Moving from Change into Transition: A Psychologist’s Perspective


By Cathleen Adams, Ph.D.

People sometimes think that they are resistant to change but, in fact, they really aren’t. Instead, they are resistant to transition.

So what’s the difference between change and transition? Change is a shift in something you are used to–a variation in habit or routine, an unexpected event. Change is also situational. It can be as simple as a new diet or exercise program, or more eventful such as a break-up or divorce, a promotion or a move. Change can be positive as in starting a family, or painful as in losing a loved one. Transition, on the other hand, is a letting go of the way things used to be, and then opening up to the way things can become. Transition is not just a change in situation but is a psychological event, and therefore demands our attention and mental effort.

There are many different models for understanding life transitions. Central to all these models is that transition involves phases. First, we experience the change in circumstance which is an ending of what went before. Then, we experience a middle phase where we are confused or in a state of not knowing what comes next. Finally, if we keep on our path, a new beginning emerges. The key to success in moving through a life transition, and not getting stuck in the first two phases, involves a psychological journey. You can move to a new home, have a child, start a new job, and make positive changes in all aspects of your life. But if you don’t let yourself pass through phases of your transition with mindful awareness, thoughtfulness and intention, you may not let go of the past in a way that truly allows a new beginning.

People often ask, “But why would I get stuck and hold on to something that I want to change?” One answer may be fear of the unknown and of the unpredictable, and those feelings of fear can lead to paralysis. Yet, while the unknown can be intimidating and seemingly full of risks to avoid, it is where we encounter opportunities for growth. Endings always lead to beginnings, but only if you let go of the past. People ask, “But if I let go of the past, won’t I be betraying that [person, place or thing]?” On the contrary, when we let go of the past, we give it the honor it deserves as a significant time or experience of our lives that has led us to the present.

Not all changes result in a transition. In fact, many do not. We can rearrange the furniture, so to speak, and nothing really changes. One reason is that people are reluctant to change themselves in addition to their circumstances. Why the reluctance? Because it is challenging! To acknowledge and even embrace transition means we have to change our self-definition to some degree. Sometimes people fear they will lose a piece of their old, familiar self, which is unsettling. For example, a man in early recovery from addiction may miss the fun personality he presented when drinking and partying. A woman who is divorcing and entering a new life as a single person may feel oddly unrecognizable and insecure around friends and even family. Parents who are empty nesters often feel disoriented and even awkward with each other without their children to define them. Who am I without my familiar habits and roles? In all these situations, the challenge is to become aware of the experience of redefining ourselves, and actively direct ourselves toward coping with it.

Some questions to ask yourself when you are in the throes of change and want to deepen the experience are:

  1. If this present chapter of your life were a course you were taking, what would it be titled? What would be the course objectives? What would you expect to learn?
  2. What are you meant to unlearn? What are you meant to let go of?
  3. If you woke up to the new chapter tomorrow morning, what might be awaiting you? Imagine this new life, new surroundings, new you.

Change is what we encounter in life. Transition is how we come to terms with it. Whether we want to make some changes for ourselves, or whether unwanted change arrives to confront us, we will be better able to turn change into opportunity if we understand how to face fear, let go of the past, and open up to a new self-definition.

Cathleen Adams, Ph.D is a Psychologist with private practices in Madison, CT and Manhattan, NY.

She offers consultation and psychoeducation designed to move people from difficult change into productive transition.

For more information, visit and For an in-office visit, or to schedule a free phone consultation, contact Cathleen @ (203) 464-3554 and

cathleen adams