The Roller Coaster of Transition - Hold On!

In quiet conversations, Veterans often share how surprised they are that the process of transition is so hard. It is like an emotional rollercoaster. One minute they are riding high with optimism, good prospects, and self-assurance and the next they find themselves depressed, angry, uncertain, and lost.

Transitions make us feel out of control and Veterans in particular do not like that feeling. Even when we are churning inside, we like to project the image of competence and confidence. This need to appear strong and have our act together adds an additional burden to an already wearying transition experience. So what is the answer? How do we make this transition between the military and civilian "worlds" or between one job and another less stressful, less like a roller coaster?


One of the key means of leveling out the transition experience is to understand that while each transition is unique in the details, it is a fairly well-defined process. One of the foremost experts in the process of transition is William Bridges who has written widely on the subject for 30 years. Bridges uses this graphic to represent the three phases of transition.

Phase I - Letting Go

At the heart of Bridges' model is his recognition that before we can embrace a new reality, a new future or beginning, we must first let go of past. Bridges believes, and my own professional and personal experience reinforces, that when we are confronted with any major change in our lives - ones we choose or ones that are forced upon us - we cannot make that change without first letting go of the past. As Bridges observes, "we resist transition not because we can't accept the change, but because we can't accept letting go of that piece of ourselves that we have to give up when and because the situation has changed."

As Veterans, we must set aside and let go of rank, entitlement, arrogance and/or sense of superiority, while holding on to the positive traits of being mission-oriented, able to work in tough circumstances with limited resources, and working as a member of a team or on our own. Unfortunately, there are those who cannot or will not psychologically "take off the uniform" and begin the real work of creating the next phase of their life, not just finding a new job.


A critical aspect of this letting go phase is the unexpected emotions that are associated with it. So many times Veterans say that they had not expected, and were not prepared for, this emotional upheaval. This experience of letting go, loss, and ending is often described as a grieving process. Shown here are the five emotions typically associated with grieving.

While this looks process looks "nice and neat," it is not. At some point, we think we are done being angry or depressed and well on our way to acceptance, then something happens and we again find ourselves retracing the path. This is an emotional roller coaster that we are hard pressed to understand - and it affects not just us, but those closest to us.

Phase II: The Wilderness

The second phase of Bridges' process of psychological readjustment is what he calls the "Neutral Zone." When I talk to Veterans, I always call this "The Wilderness" because there is not, nor should there be, anything neutral about this phase of the journey. This is the point in time when the past has loosened its hold, but the future is still ill-defined. This is a time for exploration of options and prioritizing or re-prioritizing values/goals. This is a time to open the lens and not just default to what you have done previously. This is the time to reflect and think deeply. What you want to do with your life? What would make you happy? What are your favorite and best skills? What are your values and priorities? What is your unique contribution to the world?


Caution! For so many Veterans, the priority is finding a job to pay the rent and take care of their families. If you need a job to make ends meet, take a job. However, do not abandon this time of exploration. This is your life, not just a paycheck.

Phase III: New Beginnings

The final phase of Bridge's transition model is "The New Beginnings." The reality is that as you start in your position, you are likely to find new things that you have to let go of, new challenges to meet, new ideas and opportunities to explore. This really is a new beginning, the opening of another chapter in professional life. Few Veterans find their "happy ever after" job. Instead, like most Americans, they will continue to explore and evolve in their work lives. The progression we often see among our clients is an "A-B-C" progression, i.e., a job, a better job, a career.

Phases I - III: Over and Over

While in this post, we have focused on job transitions, but we all recognize that as human beings we are often confronted with multiple transitions and that some of those transitions may be interrelated. For example, I talk to a lot of Veterans who aren't just dealing with a job hunt, but with major changes in other areas of their lives. Divorce. Marriage. Injury and hurt - both physical and emotional. Relocation. Loss of parents. The list goes on and on. There is a constant call to change - sometimes the call is a quiet tap on the shoulder and sometimes it is the proverbial meteor that drops out of the sky. Constant transition is our human estate. The better we get at riding the transition roller coaster, the better the quality of our lives, our work, and our relationships.