The three stages of transition

A young couple is showered with confetti at their weddingWhenever we experience a significant change in our lives we also experience a psychological and emotional transition.

The first person to write about these transitions was Arnold van Gennep. In the early 1900s he studied the traditional rites of passage associated with the life transitions of death, marriage, and the shift from childhood into adulthood. What he discovered was that we never go straight from State A into State B: there is always a third, intermediate or ‘transitional’ stage, where we are no longer in the old identity but not yet fully in the new one either. This is the chrysalis stage between the caterpillar and the butterfly: a time of uncertainty where the old state has gone but the new one has not yet formed.

Van Gennep called this intermediate phase the Liminal Zone from the Latin word limen, which means threshold. In this phase we are crossing the threshold between one identity and another.

If we want to successfully take on a new role or implement a major change, it is important to be aware of these psychological and emotional processes and to manage them carefully. Getting married provides a good example.


Three Stages of Transition

The first stage of transition is called Separation. In marriage, a wedding is traditionally preceded by a period of ‘engagement’ and this is the Separation stage. Here we start to let go in our minds of our old identity (being ‘single’) and come to terms with the idea that we are going to take on a new role (being ‘married’).

The second phase is called the Threshold or Liminal zone. In marriage this is the wedding itself. In different cultures this might take anything from just a few minutes to several days. Here we cross the threshold and officially become ‘married’: we have given up our old identity, but we have not yet fully taken on what being married is really going to mean for us.

The third stage of transition is called Consolidation. Here we start to integrate and embody what ‘being married’ is really going to mean for us: for who we are, the way we behave in the world, and how the world behaves towards us. This is the honeymoon period and beyond, when the work of becoming ‘married’ together really begins.

These same three phases also exist whenever we start out in a new job, a new school, or implement a major change. Before people can fully take on their new roles and ‘identities’ they have to let go of their old identities, go through a period of uncertainty, and only then can they become fully productive in their new roles.

Successful change in the outer, material world, can be accelerated and achieved more robustly by managing and nurturing these inner transitions. In a world that is constantly changing this is an increasing priority.

When was the last time you experienced significant change in your life? Looking back, can you see a time of Separation when you came to terms with the idea of the change? Then a Threshold period of uncertainty? And then a Consolidation of the new way the world was going to be? Would it have been useful for you to be able to manage this emotional process more smoothly?

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

You can sign up to daily posts here.

Photo adapted from one by Walter via

Leave a Reply