Understanding and Coping with Life Changes
"Change is inevitable; growth is optional."—Bumper sticker, author unknown.
Life changes, passages, or transitions are challenging and often painful, characterized by a sharp disconnection with the past. A life change can be positive or negative, planned or unexpected. Some positive experiences include getting married, giving birth, starting a new career, relocating, retirement, changing jobs, or parents adjusting to life without their adult child for the above reasons, including leaving for college. Negative experiences such as illness, divorce, accidents, and tragedy, usually create a significant loss of a person, job, home, or role.
A life transition can be voluntary and/or planned, or happen without warning, as in cases of death, serious illness, accidents, natural disasters, caring for an elder, or being the victim of a crime.
Life changes cause us to let go of things that have been familiar (and safe) and force us to adjust to a new way of living and believing, although we may feel unprepared to do so. These transitions can shake our foundation, leaving us feeling vulnerable.
Whether life-altering events are planned and anticipated or unexpected and tragic, they have elements in common that affect us similarly. We may experience a personal crisis with feelings of sadness, anger, denial, mourning, numbness, self-doubt, shock, and a desire to withdraw. Life changes may be associated with a sense of displacement, feelings of "Now where do I fit into the world?" A significant loss may make one feel anxious and afraid, wondering if he or she has the strength to get through the event. In his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Changes, William Bridges describes the three stages people experience when moving through change: the ending, the neutral zone, and new beginnings. The change process often does not proceed in calibrated stages, and sometimes people recycle through the stages: the sequences are not always predictable.
In the ending stage, what we know ends—the way we fit into our environment, our relationships with others, old ways of doing things, and our sense of self becomes conflicted ("Who am I?"). It is difficult to accept the finality of change, even though we may have been unhappy with the way things were. There was a comfort there. The known is always more comfortable than the unknown.
There are some who have difficulty letting go of the way it was. They continue to carry out their life rituals and make no adjustment to the new reality in order to avoid the pain of change. Being in denial about the ending interferes with facing the loss, which is necessary to move beyond the emotional pain. In contrast, others deal with endings by minimizing the importance of the event and diminishing its effect on them; they will not revisit the past but insist on focusing only on the present and future. They stoically squash their feelings and will not address the loss. In their denial, they perceive themselves, erroneously, as "being strong." However, if one does not have closure with the past, moving on will be difficult. The past will not go away until placed in the properframework of one's experiences.
The neutral stage is where you feel the full impact of the change because now that you are forced to let go of the past, you have not yet connected to the new present. Confusion, uncertainty, resistance, grief or feelings of loss, and depression are prominent. There is self-doubt about one's own resilience and how you will get through this. This is a period of adjustment and reorientation. This is the time for learning coping skills and becoming aware of your inner self. This fragile stage will evolve into renewal, where reevaluating your values will lay the groundwork for planning new goals.
When you are ready to take action and see hope for the future, you are passing through the stage of new beginnings. This stage incorporates some continuity of the past—not forgetting about the previous event but letting go of it and accepting the present and future. This period of personal growth and increased self-esteem is self-sustaining. Most of us, however, do not plod through each stage but oscillate back and forth between stages until we find ourselves.
Here are some coping skills for this difficult period of your life.
Life changes and transitions are a natural and inevitable part of life. Change can provide opportunities for growth, self-examination, and insight. "We all have the capacity to reorganize our lives after a disruption, and to achieve new levels of meaningfulness," says Dr. Frederic Flach, an internationally recognized psychiatrist and author. Support from others, our attitude, and the passage of time enable us to move on and prepare us for the next life change.
Carole Landis is located in Haverford, Pennsylvania (PA) on the Main Line in Montgomery County. Her service area includes: Philadelphia, Montgomery County (Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Bala Cynwyd, Wynnewood, Villanova, Rosemont, Narberth, Gladwynne, Penn Valley, King of Prussia, Ardmore) and Delaware County (Newtown Square, Broomall, Havertown, Upper Darby).
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