t be fully expressed without a completed ending. I couldn’t become a Cincinnatian without ceasing to be a Chicagoan. To be an employee of Fifth Third Bank required that I stop being an independent contractor.

An interesting thing about the Endings—Wilderness—New Beginnings model is that the phases are indistinct. They blur and bleed into one another.

I recently rewatched Terminator 2: Judgement Day. There is a scene where Sara Connor/Linda Hamilton is trying to escape from the institution where she is held prisoner. She breaks out of her cell and makes her way through a series of locked doors, each one clanging shut behind her.

Transitions are not marked by clear boundaries and locked doors. They are more like swimming in the ocean off the Jersey shore. You can be swimming in comfortably warm water and then at some point, notice that the water has gotten cooler, or even cold.

This happens when you’ve swum into deeper water. You can’t see that it’s deeper (maybe you could in the Caribbean but not in the Atlantic off New Jersey). You can feel it. You don’t notice it right away. It’s gradual. And because you don’t want to be cold you turn and head toward shore. There is no gate, no marker of warmer water. You just swim until eventually, it feels warmer.

A former boss at Fifth Third said something like, “People don’t always join the bank on their first day.”

She’s right.

It’s possible to make a change without making a transition. I used to work at Baxter. I got there ten years after the merger between Baxter Healthcare and American Hospital. When I met people, they would often introduce themselves with, “I’m Baxter” or “I’m American.” This was ten years after the merger!

These were people who had made a change but not a transition.

Sometimes the transition is quick—I think my transition from single person to Trent’s partner was quick. Sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.

Thinking back to my first marriage, I wonder if either of us made the transition from single person to wife or husband. I don’t think so.

Sometimes, and I believe this is least common, the transition happens before the change.

When I was in my thirties, with asthma that was becoming debilitating, I saw a friend’s naturopath. She questioned me for over an hour. At the end, she said, “There’s nothing particularly wrong with you physically. In fact, you’re healthier than most people I see. But something is making you very, very sad.”

She made that diagnosis because thirty minutes into our conversation, I started crying and never stopped. She suggested I see a therapist.

A friend at work recommended Dr. Elaine Kulp. This is a recap of my first three visits, one week apart:

Visit 1: I meet Elaine and try to determine if she is a good therapist. Her thick Ph.D. thesis is on the bookshelf in her waiting room. I ask if I may borrow it and she says yes.

Visit 2: At some point in the conversation, with tears streaming down my face, I lift both hands and declare, “But I am happy!” I leave Elaine’s office knowing that I have just lied to my therapist. And to myself.

Visit 3: I tell Elaine that I have left my husband.

A few years later, Elaine and I discussed this speedy sequence of events. She said, “When you first came to see me, you’d already left him. Yes, you were still living with him but emotionally, you were already gone.”

That’s an example of transition before change.

The transition process is the reason we have funerals, which are not for the dead, but for the living. Pausing to mark the change helps us bring closure to what was and prepares us for what will be.

But first there is The Wilderness.


Chewing the Cud of Good

Close up of green Ginko leaves

Thankful for my Chicago friend who came to visit me!

PS: This blog post went up on Trent’s birthday. He would have been 58.

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