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Understanding the four types of life transition

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Going through any transition takes time. Even with a change you've decided to make, parts of the process will still feel uncomfortable.

Merriam (2005) talks about 4 different life transitions: anticipated, unanticipated, nonevent and sleeper. Each of these bring about its own challenges, opportunities for growth as well as impacts to other areas of your life. Understanding which type of transition you are going through will help you through the process.

A few years back I went through an anticipated transition - I decided to leave my secure, challenging job in a company I loved. That decision took a lot of courage, and I spent many hours making sure it was what I wanted. Even so, once I had started to make the change, I was struck by the range of emotions that came with it.

Sometimes excitement at the new opportunities that lay ahead, often fear of the security I had left behind, grief for an identity associated with my career, pride in my strength to follow my heart, anxiety over the unknown. There were dark days when I’d question my decision, berating myself for being foolish and there were days when I felt so aligned with purpose, my heart sang.

Through this transition, I learnt a lot about myself, my needs and values. But there were times when it was difficult and I couldn't understand why if I had chosen this route.

Transitions of any kind shape you, your relationships (personal and professional), and the roles you play within those relationships. Transitions also mean change, loss, endings and beginnings.

The four types of life transition

An anticipated transition is something you expect to happen in your adult life. Maybe you decided to go to university, change careers, get engaged, move house or have a baby.

When these transitions happen at the time you expect (or have planned for), there is a great deal to learn about how this meets and supports your needs. There will be times when it still feels uncomfortable - as relationships adapt, as you change identity or your levels of freedom shift.

The learning (levels of satisfaction, frustration and stress) may also be quite different, should these transitions happen when they exist outside of your expectations.

Unanticipated transitions are those you haven’t planned for and don’t factor as part of your life vision. Things like; redundancy, illness or accidents, or perhaps a relationship breakdown. These types of transition can be exceptionally stressful and painful, more so than an anticipated transition. However the potential for personal growth and reward can be much higher. These can be sudden and alongside managing this transition, it is likely that a broad range of other emotions and challenges will present themselves.

Non-event transitions are the absence of an expected event- where something you expect doesn’t happen or it doesn’t happen when you want it to. This could be; not getting a promotion when you had worked hard, not being able to have a child, not getting the house you had set your heart on. Managing grief and dealing with loss (often the loss of a life you expected) can feature quite strongly within this transition.

Sleeper transitions are the ones that occur without a great amount of awareness around them. They sneak up on you. Gradually improving your competence at work, the development of a skill as a parent, the progress of learning a language, the speed of your 5k run. They can also appear negatively - like the slipping away of a friendship or relationship, becoming demotivated at work.

With any transition, the process takes time to shift to a new phase. You may journey back and forth through emotions and learning as time passes. Awareness of the type of transition and planning for the highs and lows will help you understand, learn and grow.

Above all - be patient , stay curious and stay kind.

If you're going through a transition and would like support to navigate through - reflecting on where you are now, and where you'd like to get to - contact me to discuss how coaching together could help.


Gemma Brown is an associate certified coach with the International Coach Federation, working with people to navigate successfully through transitions - be it career, relationships or life in general. Her belief is that when we confidently bring our whole selves to all areas of life, anything is possible. Transitions exist in both our personal and business life, and so often, the two fiercely overlap. Coaching with Gemma focuses on you as a whole, enabling you to identify your strengths, build confidence and to live a life with increased purpose and direction. Gemma is based in Cambridgeshire and carries out face to face coaching in the area as well as 1-2-1 coaching via Zoom. For more about Gemma, visit her 'About' page or contact her directly.

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