Understanding Change and Transition on our Way to a
Sustainable and Just Energy Future
Transitions are the most stressful and difficult when a change is imposed by what seems to us to be powerful forces beyond our control. This is clearly what many consumers are experiencing today as energy costs rise exponentially. The level of anxiety felt by people about how they are going to find the money to stay warm this winter is very high. Not only is there a growing frustration and even anger, but also the feeling of being overwhelmed and powerless to do anything to change their reality. For many, just thinking about utility companies and renewable energy leaves them overwhelmed. They feel as though they are some tiny part of a gigantic system beyond their ability to understand or change.
Many feel an urgency to reduce their energy costs, insulate their homes, and build new renewable energy resources, but they feel powerless to make these a reality. They are angry utility companies are making record profits while they are paying more than they can afford. They are worried about the impact climate change will have on their community and on the rest of the world.
For leaders who are trying to organize communities for a sustainable and just energy future, it can be frustrating to encounter such hopelessness and powerlessness. In many cases, people are so overwhelmed they are unable to be mobilized to consider our alternatives.
So...what can community organizers and activists do to help people to move forward to see other choices and to take action to help themselves, their communities, our environment, and our world? There are some basic tools which we can put in place that help people to move forward to see other choices and to take action to help themselves, their communities, our environment, and our world.
Helping Individuals and Communities Manage Transition:
Managing Endings Successfully: Acknowledging and Sorting Losses; Getting Closure & Letting Go; Seeking Alternatives & Softening and Replacing Losses; Seeking Support & Identifying Continuities.
Navigating the Neutral Zone: Regaining Control; Rebuilding Communication, Understanding, Support, and Purpose; Increasing Creativity; Temporary Solutions.
Supporting New Beginnings: Celebrating a New Identity; Ceremonies & Rituals; Building on Small Successes.
Change and Transition©
Change vs. Transition: Change happens to everyone. We get married or divorced; we have babies and our teenagers leave home for college; we get promoted or lose our jobs; we move across town.; your 401(k) tanks; your favorite local market closes; the price of fuel climbs beyond your reach. Some of these changes are personal, happening only to us as individuals or to our own family. Other changes can be widespread, touching us and everyone around us.
All of these changes force us through a process of psychological and emotional adjustment to let go of the way things used to be and reorient ourselves to the way things are now.
Author William Bridges has developed a simple “Transition Framework” to help people understand and talk with others about the powerful emotions involved. In the Bridges’ Framework, the inner process of adjustment is referred to as a “Transition;” and each Transition is made up of three stages: “Endings,” which produce sadness, anger and remorse; the “neutral zone” which brings fear and confusion along with space for creativity; and a “new beginning,” a mix of confidence over what has been gained and anxiety over sliding backwards.
The Three Stages of Transition: Even though the new situation – the start of a new school, a child arrives in our home, or we start a new job – may arrive with a bang on the first day, Transitions do not start as long as we are stuck in denial or fantasy. Once we do acknowledge that a change is real, that the “the way things were” is no longer possible, we experience loss. This happens even if the old situation was bad - such as living in an abusive or neglectful relationship! Endings force us to let go of the old way, which sometimes goes beyond behavior to involve attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, and relationships that shape our self-image and identity.
Beyond letting go, we have to get through an uncomfortable in-between time, when the old way is gone but the new way doesn't yet wholly work or feel comfortable. The “neutral zone,” as Bridges calls it, is very confusing. Even when the change sounded good at the beginning we may feel lost and even discouraged at times. But the neutral zone can also be very creative. Everything is up for grabs anyway, so there is less holding us back than at other times.
The final phase of transition is the “new beginning” – when we are emotionally ready to do things a whole new way. We reach the new beginning after we have parted with the old and traversed the chaotic neutral zone. The past is not forgotten or discarded, but we understand it as a part of us in a new way. Like a birth – the archetype of all new beginnings – this third phase of transition happens on its own schedule. Things can start we say they will, but the beginning will happen when we are inwardly ready. And that can take a while. The transition always takes longer – sometimes much longer – than the change. There are ways to help ourselves and others deal with Transitions. A patient friend is a gift. We may know how to “fake it” on the outside until we can “make it” on the inside. But no one gets to jump from the start to of a new way of being without first dealing with the ending and the neutral zone.
Why Pay Attention to “Transitions”?
How many times have we found that the emotions from painful changes come back to haunt us long after the change itself is over and done? When we face changes that are out of our control—such as the loss of a relationship, rising energy costs, or a loved one—powerful emotional responses can continue long after the change itself is over. Change means letting go of something that we are attached to. Loss triggers anger, fear, resentment and insecurity. An ending in the present may bring back memories from past losses, and the resulting surge in feelings can overwhelm us and trigger behavior that is very hard for others – or ourselves - to understand or accept.
How often do we see someone break free of a destructive relationship, only to form a new one that looks just the same? The “neutral zone” makes us confused, anxious and defensive. People around us can become impatient; they want us to “move on” or“get over it”. The neutral zone creates space for creativity and growth, but the loss of familiar boundaries and supports creates a powerful temptation to jump at the first opportunity that looks or feels familiar.
How many times have we seen someone try to make a change, but after they started they became discouraged and gave up? It happens to all of us. Throughout our lives we want to make many changes even if they are difficult to make. When we fail to make a change we want, it may not be because we “didn’t want it badly enough.” Maybe we failed to make a change because we got caught up in unexpected emotions that come with Transitions. Maybe we gave up because we couldn’t change the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
The “new beginning” does not arrive all at once. The process of transition is not linear. Just when we feel that we are finally settling into a new place, something can happen to throw us back into the confusion of the neutral zone. Understanding Transitions doesn’t prevent us from experiencing this emotional roller coaster. But it can make it less scary.
Everyone has been forced to go through changes that threaten core needs: safety, relational connection, and personal identity. It is not surprising that people sometimes express the powerful emotions which result. Shouting at public meetings, spreading rumors with the intent of sabotaging a new energy project, failing to show up for meetings or coming late; all these types of symptomatic “acting out” behaviors can be understood as a very normal and “human” response to the disorienting effects of transition.
Understanding our own responses to transition can help us to be more empathetic in understanding the behaviors of others when times get rough. The Transitions Framework can also help us to develop strategies for helping ourselves (and others) to know what we need to “let go of” in order to move forward, what resources from the past we should take with us, ways to turn the chaos of the neutral zone into creativity, and how to solidify our grasp on the new beginning once we have safely arrived.
Three Phases of Transition©
©2008 Kenneth Downes & Roger Conner. All rights reserved. Please do not copy this document without permission.
The images in this document were created by Patricia Battles; they are owned by the Andrus Family Fund of the Surdna Foundation, www.transitionandsocialchange.org. The “Transitions Framework” is the intellectual property of William Bridges www.wmbridges.com.