Life is filled with moments of transition: marriage and divorce, birth and death, graduation, dropping out, health crises, comings and goings, and everything in between. How we approach transitions can be influenced by myriad factors, including, but not limited to, our social supports; our emotional, spiritual, and psychological health; and the nature of the transition itself.
Whether it's a professional/career transition like getting fired or graduating from college, or a personal transition such as the birth of a child or the death of a loved one, transitions and how we tackle them matter greatly in the context of our lives, careers, families, personal development, and overall well-being.
Schlossberg's Transition Theory is an important systematic lens through which we can choose to examine various types of life transitions, evaluate the challenges they pose, as well as their relative difficulty vis-à-vis the internal and external resources we can bring to bear on moving through such situations to a place of acceptance and resolution.
According to Schlossberg, there are three types of transitions to consider:
- Anticipated transitions: predictable transitions such as marriage, graduation, or the birth of a child.
- Unanticipated transitions: getting fired, the sudden death of someone we love.
- Non-events: transitions we expect that fail to materialize. Non-events can be categorized into those that are 1) personal; 2) "ripple non-events" (things that happen to someone else but still impact us); 3) "resultant non-events" caused by external occurrences (the concert tour is canceled due to the pandemic); or 4) delayed non-events that may happen in the future but have been put off due to external forces (the concert tour is postponed due to the pandemic but will be rescheduled at a later date).
- "Sleeper" transitions: something that creeps up on us insidiously over time without our necessarily being consciously aware of it happening (e.g.: losing attraction to one's spouse; or slowly losing interest in, or passion for, one's work or career).
Schlossberg also elucidated four aspects or elements that can significantly impact an individual's response to transition, including the ability to cope — these are called "the four S's":
- Situation: what triggered the event, the timing of the event, the responsible party (if any), and how long the situation lasts.
- Self: age, gender, cultural background, belief systems, health status, etc.
- Social support: the people, institutions, communities, networks, and groups that can be factor in terms of one's ability to appropriately respond and cope.
- Strategies: how we do or don't manage to respond, modify what can be modified, and adapt to change.
This framework for examining the phenomenon of transition can be a useful tool in our own lives, as well as in a number of professional and non-professional roles in which we find ourselves supporting others (as clergy, healthcare provider, counselor/therapist, social worker, friend, supervisor, colleague, family member, or mentor).
Change is Inevitable
Whether it's anticipated or unanticipated, change is inevitable and simply par for the course as a human being. Stasis can and does occur at times — as can boredom and ennui —but change and transition are much more likely from both the micro and the macro perspectives.
The COVID-19 pandemic ushered the entire of humanity into a period of constant uncertainty and change — it seems as if we've been in transition for more than two years now, and that condition is ongoing in terms of the economy, our social lives, our work, and any other aspect of life one might enumerate,
The horrific war in Ukraine has brought a tragic transition to many, especially the Ukrainian people as they struggle with life during wartime in terms of hunger, fear, unwarranted death, wanton and wholly unnecessary destruction, and the path of the refugee seeking relative safety wherever it can be found.
Many of the people we love will at some point in their lives experience health crises and other challenges, and we also know realistically that everyone we love will eventually die, ourselves included.
There will also be weddings, births, unexpected windfalls and losses, and new opportunities that, for all their promise and excitement, can also bring about concern when the status quo is threatened and we must be supple and bend with the winds of change rather than break under duress.
Change isn't always welcome or easy, but we can do our best to lean into it with grace and consciousness.
Applying Theory to Life
Theories like Schlossberg's are wonderful additions to the body of literature in related fields, but the rubber truly hits the road for us personally when we can consciously apply a theoretical framework to our own lives.
When we're faced with a moment of transition, we can choose to use the Schlossberg lens as a means to first evaluate whether that transition is anticipated, unanticipated, or a non-event, and then further examine the situation in light of the four S's of Schlossberg's model.
In light of the self-oriented aspect of responding to transition, it can be efficacious to evaluate if, perhaps, our belief systems or cultural background are somehow thwarting our ability to see our circumstance from a clear-eyed perspective. There may be long-held erroneous beliefs that must be reprogrammed (e.g.: "I'm simply inept in romantic relationships — there's no one out there who can really love me for who I am"), or we were taught a way of thinking by our family, community, religion, or cultural group that hinders our personal growth (e.g.: "People in our family/community are only considered successful if they're doctors, scientists, or lawyers; every other career choice is essentially a failure of character.")
In terms of social support, if we find that our current cohort of friends or colleagues doesn't provide us with the type of empathy, reflection, or advice that is consistently helpful, we may need to expand our circles and seek out those who can bring those qualities into the mix.
And, finally, if the strategies we know to employ in response to the threat of change are ineffective (e.g.: we fall too easily into despair and depression), we may be wise to find a therapist or other guide who can help us learn more adaptive skills.
Embracing the "Sleeper" Transition
In the world of careers, a so-called "sleeper" transition can sneak up on us and catch us completely unawares. Perhaps we've long felt that something was a little "off" but we never stopped to consider what was happening other than to acknowledge that we've been feeling some vague sense of unease or unhappiness.
From my perspective, the sleeper transition is one of the most dangerous since it can reveal to us how little we've actually been paying attention (or simply been in denial).
When a sleeper transition finally hits us over the head with an eventual realization of what's truly going on in our psyches, we have a golden opportunity to wake up and change course with a renewed awareness of our reality. This moment of realization/opportunity can open doors of true change if we're willing to pause and reflect on how we've been holding ourselves back. Whether it's realizing that a relationship has run its course or a career path has lost all luster, we may find ourselves at the threshold of (hopefully positive and growthful) change.
Whether it's Schlossberg's theory or another frame of reference that opens your doors of self-perception and self-knowledge, seeing transition as a potentially transformational moment of personal evolution is one avenue towards living the life you truly deserve to live.
(NOTE: This post was originally published on LinkedIn.)
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is a Board Certified Nurse Coach offering holistic career development for nurses and healthcare professionals. All things Nurse Keith can be found at NurseKeith.com.