Stages of transformation

Image is “Dematerialization” by Hartwig HKD, released on Flickr under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License

Transformation is a popular topic these days. I frequently see posts on the web touting transformative programs which promise personal transformation in a few easy steps.

My own experience with transformation was not so easy nor so quick. In fact, for all the benefits of having been through it, the actual process of transformation was messy, painful, and confusing.

What I’ve grown to understand since then is that this difficulty is to be expected. Real transformation involves a major change in self-identity, and that doesn’t happen easily. For an established self-identity to change that radically, it must first die to make way for a new self-identity to emerge.

Because we are so strongly attached to our self-identity, this feels like death of Self in the midst of also dealing with major change.

To add to the challenge, this death of self-identity and re-birth of a new identity also impacts all of our personal relationships. As we change (often in ways that we can’t understand or explain at the time), it changes the unspoken contracts that underlie our relationships with others as we begin reacting and responding in new and unexpected ways.

As a culture, we are not well-versed in what to expect from ourselves or others during this kind of transformative process, so people around me did not know what to do with the changes they were seeing in me any more than I did myself. People generally either reacted to try to push me back into old molds or, in recognizing that I was changing profoundly, tried to push me into new molds that they thought would be best for me.

Neither I nor anyone around me knew how to just hold space for the grief of loss of an old self-identity, the birth pangs of the formation of a new identity, or the uncharted wasteland in between the two when my old self had died and my new self was still not yet formed.

I recently read Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges, which describes the process of inner transformation in self-identity that happens in conjunction with life’s transitions in career, aging, relationships, and circumstance.

Sometimes change is, of course, just change. A new job or a new relationship may be just that—an outer change that has no impact on our inner self-identity. But when those changes spark (or are sparked by) inner transformation, he charts three stages of this transformation process.

First, there is an ending of some kind. This ending may be imposed on us from the outside, making it easy to see. Other times, it may well up from within pushing us into creating an ending in the external world to match the ending that has already happened internally.

Second, there is a neutral zone during which we stepped away from the self-identity which has ended (externally or internally or both), but our new self-identity has not yet emerged. This is often a very uncomfortable time for people in this performance-based culture because it involves patiently waiting for inner processes that move at their own pace with little to show on the surface.

Third, there is a beginning of our new way of being in the world. Although this sounds like a positive step to be celebrated (and it is!), it can also be a disorienting time of adjustment to changes within and without for the person transforming and for those around her as this new self-identity emerges.

As I look back at my own process, I can see these stages clearly in my journey, and I wish I had understood that these stages were a normal part of the transformation process. This simple map would have made it easier for me to navigate the terrain I encountered.

In fact, I had experienced similar (though milder) periods of transformation earlier in my life, but they often got somewhat stifled and stunted because neither I nor those around me knew what to do with the process.

The fact that I had left so many of these earlier transformations incompletely processed were part of what made the blows that I encountered that triggered this major transformation of a few years ago so shattering. All that I had earlier squelched came to the surface at once for years of resisted shifts to explode at once in a profound redesign of my self-identity.

That shattering has ultimately become a blessing as transformation has created the healing gold that put the pieces back together in a kintsugi way, but the process was so much harder than it needed to be because of my lack of understanding of what to expect.

If you have found yourself in the midst of transformation, I highly recommend this book as a means of framing the journey for yourself. I will also take a deeper look at each of the stages in the coming weeks so that you are better prepared the next time you walk this path.

Do these stages correspond to your experience with transformation? Would knowing about these stages have made earlier transformation easier for you to navigate?

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