The importance of rituals or symbolic acts in handling change

A cake for a retirement party

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 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.

To manage this well we need 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 a language that our emotions will understand. 

This is the language of ritual and symbolic acts.

Which means that ritual can play a vital role in enabling us to complete the Separation stage.


Retirement Parties

A simple example of such a ritual is the retirement party. Retirement marks a huge life change for the person who is leaving, as well as a big change for the colleagues they are leaving behind.

Retirement parties, with their rituals of 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 and coming of age rituals such as bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, as well as birthday parties (especially 18 or 21), weddings, and funeral wakes.

In Northern Ireland in 2015, a whole society went through a separation ritual together: they built and set fire to a huge bonfire to mark a symbolic end to The Troubles and so allow themselves to let go of the past and shift to the beginning of a new phase.

There is no one right way of doing this. What matters is that you find a ritual that is appropriate for you and the unique people around you.

Doing this successfully will enable you 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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