14. Changing Lanes: How to Transition Into a New You
Life is filled with endings and new beginnings which, when navigated well, will take you to the next important phase. The transition from high school to college is one such shift and from college to career is another, but we all experience many transitions regularly throughout our lives.
“It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is situational–the new site, the new boss, the new role. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.”
–author William Bridges
Life is filled with endings and new beginnings. For example: the transition from high school to college and from college to career.
Transitions will happen whether you have initiated the change–like choosing to go to college–or whether the change chooses you, like losing a loved one, or having your parents divorce. Even within college, after the initial transition from high school to a college environment, you’ll experience changes throughout your sophomore and junior years as well—switching roommates or majors, for example, or facing an unexpected break-up or loss. And then, in your senior year, there’s the happy but hard transition of graduating.
Often, even when you’ve planned a change, you may be unprepared for the emotions that the transition brings up.
Given that transitioning is something you’re going to do again and again in life, it’s important to have a sound strategy as to how to face changes—and to understand what you’re feeling as you transition. Author William Bridges is a transition expert who literally wrote the book on this topic. (Actually, he’s written several books, including the bestselling Managing Transitions.) Bridges identifies three major phases a person goes through in managing a transition: Endings ~ Neutral Zone ~ New Beginnings. The phases are the same for everyone, but each person experiences those shifts differently.
The first step of a transition is an Ending—the thing that triggers a transition. When you face a change, it means that something is over, whether that thing was good or bad, and chances are your life is never going to be the same.
Endings may trigger:
- Loss of structure and security
- Feelings of uncertainty about the future
- Feelings of anger about having to make changes, even if it’s a shift you wanted to happen
But an Ending can also bring a sense of hopefulness with the ability to:
- Define a new future.
- Create a new circumstance for being accepted for who you are
- Find a new structure to provide security
- Feel a renewed sense of purpose
Phase Two: the Neutral Zone
Once you are able to accept that an ending—a change—has occurred, that is when you begin your transition into the Neutral Zone, a place of self-reflection and retooling. Transitions—even happy ones—are often uncomfortable for people because they can be filled with uncertainty of the future. If you are prone to anxiety, the Neutral Zone can fuel that feeling.
One way to calm your anxiety is to face it—to explore the feelings that you’re having as a result of the transition. When you’re experiencing the Neutral Zone of a transition, ask yourself the following questions:
Each time you face a transition, it’s important to ask yourself these questions so you can learn to be comfortable with making changes:
- What do I want to keep?
- What do I want to lose?
- Where have I been and where would I like to go?
One of the key skills you’ll need in facing transitions is adaptability. Life moves at accelerated speed; none of us can afford to be stuck where we used to be, because what used to exist is just not there anymore. The past is no longer an option. The more you can learn to roll with your transitions, the happier you will be and the more far-reaching your life will be.
But you don’t have to weather these transitions, or do all this Neutral Zone soul-searching alone. If you’re new to college, most campuses offer resources specifically geared towards first-years, whether those are classes, programs, support groups, or special advisors. At any phase in your college career, you will be able to call on academic and career advisors, resident advisors, and mental health counselors for support both in advising you how to make the transition on a practical level (which classes to pick), and in helping you explore your feelings about the change you’re experiencing.
Taking advantage of the help that is offered to you in college is smart not only in order to make the most of your school experience, but also to help you prepare to face changes in your future; the skills you learn to help you adapt now will be useful time and again as you transition throughout your life’s stages. And help doesn’t just have to come from professionals—the support of your peers, whether they’re friends or resident advisors, can be huge, as they’re likely to be experiencing some of the same transitions along with you.
The Third and Final Phase: New Beginnings
Finally, all the exploration of your Neutral Zone will come to fruition and your transition will take you to your New Beginning…the place where, having been able to adjust, change, and grow, you have morphed into your new self. When you’ve reached the New Beginning of transitioning from high school to college, your college life finally feels like your new normal, your new comfort zone. You’ve made good choices, are enjoying your classes, have a new set of friends, and feel like you belong. You can’t necessarily plan for this stage—you can’t set a schedule as to when you’d like to arrive there; you’ll get to your New Beginning in your own time and it may differ from your roommate’s or your sibling’s or your best friend’s. But it can be comforting to know that you will get there at some point, and that it doesn’t happen right away—getting to your New Beginning takes work in terms of coming to terms with your Ending and working through your Neutral Zone. It can be a struggle, but it’s all worth it. And again, you don’t have to go it alone.
Life is a cycle of continuous growth and change. Finding coping mechanisms, resources, advisors, and support systems to carry you through these times of change is critical to your success in college and in life. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. And along the way, try to identify others whom you can support; often the most important, long-lasting relationships in your life are with people with whom you weathered a transition.