The importance of rituals or symbolic acts in handling change

A cake for a retirement party

In a world filled with change, 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 emotional 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 something has been important to us.

To process the emotions that we feel during Separation, we need to recognise that emotions are not rational so they cannot be resolved in purely rational ways. We cannot simply tell ourselves, “The past is gone, get over it.”

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

This is the language of ritual and symbolic acts, which means that ritual can play a vital part in completing the Separation stage successfully.

Retirement Parties

A simple example 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 will leave behind.

Retirement parties, with their ‘rituals’ of speeches and gifts, provide a time and space for everybody present to process the emotions they will be 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, bat mitzvah, and 18th or 21st birthdays.

In Northern Ireland in 2015, a whole society went through a separation ritual together: they build and set fire to a huge bonfire to mark a symbolic end to The Troubles and 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, and turn to face the future.

When was the last time you ended a significant part of your life? Did you hold an event to mark that ending? How did that make you feel? If the event had been held differently, could that have made it easier (or more difficult) for you to shift into your new future? How can you apply this learning to the endings and beginnings that are happening to 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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Photo By Los Angeles District via StockPholio.net

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