Tangled in Transition

Living well through change

Cheryl Doss
Tangled in Transition
Monarch butterfly coming out of its cocoon, pupa chrysalis stage.

Transition makes headlines. Whether political (“Presidential Transition Update”), social (“The Transition to Work at Home”), medical (“Are We Transitioning from Pandemic to Endemic COVID?”), economic (“Energy Transition Needed”), or personal (“Transitioning to Retirement”), transition means change. Change has always been a part of life. Seasons come and go; individuals are born, grow old and die; social structures and cultural practices evolve and change. Yet while the human experience is one of change, the pace of change has greatly accelerated with an increasing amount of transition required. Fifty years ago, in his book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler wrote, “Change is avalanching upon our heads and most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope with it.”1

Looking back over the half century since Toffler’s assertion, whether we feel prepared or not, living with an avalanche of change has become normal but no less upsetting. Not only are individuals experiencing transition between careers or marriages, but the institution of marriage itself and the job market as a whole are also in transition. “Stuck in transition between situations, relationships, and identities that are themselves in transition, many . . . [people] are caught in a semipermanent condition of transitionality.”2 The constantly changing social norms, public health requirements, educational and employment conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic clearly show that transition has become a way of life, and that the addition of one more type of transition heightens the stress of change in all of life. 

Understanding the Experience

For many years, transition as a separate category was ignored. Transition was embedded in life events—beginning school; entering adulthood; starting a family. Little was written on the underlying similarities and inner processes common to all transitions. William Bridges was one of the first who began to look at the dynamics all types of transition share. Since Bridges’ seminal book Transitions was published in 1980, however transition theorists from numerous disciplines have generally accepted the proposition that people in transition go through three stages.3 While theorists label the three stages differently, they clearly reflect similar thinking. Something old must end before something new can begin. Between the ending of the old and the beginning of the new exists an in-between “neutral” zone or “liminal” space, “. . . a no-man’s-land betwixt and between the structural past and the structural future.”4 Whether a person or family is experiencing a marriage or a divorce, the birth of a child or the empty nest, starting a new job or retirement, or any other type of transition—large or small—they go through the three stages of transition—grieving the old; living in-between; and adjusting to the new. 

Even in welcome and necessary transitions (for example, the birth of another baby or the move to a new job), the losses of the old life (such as uninterrupted sleep before baby or enjoyable relationships with old work colleagues) must be acknowledged and grieved before the new can be fully embraced. Living in-between the new and the old can feel very unstable and uncomfortable. Self-doubt, lowered self-esteem, and sadness—sometimes even depression—can characterize this time of internal emptiness. Like a car stuck in neutral, revving the engine won’t make the car move, and berating oneself for feeling upset will not hurry the transition process.

While all transitions share similarities, individuals experience transition differently.

The time finally arrives when the person in transition is able to let go of the past, start to embrace the present, and move toward the future. Frequently, this occurs as a result of gaining some understanding of the meaning or cause of the transition. New understandings are then internalized, and followed by personal growth and change. New beginnings are often unpretentious. We can’t identify the precise moment or the clear trajectory of change that commences. Once the inner realignment occurs, in the space created by the grieving process and the in-between zone, growth begins whether we are aware of it or not.

While all transitions share similarities, individuals experience transition differently. In fact, the same event may trigger a transition in one person but not in another person. Developmental or social change may contribute to personal transition, but passing a developmental or social milestone doesn’t necessarily guarantee the individual’s passage through transition (Turning eighteen, for example, may not change much in a teenager’s life, even though they are now legally of age). Transition, then, is a reorientation that makes a qualitative difference in the life.5 Since transition is such a fact of life, understanding the categories and causes of transition can help us better manage the avalanche of change we face.

Types of Transition

Transitions are categorized as normative (those shared by most people), or non-normative (those outside of expectable experience). Transitions can be grouped into four types depending upon the initial causative factors: (1) developmental transitions; (2) transitions caused by crisis events; (3) transitions external to the individual; or (4) internally motivated transitions. The intensity of a transition depends upon the type of transition, the number of simultaneous transitions, and the personal response to the transition. 

Developmental transitions occur at fairly predictable points caused by the normal growth and development of an individual—when a child becomes an adolescent; at the time of marriage; when a new baby is born. Developmental transitions are, for the most part, normative transitions. Sometimes transition occurs when an expected developmental milestone isn’t met, when a marriage doesn’t move forward, or a promotion doesn’t arrive, or a pregnancy doesn’t occur.

Crisis transitions occur in a more unexpected manner and at unpredictable times—the death of a loved one; the dissolution of a marriage; the onset of catastrophic illness. Crisis transitions are non-normative, difficult to prepare for, and, as a result, are often very intense. 

As a church family and as individual believers, we have the opportunity and responsibility of listening hearts, understanding words, and supportive attitudes that help others’ as they work through their transitions.

External transitions usually spark internal transition, and vice versa. Leaving home to go to college is a major external transition that requires answering numerous internal questions: Who am I in this new place: who are my friends: how does my life change because of this move? 

Internally initiated transitions often reflect the accumulated pressure of personal frustration or need for growth, and can push the individual or family into making major external changes. Job dissatisfaction can send a parent back to school or motivate them to accept a new job in a distant place, bringing multiple transitions to the whole family.

Often several types of transition must be negotiated at the same time, increasing the intensity and scope of change required. When crisis transitions (think COVID-19 pandemic) coincide with developmental transitions (a child starts school), major external transition (school going online), the internal transition process will be greater and more complicated than if any one transition occurred by itself. The intensity of a transition can also be affected by variations within the individual—temperament differences, anxiety levels, emotional baggage, previous experience, and personal resilience. Is it surprising that so many people are struggling with the complex transitions they face that have been complicated by the pandemic, with the resulting chaos in social, political, economic, medical, and many other spheres of life?

Growing Through Transition

What, then, can we do to successfully negotiate the multiple adjustments required in a time of unprecedented change? I’ll include three strategies that have been shown to help us grow through transition.

1. Normalize Transition

Feeling disoriented during times of transition is normal. The internal sense of chaos that results from living in a state of “transitionality” is the sign that something (or multiple somethings) old has ended and that we are adjusting to something new. We need to give ourselves permission to identify and grieve the losses, allowing the time necessary for our inner life to adjust to our outer circumstances. Often this takes much longer than we wish. 

Knowing our personal response to transition can be helpful. When I started a job that required frequent travel, my husband and I found we often had an argument almost immediately after I returned home from a work trip. We were like two sets of spinning gears trying to mesh but clashing instead. Once we realized that we were both dealing with the discomfort of transition, we were able to respond in much more loving and helpful ways to each other. We talked about what each of us needed to manage the transition. Our discomfort eased and the arguments ended.

2. Accept Change

Change is a reality in all areas of life. Nothing about us—physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual—is ever static. Some change brings permanent loss. We don’t “get over” the loss of a loved one, but we can eventually adjust to the loss as we negotiate the grieving process and come to some level of acceptance. Other types of change are welcome and necessary. Health means having the flexibility to respond appropriately to whatever type of change we face.

 Change can be an opportunity for growth. The discomfort that the change brings may well be “growing pains.” You may remember having growing pains in your legs as a child, or the emotional growing pains as you went through your teenage years. Transition of all kinds causes growing pains as individuals, families, communities, and nations adjust to the complexities of life in the twenty-first century. Acceptance of change as a constant reality that can bring benefits as well as challenges, opens us to the possibility of personal and shared growth. Reading and meditating on the life of Jesus, Joseph, Ruth, Daniel, Paul, and other biblical characters can teach us much about how God brings personal growth and eternal good out of transition.

3. Give and Receive Help

We are social creatures. Many transitions are the result of living in families and communities. Since individuals negotiate transition at different speeds and in different ways, we need to be understanding of others who are struggling with or, conversely, sailing through transitions in ways we are not. As a church family and as individual believers, we have the opportunity and responsibility of listening hearts, understanding words, and supportive attitudes that help others as they work through their transitions. Feeling “stuck in neutral” is a normal part of the transition process. Talking about the transition with someone else who has gone through the same type of transition can be enormously helpful. Joining a support group focused on the transition you are experiencing gives you the opportunity to both give and receive help. Support groups normalize the transition, help us accept the changes it brings, and show us how to get “unstuck.” 

Some people stay stuck longer than others. If you find yourself or a family member unable to move on, professional help may be necessary.

What Success Looks Like

Experiencing change often requires an individual, family, society, or nation to adjust attitudes, behaviors, values, and sometimes, even worldview. The process of adjustment can be one of positive growth, yet the necessity of deep level change that results from multiple, simultaneous transitions can cause internal and external distress in our lives. Jesus promises, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20). When we face transition, we can rest in the assurance that Jesus walks with us, understands us, and seeks our growth as we anticipate that greatest of transition days when He comes to take us to an earth made new.

Cheryl Doss, PhD, recently retired as director of the Institute of World Mission at the General Conference. She lives with her husband, Gorden, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

  1. A. Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), p. 12. 
  2. W. Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Reading Mass.: Perseus Books, 1980), p. 4.
  3. Bridges, Transitions, p. 9; cf. N. K. Schlossberg, E. B. Waters, and J. Goodman, Counseling Adults in Transition (New York: Springer Publishing, 1995), p. 44; V. W. Turner, “Dewey, Dilthey, and Drama: An Essay in the Anthropology of Experience,” in The Anthropology of Experience, ed. by V. W. Turner and E. M. Bruner (Chicago: The University of Illinois Press, 1986), p. 41.
  4. Turner, “Dewey, Dilthey, and Drama,” p. 41. 
  5. P. A. Cowan, “Individual and Family Life Transitions: A Proposal for a New Definition,” in Family Transitions, ed. P. A. Cowan and M. Hetherington (Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 1991), p. 18.
Cheryl Doss

Cheryl Doss, PhD, recently retired as director of the Institute of World Mission at the General Conference. She lives with her husband, Gorden, in Berrien Springs, Michigan.