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 and psychological processes involved in letting go of the way the world used to be and shifting to a new reality.

These psychological processes 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 have to let go of a past that has gone forever.

To do this, we first need to realise that emotions are not rational. So they cannot be resolved in purely rational ways. We cannot simply say, “The past has gone, get over it.” That never works.

Instead, we need to talk in a language that our emotions will understand. And this is the language of rituals and symbolic acts.


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 a trusted source of wisdom and experience.

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

“Sorry you are leaving” cards fulfil a similar role. So do graduation ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, and funerals. All these things are rituals or symbolic ways of saying, “A significant part of our life is now over. This is why it mattered to us. And now it is time to move forward.”

There is no magic recipe for the best way to do this. Hold a party or spend time alone; keep a memento or throw something away; burn something, bury something, make something, or buy something new. All these might be appropriate. Your task is to find a ritual that is appropriate for the situation, for you, and for the unique people around you.

In 2015, in Northern Ireland, a whole society went through a Separation ritual together. They built and burnt a huge bonfire. This created a symbolic, ritualistic ending to The Troubles they had been living through for decades. And that enabled them to shift their attention to creating a new future together.

Doing this successfully will enable you, and the people around you, to Separate from what has gone before. And it will enable you, and them, to turn to face the future you most long to create.

When was the most recent time that a significant part of your life came to an end? Did you hold a ritual event to mark that ending? How did that affect your ability to move on? What does this experience tell you about how you can best manage the endings and beginnings that are currently happening for 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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