Understanding the Stages of (Career) Change


There’s no denying that 2020 has been a year of uncertainty and change. It feels like since February/March, we’ve been bombarded with change after change, with no control over the when, why, who, what, or where of it. Life as we knew it came to an abrupt end, with very little warning.

When the first lockdown was implemented, I was coming across more and more articles being published about the Grief Cycle and the Change Curve, which were designed to help us understand the array of difficult emotions we were all experiencing at the time. In a nutshell, as a nation, and as individuals, we were moving through fairly traditional stages of change.

Reading these articles, in this context, helped me re-connect with my previous learning around these topics from my Psychology degree, MA in Coaching, and a recent Masterclass on the nature of psychological change. Whilst it’s highly beneficial for me as a Career Coach to be aware of what my clients might be going through whilst working through a career change, I don’t think I appreciated how helpful it would be for clients to be aware of this theory too. Once I started sharing details of these models with clients, it was clear how useful it was in helping them understand what they were feeling and experiencing when it came to their career change.

Changing careers sounds fairly straight-forward on the surface, but we forget that, because so much of our identity and self-worth is tied up in our careers these days, changing our line of work is akin to letting go of who we once were, and forging a new identity...which we are yet to define, making it even harder. That’s an uncertain and bumpy journey right there!

To use a helpful analogy - it’s like you’ve had the courage to climb up the stairs of the highest diving board, let go of the railings at the top (or you’re contemplating it, at least), you’re creeping towards the edge of the diving board, with no clue of what you’ll find below, or whether you’ll have the courage to jump, or whether you’ll land safely and be OK. You know you’ll feel amazing afterwards though, right?

Anyway, back to the Change Curve.

The Change Curve is based on a model originally developed in the 1960s by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the grieving process. The relevance of the grief cycle stems from death and significant change both involving a great sense of loss. As a result, this model has been widely utilised as a method of helping people understand their reactions to significant change or upheaval.

So, what are the stages of change? The original five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – have adapted over the years, and several versions of the curve now exist. However, there is common agreement that, in the main, we move through three particular stages:

  1. Shock & Denial
  2. Anger, Blame, Frustration & Depression
  3. Acceptance, Experiment, Decision & Integration

In hindsight, I’m sure you can map yourself against this curve when the pandemic and lockdown hit back in February/March. I certainly remember sharing posts of Facebook about death rates being less than the winter flu, etc - complete denial! Then the anger and frustration at the nurseries closing, blaming the Government for being incompetent, before feeling throughly depressed by the whole situation. However, now I find myself far more accepting of this second lockdown, and the measures and restrictions that have been brought in. I can’t control any of it, so I might as well accept and adapt/integrate the best I can.

And the relevance to career change?

Stage 1: If you’re considering a career change now, I imagine the niggles have been there a while. In denial, it’s easy to push these feelings aside, convincing ourself that things aren’t that bad, it’ll get better, but, low and behold, it doesn’t.

Stage 2: We then get angry, feel stuck, and frustrated at the situation - maybe it’s my manager’s fault, the career isn’t what society told me it would be, etc. We might then move into a slump of numbness and feelings of hopelessness - I’m stuck, everything and everyone is shit, no one can help me.

Stage 3: But then we start to accept the situation and things start to pick up - OK, I think I need to change career. I can do that. What ideas do I have? In what way can I experiment with these? Who can I speak to? Who can help me? And, eventually, a decision comes, and you work towards implementing and integrating it into your life.

Of course, as with anything we humans do, it’s never that linear or predicable. From my own experience of career change, and having supported hundreds of clients through their own, I can recognise that we tend to fluctuate along these stages, sometimes going forwards, then backwards, skipping one or two stages along the way, going round and round, etc. Change is never that straight forward, but I do think this model can help us understand some of what might be going on for us at the time.


Another concept related to the change process, which I think is paramount in understanding our experiences of change, is that of the liminality stage. Somewhere between stage 2 and stage 3 (so, from the initial feelings of frustration and anger, right through till a decision is made about the way forward), we are in a flux of nothingness. We have let go of our previous career (and potentially the identity and status that came with it), but there is nothing concrete there yet in it’s place to reach out to and grab. You’re floating around, rudderless, with little sense of direction or focus...and that’s OK. In order for the future to come into focus (the light at the end of the tunnel to get brighter, if you will), there’s likely to be a weird, uncomfortable, blurry dark tunnel to walk through first, which is the only way through to figuring out what’s next for you.

I often see the career change process that I offer as an opportunity for clients to walk through this dark, uncertain, often scary tunnel with someone alongside them, helping them figure out what they want things to look like at the end of it. It’s not an easy experience, but with courage, bravery, determination, grit, and willingness to take a risk, coming out the other side is a hugely rewarding experience.

I do hope that this article has helped you relate to and understand what you might be experiencing at the moment, whether that be distress over the recent lockdown/pandemic, or your own career change journey. One thing is for sure though, we’re in this together. Compassion and empathy for ourselves and others is paramount at this time. We’re all riding the choppy waves of change.

Photo credit: Raw Brothers

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.