Purgatory, The Twilight Zone, or Grey Areas: Human Aversion to Transitional Periods

Written by Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer

Transitional periods are exciting! They mean change, new things, and potential. So why do we hate them so much? Growing pains are simply not something most of us look forward to. Transitions occur at various points in our lives: coming to college, graduating, entering a marriage or long-term relationship, having a child, losing a loved one, or enduring heartbreak or divorce. 

Studies found that the “mid-life crisis,” or variations of it, can occur at any time–even at “quarter-life,” between 25 and 35. There are four general phases of the transitional period.

  • Phase 1– The dreading feeling that you didn’t do the right thing, or that you chose the wrong path
  • Phase 2: Loss of identity and a tumultuous sense of self, questioning choices, and the discord between where you expected to be vs where you currently are 
  • Phase 3: Starting over and returning to the state you were in during earlier stages of adulthood–i.e. experiencing emotional instability as you try new things and discern a new path, self-focus rather than outward focus 
  • Phase 4: committing to new roles and activities that are more intrinsically motivating

This type of crisis, questioning, or transition can happen from feeling locked into something you’re unhappy with, or locked out of something you desperately want to be a part of (“Career Changes Early Adulthood”). 

Humans are creatures of habit, we know this. There’s a reason we often go to the same table in the cafeteria or the same seat at the conference table or why we cook the same dinners every week. Our neural pathways design themselves around our routines, and when we change those routines, our brains respond as if it’s a threat.

In terms of coping, we have to understand that feeling unstable is not an insinuation that we’re incapable or undeserving of success. Feeling upset and unmoored during a transition does not equate to us falling short, failing, or not being good enough. It’s just an internal rewiring, and we all deserve the space to make our lives more beautiful places to be (Mead). 

Studies also showed that “spiritual” health was directly correlated to higher levels of stability during transitional periods. Having a belief, sense of a higher power, or ability to connect with one’s inner, subconscious self allowed a sense of stability. “Internalized practices of various types of prayer come to serve as a source of comfort and clarity as well as a medium for interaction with the surrounding environment” (Peshek). Essentially, regardless of whether you subscribe to a religious institution or spirituality in any capacity, having something to form a steady attachment around even in turbulent phases can help provide a sense of stability. 


“Career Changes Early Adulthood.” Emerging Adulthood in a European Context, by Žukauskienė Rita, Routledge, 2016, pp. 22–25. 

Mead, Ashley. “How Big Life Transitions Impact Your Mental Health.” MyTherapyNYC, AshleyMeadHttps://Mytherapynyc.com/Wp-Content/Uploads/2017/04/Mytherapynyc-Logo.png, 12 Sept. 2019, mytherapynyc.com/managing-life-transitions-impact-mental-health/. 

Peshek, Darren J., et al. “Construction and Internalization of Prayer Practices to Cope with Transitional Life Pe.” YIS: Yearbook of Idiographic Science, Firera Publishing / Firera & Liuzzo Group, 2009, pp. 135–160. 


Published by Counseling With Leslie

Leslie Stevens, M.Ed., LCMHC is a North Carolina and Virginia board-certified licensed professional counselor. She co-owns a successful practice in Carrboro, North Carolina. Leslie specializes in helping adults navigate stress, depression, anxiety, and perfectionism. Additionally, she is a life strategist, spiritual coach, and writer.

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