Navigating the Five Stages of Change

Todd Washburn |

Change is our constant companion. We confront economic and family shifts. We switch jobs and careers. We retire and move. While we travel through these passage points in often-unpredictable ways, we do pass through some predictable stages as we adjust. Identifying the stages is the first step in navigating through them.

Stage One: Hanging On
Transition through a change in life often begins as constructive discontent—something is not working-- not quite right. Like that small ache in your back, this can serve as a signal that alerts you to pay attention and take some action.

As you begin to envision possible changes, you may find yourself dancing an emotional cha-cha: one day, the change is clear and you see yourself moving forward with grace and ease. The next day you’re struck with doubt, retreating to “What was I thinking? Everything is fine the way it is.”

Common signs of Hanging On:

  • Ambivalence and mixed feelings
  • Denial and foot-dragging
  • Constant justifying what is familiar and known

Stage Two: Letting Go
Facing the change directly is a good step forward, yet as you let go, you may also experience a mixed bag of emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, confusion, loss of confidence, and even panic. Coming to terms with your emotions as you let go plants the seeds for a successful new beginning.

Common signs of Letting Go:

  • Anxiety, loss, sadness
  • Anger and frustration
  • Disruption and disorientation

Stage Three: Incubation
Change expert, Bill Bridges, calls it the “neutral zone”. Sue Monk Kidd describes it as a place of “fertile emptiness”. This is the time to retreat and reexamine your inner priorities. It’s a time to give your creative batteries a recharge.

Common signs of Incubation:

  • Acceptance of the unknown vs. resistance to change
  • Awareness of the bigger picture of the change
  • Review of the past, present, and future

Stage Four: Starting Over
This stage brings exploration and discovery. I call this the “Eureka” stage as you spark possibilities and take positive steps forward. There are bumps and curves along the way, but progress is made as you investigate, test, tinker, and revise. You expand possibilities and feel excitement about the change.

Common signs of Starting Over:

  • Excitement about the change
  • Risk-taking
  • Feelings of openness and possibility

Stage Five: Restabilization
Now your routine begins to become established, accompanied by feelings of recovery and renewal. You regain a sense of control and comfort as you settle into your “new normal”.

Common signs of Restabilization

  • Routines are established
  • Expectations are clear
  • Procedures become familiar, comfortable and reliable

Unfortunately, life isn’t exactly linear. Nor does change arrive in neat bullet points. More than likely you will dip and dive between these stages as you move forward. The key is to trust your inner buoyancy and practice navigational strategies knowing that you may get wet, but you will bounce back.

Need help navigating a change in your life?
Vicki Field, certified coach and midlife change expert, offers group programs and individual coaching. Learn more at