The importance of rituals or symbolic acts in handling change

A cake for a retirement partyIn a world filled with change, it is often not the physical changes we find difficult but rather the emotional letting go of the way the world used to be and the shifting to a new identity. These emotional shifts are called ‘transitions‘. They come in three stages.

The first stage is called Separation. This is where we deal with the grief and other emotions that can naturally arise when we need to let go of the past.

To process these emotions we need to recognise that they are not rational so cannot be resolved in purely rational ways. We cannot simply tell ourselves, “The past is gone, get over it.” Instead, we need to use language our emotions will understand.

The way we do that is by using rituals and symbolic acts.

Retirement Parties

Retirement parties are a simple example. They provide a time and space for everyone to process the emotions they are feeling about the colleague who is departing: to give thanks for the past, acknowledge the reality of the present, and prepare for a different future.

Birthday parties fulfil a similar but different role.

In Northern Ireland, in 2015, a huge bonfire marked a symbolic end to The Troubles and the beginning of a new phase.

Unique to You

There is no single ‘right’ way of doing this. Depending on your situation, you might want to hold a farewell party, give a thank you gift, bury something, plant a tree, write a letter (but not send it), burn a symbolic object in a ritual way, or hold a minute’s silence. People might want to take with them a physical memento of the past: a pebble, a signed card, a photograph, a plant.

What matters is that you find what is appropriate for you and the unique people around you. The abilities you developed with the tools in the earlier chapters of Inner Leadership will play a key role in enabling you to do this — to speak and act that truth appropriately and authentically, on behalf of yourself and others.

Only once you have used rituals or symbolic acts to mark the end of the Separation phase will you truly be able to turn to face the future and start to build something new.

When was the last time you took on a new role or ended an old one? Did you hold an event to mark the ending? How did that make you feel? If the event had been held differently, could that have made it easier or more difficult for you to shift into the new role? How can you apply this learning to other endings and beginnings that you and the people around you are facing now?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

You can sign up to daily posts here.


Photo By Los Angeles District via StockPholio.net

Leave a Reply