The importance of rituals or symbolic acts in handling change

A cake for a retirement partyIn 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 deal with the grief that naturally arises when we need to let go of the past. Ritual plays an important part in completing this stage successfully.

To process the emotions 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.

A Simple Example

A simple example is the retirement party. Retirement marks a huge shift in life for the person who is retiring as well as big changes for their colleagues. These parties, with speeches and gifts, provide a time and space for everybody present to process the emotions of loss 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 like the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah and 18th or 21st birthdays.

A whole society can go through a separation ritual: in Northern Ireland, in 2015, a huge bonfire marked a symbolic end to The Troubles and the beginning of a new phase.

Unique to You

There is no single ‘right’ way of doing this. Depending on your situation, you might want to hold a farewell party, give a thank you gift, bury something, plant a tree, write a letter (but not send it), burn a symbolic object in a ritual way, or hold a minute’s silence. People might want to take with them a physical memento of the past: a pebble, a signed card, a photograph, a plant.

What matters is that you find what is appropriate for you and the unique people around you. The abilities you developed with the tools in the earlier chapters of Inner Leadership will play a key role in enabling you to do this — to speak and act that truth appropriately and authentically, on behalf of yourself and others.

Once you have used rituals or symbolic acts to mark the end of the Separation phase then you will be able to turn to face the future and start to build something new.

When was the last time you took on a new role or ended an old one? Did you hold an event to mark the ending? How did that make you feel? If the event had been held differently, would that have made it easier or more difficult for you to shift into the new role? How can you apply this learning to the endings and beginnings that you and the people around you are facing now?

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

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