Life doesn’t smoothly flow from one point to the next. Our existence is marked by transitional events that require resources, determination, and flexibility to successfully navigate, reigning in the chaos of the new to reestablish a homeostatic balance, using new skills, adjusted attitudes, and learned behaviors.
What are Life Transitions?
Life transitions are sharp changes from our previous existence. Events planned and unplanned scatter “normal” into unorganized bits and pieces, requiring coping skills and helpful attitudes to join together in an effort to rediscover the new normal. Healthy new adaptations require a dynamic process of letting go of the old and embracing the new.
Life transitions are inevitable. We successively move through transitions throughout our lives. How we manage these transitions is just as important, or, perhaps, more important, than how we navigate normal day to day living. Transitions demand skillful adaptation. Some of the skills necessary to succeed in collage translate well into professional life. However, some new skills will be required, and some old skills may need refining or abandoning.
Lawrence Martin Brammer PhD. (1922-2018) defines transitions as “sharp discontinuity with previous life events. It is usually short since capacities learned earlier in life emerge to the person through the stages of ‘letting go and taking hold’ of new values, relationships, and behaviors” (2006).
A life transition is any change or adjustment that sharply changes our life in a significant way. Life transitions heighten stress as we learn to adapt to the changes.
Examples of Life Transitions
Life transitions come in a variety of forms. Some are carefully planned and desired, other are forcefully shoved on us without warning or preparation. Transitions whether planned or not, desired or not, usually involve a sense of loss. Marriage with all its blessings is also a loss of a previous life. Graduation from college may include several losses, moving away from friends, changing of comfortable routines, and clear understandable feedback on work performed.
During key periods of life, we may encounter several major transitions within a short period of time. One of the most notable life stages that is infused with major transitions is the movement from adolescence to young adult life. During this phase, an individual experiences shifting role obligations from the family of origin to family of destination, education to career, and from participant to contributor in the community. These expected normative changes require major psychological adaptations. According to the social investment theory, these changes fuel personality trait changes to adapt to the new demands.
Change, no matter how grand the new life, leaves a hole—a sense of emptiness.
Brammer expands on this loss writing, “even though some transitions are chosen to avert boredom or energize the person, the net effect for most transitions is an experience of loss.” Brammer continues, “this sense of loss and discomfort precipitates grief that requires a process of mourning to resolve. often positive events, such as promotion, vacation, or marriage evoke this vague sense of loss” (2006).
Just because a life changing event is unplanned doesn’t mean it is unwelcomed. However, many unplanned events hurt, shocking our sensitive systems to a new reality.
Some unplanned events, leading to life transitions:
- sudden serious illness
- loss of employment
- disloyalty of spouse
- loss of loved one
- serious accident
- unexpected opportunity
Planned life transitions:
- graduation from college
- moving to a new city
- having a child
- detox and recovery from addiction
- career change
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “our tendency (when not confronted with a life-changing event) is…to maintain balance, allowing the trajectory of our life to continue uninhibited” (2016). Our histories create a trajectory. Our behaviors, habits and dreams often follow these trajectories until an event rattles our comfortable existence. Behaviors that once worked now fail. Above all, transitions change the trajectory, invite discomfort, and force a reinventing and reordering our lives.
The possible self is a construction of “goals, aspirations, motives, fears, and threats” (Markus and Nurius 1986). Our histories of blessings and traumas intertwine, influencing our vision of possibilities. We structure hopes, dreams, and goals around visualized possibilities.
Transitional life events change histories, confuse personal narratives and force new visions of the future. When a beloved spouse is prematurely taken from us, our dreams of growing old together with them are dramatically shattered.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “the possible self supercharges goals and motivates action. The vision constructs the bridge, bringing together past experience, current realities, and hoped for futures. However, these concepts of self can be rewritten” (2021).
Growth, Personal Narratives, and Life Transitions
Rewriting personal narratives may catapult us into a brighter future, but life transitioning changes is usually far from graceful. Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward wrote in their book on transactional analysis that, “whereas some transitions are relatively painless, others are fraught with anguish and even bloodshed” (1996, Kindle location 795).
Growth is not a given. But personal growth is possible. “Posttraumatic growth is the individual’s experience of significant positive change arising from the struggle with a major life crisis” (Calhoun, et al. 2004, p. 521). Life transitions have built into them opportunities. Yet, in the moment they shatter our comfort, devastate our dreams, and bring chaos to our lives. Muriel James and Dorothy Jongeward in their book on transactional analysis wrote that “some transitions are relatively painless, others are fraught with anguish and even bloodshed” (1996, Kindle location 795).
Martha Beck wrote that cataclysmic events, whether shock, opportunity, or a transition “are a wonderful chance to rethink your life, because each destroys fundamental aspects of your self definition” (2008).
David Epstein in his wonderful book on professional development wrote, “we are each made up of numerous possibilities.” He explains that new possibilities are not simple transitions but explorations into the unknown. He wrote, “we discover the possibilities by doing, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models” (2019, Kindle location 2418).
Necessary Coping Skills
Life transitions take us away from smooth routines. Routines become easy, requiring less cognitive energy. During transitions those routines are broken. They no longer fit, demanding adjustments. Due to the changes, new habits must be learned, requiring additional cognitive energy, draining vital reserves. In psychology. this is referred to as ego depletion. Because of the depletion, we are more likely to experience burnout from the new emotional demands. We may fatigue, feeling emotionally overloaded.
Having effective coping skills helps maintain sanity during demanding life transitions. T. Franklin Murphy explains in an article on post traumatic growth that “healthy coping assists moving disastrous emotions from problematic intrusions to deliberate striving” (2020).
Southwick and Charney list three coping mechanisms that broaden attention: positive reappraisal, problem-focused coping, and infusion of meaning (2018). Joseph et al. adds acceptance and seeking social support (2012).
Brammer taught that “coping skills consisting of supportive networking, cognitive restructuring, problem solving, and stress management are key mediating variables that determine the course and emotional intensity of the transition.” He adds, “attitudes that influence the process are extent of perceived control of the event, perceptions of challenge, and commitment to change” (2006).
Brammer believed that by perceiving change events as a “normal part of living,” we alleviate some of the distress. Instead of crying out, “why is this happening to me?” With the correct attitude, we accept the complexity and imperfectness of life, muddle our way through the transition, and emerge on the other side stronger and wiser.
How are Life Transitions Studied in Psychology?
Transitions and trajectories are key concepts in life course research. Life course theory relies on longitudinal data, typically obtained from studies spanning over several decades (George, 1993). Consequently, researchers can compare individuals’ responses to life transitions, examining successful adaptation against individual histories, response, and social surroundings.
Some studies identify a particular life changing event (such as graduating from college), and gather data from individuals that recently or are in the process of this particular life transition. Often, these studies focus on a particular impact of the life transition, such as subjective well being. Following the impact of a sequence of life transitions over a greater period of time on a particular aspect of wellness (subjective well being) is exceedingly rare (Switek & Easterlin, 2016).
A Few Final Remarks on Life Transitions
Life transitions is an intriguing topic of study, perhaps, because we all experience them. Overall, those that capitalize on these transitions (both planned and unplanned) tend to soar through life, gaining wisdom and success.
However, success or failure is not always based on strength of character. Moreover, life transitions in the form of trauma may overwhelm even the most competent. Personal resources are not simply strengths developed from healthy living but often gracious gifts of our histories. We may plan transitions to that benefit our lives or have unplanned and undesired disasters strike. Regardless, we can prepare through gathering of social resources, developing effective coping mechanisms, and then just do our best to live within our capabilities.
Bauer, Jack & McAdams, Dan (2004). Personal Growth in Adults’ Stories of Life Transitions. Journal of Personality,72(3), 573-602.
Beck, Martha (2008). Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live. Harmony; Reprint edition.
Brammer, Lawrence (2006). Coping with life transitions. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 15(4), 239-253.
Calhoun, L., Cann, A., Tedeschi, R., & McMillan, J. (2004). A Correlational Test of the Relationship Between Posttraumatic Growth, Religion, and Cognitive Processing. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 13(3), 521-527.
Epstein, David (2019). Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Riverhead Books.
James, Muriel & Jongeward, Dorothy (1996). Born To Win: Transactional Analysis With Gestalt Experiments. Da Capo Lifelong Books; 25th Anniversary ed. edition.
Joseph, S., Murphy, D., & Regel, S. (2012). An Affective–Cognitive Processing Model of Post‐Traumatic Growth. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy (An International Journal of Theory & Practice), 19(4), 316-325.
Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible Selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2016) Major Life Changes. Flourishing Life Society. Published 10-2016. Accessed 6-30-2022).
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021) Possible Selves. Psychology Fanatic. Published 12-12-2021. Accessed 7-2-2022.
Murphy. T. Franklin (2020). Posttraumatic Growth. Psychology Fanatic. Published 6-23-2020. Accessed 7-2-2022.
Showers, C., & Ryff, C. (1996). Self-Differentiation and Well-Being in a Life Transition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,22(5), 448-460.
Southwick, S., Charney, D. (2018) Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Cambridge University Press; 2 edition.
Switek, Malgorzata & Easterlin, Richard. (2016). Life Transitions and Life Satisfaction During Young Adulthood. Journal of Happiness Studies,19(1), 297-314.