Whenever we experience a significant change in our lives we also undergo a psychological and emotional transition.
The first person to write about these transitions was Arnold van Gennep. In the early 1900s he studied the rites of passage associated with the major life transitions of death, marriage, and the shift from childhood into adulthood. What he discovered was that we never go straight from State A into State B. There is always a third, intermediate or transitional, stage where we are no longer in the old identity but not yet fully in the new one either.
He called this stage the “liminal zone”, after the Latin word limen which means threshold. In this phase we are crossing the threshold from one identity to another. This is the chrysalis stage between the caterpillar and the butterfly.
Getting married provides a good example of the three stages. Generally a wedding is preceded by a period of engagement, when we start to let go in our minds of our old identity and come to terms with the idea that we are going to take on a new role. The wedding itself then provides the transitional experience: we cross the threshold and officially become ‘married’. This is then followed by a period of time when we start to integrate, consolidate, and embody our new identity: we find out what being married really means for who we are and how we behave in the world. This is the honeymoon period and beyond, when the work of becoming “married” really begins.
These same three phases also exist whenever we start a new job or a new school or implement a change programme. There is a period between quitting our previous role and starting the new one, when we let go of the idea of our old identity and prepare for the changes that are coming. Then there are the first few days in the new identity as we cross the threshold (perhaps literally) into a new workspace, find our feet, and build new relationships. And once we have joined the dots, connected it all together, we find the inner confidence to start to shape and mould the results we want.
Emotions being what they are, these three stages do not necessarily come in a nice neat order. We might find ourselves still longing for the old life, even while we are crossing the threshold or consolidating our understanding of the new vision. But the three stages provide a framework that we can use to understand and facilitate the process.
Managing these inner transitions is essential to achieving successful outer change, both in our personal lives and in our organisations.
We start by learning to let go of whatever came before.
Adapted from Inner Leadership.