Transition Bypassing

Choosing transition means choosing to participate in our changing

Beth Sanders
12 min readJul 19, 2022


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Mixed signals signal resistance to changing in personal and professional arenas of life. With a dating partner, they want a relationship and run away when things start looking like a relationship. With clients, they want my insight and skills on their projects, and they resist following my guidance. And me? I feel alive when writing and finding new ideas through words, but I don’t always give myself the time and space to write. We want “it,” whatever that thing is, but we don’t do the work to have it.

Here is what we do: we recognize that a new possibility is appealing while simultaneously working against that new possibility. Even though we desire a new possibility, our unwillingness to participate in the work of changing overrides that desire.

Even though we desire a new possibility, our unwillingness to participate in the work of changing overrides that desire.

A couple of years ago, two city planning colleagues asked me for assistance in organizing a conference about evolution. (They caught my attention because they put together two of my favourite words: planning and evolution!) We went back and forth to explore how I could uniquely support their desire to create a gathering around the word evolution. In the end, there was a limit on how much change they could tolerate; they wanted to keep everything the same.

My colleagues were attached to a conference design emphasizing experts on the stage — plenary speakers and mazes of concurrent sessions — a design choice that minimizes social contact between conference attendees. My involvement was contingent on their ability to release this model of gathering so that we could create the conditions for evolution, for participants to participate in the process of changing. In practical terms, this meant designing for social contact and connection, conversation, relationships and community beyond being a community of shared interest that gathers in the old and familiar ways.

While evolution was in the title, there was no desire to think and do differently. My colleagues were setting the stage for more of the same: listening to a few people talk about how we could think and do differently. They were not creating the conditions for our profession to evolve because they were not willing or able to create the conditions for newness.

We want change to happen without changing ourselves, without having to do anything differently.

The conference organizers exemplified what happens for so many of us. We want that newness in our lives, that idea, that person, those insights, or what comes with crossing a threshold. At the same time, we don’t want the discomfort of having to cross that threshold. Very simply: we want change to happen without changing ourselves, without having to do anything differently. We tell ourselves we want change but do not change our thinking to make the change happen — we just think we do.


I believe that we create the conditions for our own changing when we foster connection, conversation, relationship, and community. We are certainly not inviting ourselves into the process of changing when we are not able to rethink how we’ll gather to rethink ourselves.

When I think of my colleagues, I imagine their resistance to a different kind of gathering was a deep-seated desire to maintain the status quo. They want desperately to believe that they want change, or evolution, but they do not. Because they can’t be bothered with rethinking how to incorporate the most fundamental building block of humanity into their gathering: social contact for connection. Without designing for social contact, we are designing for the status quo because it ensures we avoid interaction and exchanges between people, accountability and responsibility, and shared decision-making — all necessary elements for conscious evolution.

We create the conditions for our own changing when we foster connection, conversation, relationship, and community.

Before a transition, we are in a state of stable equilibrium; I’ll call it “Stability A.” The experience of upheaval and disruption indicates our potential passage to a new equilibrium, “Stability B.” Here are some examples in my life: moving out of my family home to a new city for university, having children, the death of a loved one, losing close relationships, leaving jobs, starting new jobs and moving to new cities. Sometimes the upheaval is chosen, and other times it is not. What is consistent: the transition from one way of being in life to another happens whether I choose to be in a relationship with the upheaval or deny my relationship with the upheaval I experience.

The transition from one way of being in life to another happens whether I choose to be in relationship with the upheaval or deny it.

At the scale of the human species, we experience transition all the time. The evolution of our communications technologies is a great example: the printing press, radio, television, internet, and social media. Something disrupts Stability A, and eventually, we find ourselves in Stability B, a reality we could not have imagined from Stability A. (If I imagine telling my grandparents about what a mobile phone can do, I know they would not believe me.) We continue to experience transition with the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change; we don’t know what the next equilibrium will be. We only know we are in transition, and it feels uncomfortable.

Here are four assumptions I make:

  1. Everyone is participating in at least one transition: the pandemic, a change in work, change in family shapes and relationships, loss or birth.
  2. The only way through transition is to go through. We can avoid it for a while, but we will go through.
  3. Not everyone recognizes or believes that transitions are underway.
  4. People have different ideas about a particular transition, why, what stage we’re in, etc.

Who do we need to be in times of transition? The simple answer is: “Whoever we can be.” Not everyone has the energy or strength to jump in and tackle the difficult emotional work that changing asks of us. Sometimes we can, and sometimes we can’t. Sometimes some of us can, and some of us can’t. This is our reality.

Thresholds tell us we have choices

When standing at a threshold of choosing or being compelled to think differently or take new action, we feel unease and tension. Thresholds reveal themselves in a variety of ways:

They can be a long, slow, and hidden presence in our lives or they can appear suddenly. A swift change of life conditions, in the form of a super typhoon or fire for example, are easy thresholds to identify and compel us to take immediate action. Thresholds that take time to notice are no less significant, for they equally power us up to be better citizens who create better cities (Sanders, Nest City).

I can feel the threshold when it’s there, I experience frustration, anxiety, discomfort, or fear. Even simple unease signals to me that something is awry: “These feelings tell me that I have a decision to make, whether or not I recognize it as such (Sanders).” I even sense that making the choice, whatever it is, is inevitable, whether at the scale of me or us. In my book, Nest City, I reached this conclusion: “The tension we feel when standing at a threshold is an evolutionary slingshot — an opportunity to grow (Sanders).”

The tension we experience when choices are before us signals opportunities for growth. The tension often appears in our mixed signals when we want something but work explicitly, implicitly or energetically against ourselves. When we notice our mixed signals, we notice we are asking ourselves to make a choice.

Transition-making is choosing changing

Choosing transition means choosing to participate in our changing. When we design our lives to make social contact and connection, interact with each other in conversation, be responsible for and accountable to each other in our relationships, and share decision-making in community, we are choosing to be people who serve each other well. We are choosing to grow our capacity to draw on our collective brilliance so our cities, neighbourhoods and communities serve us well.

What I offer here is an invitation to notice when we choose to bypass the work of changing or, when we can, choose the work of changing. Let’s start by looking within ourselves, not others, because focusing on others is a means to avoid changing ourselves.

As a starting place, here are five symptoms of and four antidotes to transition bypassing.

SYMPTOM 1: Avoid emotional discomfort

Avoiding emotional discomfort is resistance to change and changing. We avoid changing when we avoid the discomfort of emotional signals telling us that something — or someone, including us — is in the process of changing. When I avoid emotional distress, I hear a loud (or very quiet) voice saying: “Don’t challenge me. Please don’t make me feel anything. Don’t challenge my sense of self.” Most often, something is coming to an end that I wish would not end — a life, an experience, a stage of life, my illusions about a relationship — and I experience grief and anger. When I don’t acknowledge the ending, I pretend it isn’t ending, and I think I am avoiding grief and loss.

SYMPTOM 2: Choose safety, comfort and stability by default

Resisting transition, whether conscious or unconscious, is choosing what we perceive to be safe, comfortable and stable, whether it is or not. With the best of intentions, with a motivation to ensure (or find) safety, comfort, and stability, we will do whatever it takes to feel safe, comfortable and stable. When we do so, we do not foster new growth in ourselves.

Resisting transition, whether conscious or unconscious, is choosing what we perceive to be safe, comfortable and stable, whether it is or not.

ANTIDOTE 1: Welcome discomfort

When we choose new understanding, we choose a degree of feeling uncomfortable. When we are willing to feel discomfort and grow our “discomfort muscles,” we enable ourselves to transition from resistance to newness. Transition thinking is rooted in responsive accountability and possibility, which means we are open to experiencing our experiences and the experiences of others. We also welcome the icky feelings that come with recognizing our hurts, those of others, and the roles we play in harming self, others, and the places we call home.

ANTIDOTE 2: Notice inner resistance

We are the source of our resistance, so the regular practice of noticing what we are resisting, and working through that resistance, is an antidote to transition bypassing. It is a healthy practice to pay attention to how and when we avoid feeling feelings, changing, endings or even beginnings.

SYMPTOM 3: Emergency thinking everywhere

In our collective experience, we are handling several scales of emergency response: short-term sprint emergencies, like a house fire, and long-term, large-scale emergencies, like wildfire complexes and weather events that are the result of climate change. These scales of emergency demand that we be both responsive to short-term emergencies in the present and be proactive in mitigating and adapting to the coming increase in emergencies. These are not the same kind of work. The training is different. The experience is different. The results are different. What is the same: panic-oriented emergency thinking leads to action that makes us feel good because we are taking action. The catch: we avoid feeling our personal response to the emergency (if it is an emergency) and do not respond in relevant and effective ways. The result is that change happens to us rather than our conscious participation in our changing world.

SYMPTOM 4: Magical thinking

When we engage in magical thinking, we come up with solutions that are not solutions to our challenges. We do this by looking for (or assuming something is) a silver bullet or magic pill, something that can swoop in and solve our problems for us. We also look for magic recipes or instructions that miraculously resolve our experience. Sometimes we come up with magical thinking on our own, and other times we attach ourselves to the magical thinking of others. Wherever it comes from, the root of magical thinking is a desire to maintain the status quo; it tricks us into thinking we are doing something to solve a problem when we are not. The result: we bypass effective solutions.

SYMPTOM 5: Overemphasis on the silver lining

Recognizing and accepting the gifts that come with a challenging situation are healthy practices, but not when we allow their tantalizing qualities to lure our attention away from what is happening. Inappropriate focus on the silver lining is a means to deny our reality and the need to think and behave differently. It is possible that overemphasizing the silver lining also dehumanizes the unmet needs of ourselves and others.

ANTIDOTE 3: Notice “needing” to be in emergency mode

When our desire to be rescued or be the rescuer is our sense of identity, we fall into the rescuer/victim trap, and we disable our ability to make our way through upheaval. When I rescue others when they can act on their own, I erode their adaptability and resilience. A rescuer erodes my adaptability and resilience when they save me when I don’t need or want to be saved. When we notice when we are compelled to be the rescuer or be rescued, it becomes possible to step out of emergency thinking and improve our ability to make our way through times of disruption.

ANTIDOTE 4: Grow and BE possibility

We choose to continue to do — and redo, and redo — what we’ve always done until we notice that things are not working as well as they could and make a different choice. Complaining, also a choice, maintains and entrenches what is not working. Instead, we can invite ourselves to think differently, a prerequisite to make or do anything differently, with a simple question: “What else is possible?” At any scale, from self to family, organization or neighbourhood, city, nation, species, our participation in remaking any system begins with a seed of renewal that begins with this simple question: “What else is possible?”

When we feel the unease of a threshold, when something new can or will come into being, and we ask, “What else is possible?” we create the conditions for ourselves to see and hear new possibilities. In doing so, we begin to participate in the transition. And to BE possibility, we have to be smitten enough with what might be across the threshold, on the other side of the chasm, to pull us over the threshold that tests our resolve to act and behave differently.

The remaking of any system begins with a seed of renewal that begins with this simple question: “What else is possible?”

A cascade of bypassing

Transition bypassing is a means to avoid changing — at the scale of me, us or all of us. The symptoms are insidious because they are present even when we declare ourselves to be changing and wanting to change.

Remember this: taking action does not guarantee changing. If the thinking and motivation behind action are about safety, comfort and stability, action is a means to avoid changing. We can say we are taking action, but if we are unwilling to change who we are and how we do what we do, action is a means to feel good and avoid the emotional discomfort of changing.

If we are unwilling to change who we are and how we do what we do, action is a means to feel good and avoid the emotional discomfort of changing.

The transition from one way of being to another is inevitable in our lives. Whenever something is changing within or around us, we choose a pattern of resistance or exploration. The ultimate transition is to choose how we handle change, from primarily resistance to welcoming discomfort, so we can choose to be the people we need to be for each other.

Just as social contact is a means to disengage from connection bypassing, interactions and exchanges are a means to disengage from conversation bypassing, accountability and responsibility are a means to disengage from relationship bypassing, sharing decision-making is a means to disengage from community bypassing, and willingness to be uncomfortable is a means to disengage from transition bypassing.

Transition-making does not mean being uncomfortable all the time, but it does mean welcoming discomfort as an opportunity to learn about the changes we need to make. The primary question to ask: What is motivating me at this moment: resistance or exploration? Participating in the transitions in our lives is a choice.


  • How do you provide care and support for yourself when you experience emotional discomfort?
  • Where in your life do you feel uncomfortable, where there may be changing within you to explore?
  • What is one example of how you are sending yourself mixed signals, where you want something and don’t want something, simultaneously?


Sanders, Beth, Nest City: How Citizens Serve Cities and Cities Serve Citizens, POPULUS Community Planning Inc.: Edmonton (2020).

This article first appeared at



Beth Sanders

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.