The Unbelievable Way Change Really Works
By Jacey Eckhart
I don’t see why we can’t change overnight. We are such nice people. We should be able to be plumpy today and skinny tomorrow. We should be career confused now and career confident by, say, Thursday. Change should work like parenthood. Baby bump today and full-fledged 24/7/365 parent tomorrow. Hello, Next Door!
That is not the way change works. Even for new parents. Which makes no sense to me. Because I super want to change right now. Effortlessly. Seamlessly. Painlessly. And that should be enough.
Instead, it is a long journey. William Bridges identified this process in the ‘70s with his landmark book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. He found that change does not happen in a day; it is a three-part process: an ending, a neutral zone, and a gradual new beginning.
Which sounds all wrong. It should go beginning, middle, and ending. But when it comes to our lives, the process of change is as confusing as the change itself.
First there is some event—your car screams in pain when you get inside. Your company gets bought out. Your baby is conceived in a night of unspeakable passion. We think of that as the change.
That is not the change. Instead, think of this event as the prime mover. Like the moment God pushed the first two atoms together, something must start the process of change. You know, like Atom and Eve.
Next there is an ending. Something has to end before something else can begin. You have to extricate yourself from whatever life you are living before you are ready for true change. You have to stop buying all those Fritos and driving thru. You have to stop going to that office and start looking for a new one. You have to stop thinking all those Sunday brunches are normal. I think of this as having the old door hit you in the behind.
The Neutral Zone
Then there is this long empty space that Bridges called the neutral zone. You are not what you were and you are not what you will be. Your identity and your meanings are jumbled. This is the part where your entire body hurts after your first three workouts. This is where you apply for other jobs. This is where you can’t figure out how to get the baby to sleep. I call this part the hallway. It’s the part where you are stuck. And according to Bridges, no matter how hard you try, you can’t rush this stage along.
Finally, there is the beginning where your identity actually morphs and you start recognizing signs that you are the new person. You look forward to your workout. A new work friend asks you to lunch. You wake up terrified and then realize everything is fine—the baby slept through the night.
Change does not happen in a day—it happens over time and it happens in that order: Ending, Neutral Zone, New Beginning. Or, as I think of it: Slamming Door. Long Hallway. Next Door. The goal is to make sure you don’t get stuck, but keep going and going and going.