The importance of rituals or symbolic acts in managing change

In a changing world, 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 way of being.

These psychological shifts are called transitions and they come in three stages.

The first stage is called Separation. This is where we come to terms with the idea that we need to let go of a past that has been important to us.

Managing this well requires us to recognise that emotions are not rational — so they cannot be resolved in purely rational ways. We can’t just tell ourselves, “The past is gone, get over it.”

Instead, we need to talk in a language that our emotions will understand.

This is the language of rituals and symbolic acts. And it means that ritual can play a vital role in enabling us to complete the Separation stage.

Retirement Parties

A simple example is the retirement party. Retirement marks a huge life change for the person who is leaving, as well as big changes for the colleagues left behind, who are losing a friend and trusted source of information and experience.

Retirement parties, with their rituals of food, speeches, and gifts, provide a time and space for everybody present to process the emotions they are feeling: to give thanks for the past, acknowledge the reality of the present, and prepare for a different future.

“Sorry you’re leaving” cards fulfil a similar role. So do graduation ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, birthday parties, weddings, and funerals.

In Northern Ireland in 2015, a whole society went through a separation ritual together. As a way to enable themselves to let go of the past they built and burned a huge bonfire, marking a symbolic end to The Troubles and the beginning of a new phase.

There is no “one size fits all” way of doing this. You have to find a ritual that is appropriate for the situation and you and the unique people around you.

Doing this successfully will enable you and others to Separate from what has gone before. Then you can turn to face the future.

When was the last time you ended a significant part of your life? Did you hold a ritual event to mark that ending? How did that make you feel? How can you apply this learning to the endings and beginnings that are happening now, to you and the people around you?

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

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