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 or psychological letting go of the way the world used to be and the shifting to a new way of being.

These 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 simply be resolved in purely rational ways.

We can’t just tell ourselves (or other people) “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 has a vital role to play in managing change, and enabling us to complete the Separation stage.

Retirement Parties

A simple example is the retirement party. Retirement marks a huge change in the life of the person who is leaving, as well as a big change 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. They built and burned a huge bonfire together, marking a symbolic end to The Troubles and the beginning of a new era.

There’s no magic recipe for how you do this. You have to find a ritual that is appropriate for the situation and for you and the unique people around you.

But doing this successfully will enable you and others to Separate from what has gone before. And 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? What can you learn from that, to better manage the endings and beginnings that are happening for you and the people around you now?

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

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