Off the Shelf: The Way of Transition

I discovered William Bridges through his work with corporate change (Managing Transitions) in which he talks about the different phases of change. In his model, pre-change happens, change happens, then you need time to process the transition (a difficult, uncomfortable phase, where you are letting go and floating untethered in an unfrozen way), followed by an understanding of the transition, and finally a reorganization into a new state. You can see how this is similar to Kurt Lewin’s Frozen, Unfrozen, Re-frozen model, but Bridges tends to focus on that uncomfortable middle process, a process he calls in The Way of Transition, The Pause. (I think of it as The Bridge, in honor of him.)

William Bridge’s Pause reminds me of Pema Chodron’s description of meditation: you focus on the outbreath, then there is a Pause while you breath in again, a pause like the pause that happens after you press a doorbell, in which you are doing nothing but waiting. Although no action is occurring, it’s the most challenging part of meditation for that very reason – it’s the part that allows distraction to come, when then lets you practice letting go again, so essential to the act of practice.

The Way of Transition is a more personal take on change than Bridges’ earlier books. He describes the death of his wife, with whom he had a complicated relationship, and his grief following her death. The book moves easily back and forth between their earlier life and the genesis of his model, to the months leading up to and following his wife’s death, to his grief and his questioning of his model as he reexamined it during his grief, to reflections on the model itself and what it tells us about transitions.

An aspect which I have not read much about is the loss of personal identity that occurs with change. Bridges touches on it briefly when he discusses an early group that he led, and the different losses of persona that the participants experienced. If you think about it, every change requires you to let go of a little of who you are – when you get married, you have to let go of being the sole decider in your life and learn to function as a part of a team. If you are a new mother, you may have to let go of who you thought you were at work. I’ve read several moving articles recently about the powerful emotional struggle that many women in India are experiencing as they become educated and get good jobs – only to abandon them to get married or to abandon their marriages to continue working.

I also reflect on the scenes from Inside Out, where the different islands of the little girl’s persona crumble as she undergoes some pretty big changes in her life. Hockey Island, when she quits the team after an unimpressive tryout. Friendship Island, after the very bad first day at her new school, when her best friend from her old home begins talking about a new friend she made. Honesty Island when she steals her mother’s credit card. The crisis comes when all the islands have crumbled into the gorge of forgotten memories, and she has nothing left. Her face goes blank, and the personified emotions at the helm can’t reach her to change the dangerous course she’s on.

You won’t find easy answers in The Way of Transition – there’s no “10 Things You Need to Do When Undergoing a Life-Shifting Change.” You will find a compelling story about a man navigating personal change – a story that may feel familiar – and insight into the development of his Transitions model. Although I am a very fast reader – at just over 200 pages, I would usually finish this book in an afternoon – it took me a couple of weeks to finish this book because I kept stopping to write about how it made me feel and what I was learning.

If you are familiar with Bridges’ earlier works, fascinated by change, or undergoing change yourself, I highly recommend The Way of Transition by William Bridges.

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