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 psychological responses 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 from letting go of the past.

To process these emotions we need to recognise that emotions are not rational — so they cannot be resolved in purely rational ways. We cannot simply tell ourselves “The past is over, we need to move on.”

Instead, we need to take the time to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done emotionally, symbolically, ritually.

This means that rituals or symbolic acts become an important way to show ourselves that we are moving through the Separation phase, as well as simply saying it.

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 to face a different future.

Birthday parties fulfil a similar but slightly 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 ‘right’ way to go about 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 and to speak and act that truth appropriately, 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 significant new role or ended an old one? Perhaps the last time you left a job? Did you hold an event to mark the ending? How did that make you feel? How would you have felt if the opposite had been true?


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

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Photo By Los Angeles District via StockPholio.net

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