If there is one thing constant about life, it’s change. Change is inevitable in the sense that the world keeps turning, things grow, we age, and rarely does anything remain the same without effort. At the same time we may wonder if things will ever change—will my relationships ever improve, will I ever find satisfying work, will I ever achieve my health goals, will I ever get over the pain…?
What’s your gut reaction to the work, “CHANGE”? Most people firmly land either on hating it or loving it (who are those people?!). We all can benefit from understanding why change is challenging and how we can deal with it better.
At the beginning of a New Year, we sometimes feel the energy of possibility—perhaps you are glad to turn the page with the hope of moving onto better things. You may experience a renewed vigor and determination to make improvements in your personal life. You may feel compelled to stretch and become more active in your community in order to see social and systemic changes.
On the other hand, you may notice that you feel dread. Perhaps it’s fear that the world is changing in a way you don’t like. Perhaps it’s a fear that things never will. If you’ve experienced the avalanche of too many things changing in your life, a New Year may bring on the anxiety of “what next?” and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Your heart may not feel fresh and open to possibility; instead, it may feel heavy, raw, guarded, numb, or just plain exhausted. You are not alone.
As I was thinking about this topic, I remembered a little symbol from physics class (eons ago). The Delta Δ stands for “change” and is most often used with velocity—in other words the rate of change in movement. Whether change is happening too fast or too slow and stuck—too much or too little—why is it so hard and how can we deal with it better?
Change takes energy. When you experience big changes (especially unexpected ones), it takes a huge amount of energy to regroup and adapt. Think about some of the physical things that you may do automatically every day—tying your shoes, driving your car, using your phone. You don’t even have to consciously think about it and your brain is working to take in information and tell your muscles how to move with a thousand variables. If you have ever experienced an injury to a major limb or even a single toe or finger, it’s astounding to realize how much effort goes into adjusting an accommodating. It’s exhausting. (For me, this is why I don’t like getting a new phone!) When we experience life changes or disappointments, it’s important to realize your brain, body, and emotions are all having to work extra hard to rewire and adjust.
Challenge of Positive Changes: New move, job, or child born? While these may be welcomed changes, sometimes we don’t realize how much energy it takes to adjust to new routines. You may be irritable, exhausted, or even a bit depressed which can be confusing if you don’t know that it is a natural part of change and adjustment. If you feel confused and guilty and don’t know how to deal with the conflicting feelings, then things can get worse.
Challenge of Sudden Negative Changes: Job loss, health diagnosis, divorce/breakups, death? Not only does it take energy to adjust to how these things impact daily life, but what often goes unaddressed is the impact of the grief. The rug has been pulled out from underneath you, so it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other while tangled in a swirl of shock, anger, sadness, etc.
Challenge of Chronic LACK of Change: Whether it’s a boss, parent, partner, child, or friend you have likely had at least one relationship in your life that falls short of what you need and want. Communication and connection, respect and value, trust and dependability—these are some of the things that build the picture of what we long for in relationships. That picture changes when what we actually experience might be patterns of conflict, hurt, betrayal, disconnection, or apathy. Your frustration and deep disappointment can come out sideways as anger and resentment or it can turn back on yourself in unhealthy ways of coping, escaping, or trying to feel different.
It may be no surprise that in my opinion the main factor that makes change or lack of change so hard is that we don’t know how to grieve well through it. We learn more about first aid than we do about how to deal with change, yet it’s the one thing that will definitely happen to us all.
In the Grief Recovery Method© grief is defined as “the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.” It’s broad, but true. When we experience the change of anything familiar, it is natural for grief to be a part of it. Maybe grief isn’t a huge part of every change in our life but it’s there even if it’s as simple as, “I love my new job but I hate the commute.” Other times it’s going to be bigger like, “I am so glad to finally be a parent…but it’s hard feeling like I’ve lost some of my identity and closeness to my partner. I feel guilty even thinking that.”
Here are some suggestions that can help when you experience the challenges of change:
- Adjust your expectations. Make some room mentally and emotionally for things to be a little different for a while. Simple tasks may take more time. You may have difficulty with memory or words. You may require more rest and yet still feel sluggish. You may be more prone to accidents or illnesses. Be aware these things often happen during life change; don’t panic. You also may need to adjust your expectations of others—shifting your focus to your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior instead of looking to others for the change to start.
- Be kind and gentle with yourself. You may not be able to control all the things coming at you, so find other ways to slow down and take care of yourself. Make intentional choices. Do things that are nourishing (prepare a good meal, wash your face or put on lotion, read some poetry, listen to inspiring music, watch a comedian like Jim Gaffigan ) instead of things that may feel good but don’t add much other value (tv binging, drinking, spending money, news stations). When you are short tempered or unmotivated, practice compassionate thoughts to provide assurance that this is natural and normal and doesn’t have to last forever. I like these tips on the site Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Complex Lives.
Lean in to more communication not less. It’s tempting to isolate and hunker down when you experience a lot of big changes, but this doesn’t always work long term. Find someone who can listen to you without judgement or advice. You don’t have to keep it all together or even make sense; you’re thoughts and feelings will vary from time to time. Try to listen more—people in your family may be experiencing the changes very differently, so make space.
Address the grief. “Time heals all wounds” is a myth. Yes, it takes time to adjust but it also often requires some intentional effort to move past the pain and sort through the complexity so that your heart and mind find peace to experience joy more fully again. Grieving well requires tools and actions that are sometimes contrary to the messages we learned about “being strong” or “getting over it.” Take care of your grief and you won’t have to carry the extra weight longer than necessary. [Find a Grief Recovery Specialist in your area or check out the next group I will be facilitating].
We are privileged to live in a country that has woven into the fabric of our social beliefs that change is possible. Granted, it’s a short, troubled history and everyone in this country does not hold that belief nor have experienced that as true. All the more reason that we should harness the good in that value to work on change in our own lives as well as on behalf of our fellow neighbor. And when the arc of change is long or we experience disappointment or even defeats, I believe if we learn to grieve well and grieve together, then we will continue moving forward.
Tamara Hanna, LPC, specializes in grief recovery, couples counseling and spiritual injury.