“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” ~ Lao Tzu
We human beings often don’t handle change well. We will endure some very bad circumstances for a lot longer than what is good for us because what we know is less fearful than something new (or unknown). As awful, or painful, or uncomfortable one may be, the status quo is familiar and mostly emotionally manageable.
Take a bad job. We will continue to show up for a job we hate, doing tasks we despise, for a boss whose interpersonal skills make Michael Scott (The Office) look good, all the while internally (and often externally) grumping about how much we dislike the situation.
Surprisingly, research indicates we don’t handle positive changes much better. Even though the anticipated change is something we may have sought out, worked for, or been offered as an unexpected bonus, our internal emotional response may not be much different than when the change is negative. Here are a few reasons why this might be so:
Any kind of change requires more work/effort. We have to wake up our Mental Supervisor and shut off the autopilot.
There is uncertainty associated with change. Will I know what to do? What if I’m not good at the new thing?
We don’t know how to measure benefit in the new context. How will I know this was the right choice? When will I know this was the right choice? What will I do if XYZ choice was a mistake?
Previous history of bad/unsuccessful choices causes a lack of trust in our own judgment in the present.
We like routine. We prefer to know what is going to happen even when it might be bad/painful/difficult. When we do something like change jobs, move house, get married, or end a relationship, we often struggle with feelings like sadness, irritability, depression, numbness, or a sense of being disconnected from the moment. People are often surprised at the mixed bag of emotions that can happen with positive change.
If you’re facing a significant change in the near future, or in the middle of a change right now, there are some things you can do to minimize the emotional impact and maximize the benefits.
Remind yourself daily that there are few decisions that can’t be changed or revisited. (Becoming a parent or dying seem pretty irrevocable to me, but I think most other choices in life can be at least modified.)
Deliberately take time to reflect on the past. What’s been accomplished (or not) what has gone right (and wrong), and what you would do differently/better in the same situation in the future. Make a point of listing the ways the experience has changed you, for good or bad. Without deliberately remembering, we are in danger of losing the good parts of that time. Even the most traumatic experience can provide an opportunity for personal development, if only by virtue of having overcome adversity.
Plan to commemorate what you are leaving behind. A job, a bad situation, an unhappy relationship. It doesn’t matter if what you’re changing is positive or negative – find a tangible way to mark that season in your life. The point is to acknowledge that this period in your life happened, and you’re moving on.
Look to the future – one year, five years – and decide where you want to be. Set some measurable, achievable goals for this new season in your life.
Finally, if your emotional response to the change in your life causes you to pull back from investing in the change itself, find someone to talk to about the ambivalence and emotional chaos. Just being able to tell someone objective and neutral (therapists or life coaches are a good choice) about your struggles is often enough to make sense of the process for yourself.
It’s very difficult to fully appreciate new opportunities without letting go of the old. Having gleaned all the benefit possible from the past, turn mentally and emotionally to face forward, and embrace the future.
Imagine the possibilities…
Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg, RPC, MPCC-S, DAAETS, ACS