Three stages of transition

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

The first person to write about these transitions was Arnold van Gennep. In the early 1900s he studied the rites of passage associated with the major 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.

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

Three Stages

What this means is that, psychologically and emotionally, before we can taken on any new role or successfully implement major change it is essential for us to let go of our old identity; then step into the uncertainty of the liminal or threshold zone; then consolidate the different aspects of what our new role and identity mean.

Getting married provides a good example:

  1. Separation
    Traditionally, a wedding is preceded by a period of engagement, when 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 (‘married’).
  2. Threshold Liminal Zone
    The wedding itself then provides the transitional experience: we cross the threshold and officially become married.
  3. Consolidation
    This is then followed by a period of time when we start to integrate, consolidate, and embody our new identity: we find out what being married really means for who we are, how 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’ really begins.

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

In a world that is constantly changing it becomes useful to be able to understand manage these emotional transitions as carefully as we manage the physical changes.

When was the last time you experienced a significant change in your role or identity, either at work or in your private life? Did that involve a Separation phase where you knew the change was coming but it hadn’t started yet? Was there then a Threshold period of uncertainty when you had started the new way of doing things but had no idea how it was really going to work? Finally did you have to Consolidate and make sense of all the different aspects of the new role and then become comfortable with it?
Would it have been useful for you to have understood what was happening so that you can manage these transitions more easily?

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

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Photo cropped from one by Walter via

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