Life happens right? Just when we feel like we are in a groove and have a smile on our faces, suddenly we find ourselves in the rain, or worse yet…a shit storm of sorts. This may look like losing a job, a relationship ending, an accident, a death or insert whatever life event that seemed to slap you in the face in some unexpected moment. When a life change happens, it can catch us off guard whether we expected it or not. It may bring about feelings of worry, anxiety, sadness, or depression. It can be debilitating and confusing, or perhaps a little bit of everything all at once!
So how can we handle a big life change when it comes our way?
Is there any way to plan ahead?
Can there be a way to protect our mental health without disassociating, or disconnecting from reality?
You do not have to live in denial of whatever transition you find yourself in. I am going to give you 5 ways that I use with my clients to work through a big life change.
We are resilient beings. I totally get it that when we are in the moment it may feel like we find ourselves in a tornado and aren’t sure how to recover from the intensity of emotion we may be feeling.
I assure you that you can overcome hard things and you can feel hard things.
Feelings are just messages, they mean something. At the moment, take a breath and remind yourself that no matter what is happening, you will get through this. It may not be right now, or even tomorrow, but you will find the strength to get through it. Taking slow deep breaths is a strength anyone can use. When you breathe, you create space to calm your amygdala (the emotional center of your brain) and activate your prefrontal cortex (your reasoning part) so that you can look at the bigger picture. This is what people are referring to when they say “time heals all wounds.” The time is your brain recovering from the emotional impact. A big life change can be seen as an emotionally traumatic event of sorts.
When we experience intense emotion, it’s a time to remind ourselves that we can be brave. We have the inner courage to overcome this as surely there have been other times, maybe not exactly the same, but there regardless where we found some way to cope with something. This took courage. This took resources. This took support. Maybe those were found alone or given to you along the way. The universe somehow finds a way to give us what we need, even at times when we aren’t ready to receive it.
An important note here in recognizing strength is to make sure you are not in denial or disassociating which are protective responses. Disassociating is when we disconnect from reality. We may tell others “I’m fine” and believe it, but internally we are anything but. Sometimes people stay in denial as a safe haven, but when we do this, our internal emotions are still in there, bubbling up to the point of an explosion which often manifests as snapping at others, intense depression, a panic attack, or what would be classified as a “mental breakdown.”
Toxic positivity is a form of disassociative denial. This is when we are overly positive to a fault. Think “Good vibes only,” in excess, “This horrible thing is happening for me not to me, yay!” or “Fuck cancer!” (like we can just ignore terminal illness and it will magically go away). Feeling emotion is important. We need to recognize and accept that it is there as a strength, that we are brave enough to feel it, and that it is worthy enough to process. When we process and work through emotion, that is another easily accessible strength we have to work through a big life change.
Plan Ahead Mentally
There are many big life changes that we cannot mentally prepare for. And I am certainly not telling you to live a life of anxiety where you plan ahead mentally for horrible things to happen to you. This way of handling a big life change is for the things you may see coming. I’m talking about things like birth, death, or job loss.
Mental preparation is part emotional and part of understanding your needs. If you know a big life change is coming, you can learn how you are first feeling about it. Maybe you just found out you are pregnant and this surprises you and confuses you because you weren’t planning on having children. Perhaps you just learned a parent has a terminal illness and you are upset that you have less time together than you expected, or that your company is making cuts to your department and you may be one of those layoffs.
Emotional preparation is first about allowing yourself to experience whatever emotion first arises. Then, as time lapses, let that emotion marinate and see how it moves through you as you experience the life change. At some point, you will find your emotions begin to shift and this is where you begin to learn what your needs are.
Take the time to understand those needs so you can know what you need next. They could be emotional such as you need to cry it out or it may be practical such as you need the reassurance of a birth plan for your pregnancy. Allow yourself space to “feel and heal” through understanding your needs and then allowing yourself to meet them. I’ll use a grief example here of a client who was in the process of divorce. Something she and her partner loved to do together was paddle board. This also happened to be the self-care activity that my client knew she would need immediately upon the divorce being finalized, but she felt like she couldn’t because it was “their” activity. I helped her process through her “feel and heal” time and then she was able to plan and actually look forward to her first solo paddle board trip post-divorce.
Was her first time back on the water emotional for her? Of course. Yet, after this trip, she felt like she was a new woman and she was. She had anticipated she would be emotional. She planned this trip ahead so it was something she could look forward to and set herself up to have friends available after the trip to talk to if she needed and made sure her kids were overnight at her parent’s house so if she wanted to be alone and cry when she got home.
If you may lose your job, your “feel and heal” time to plan ahead may look different. You may be allowing yourself time to feel worried, angry, or confused, especially if you’ve been at your job for a while. Then your planning ahead may be thinking about whether or not you want to stay in the same line of work, or if you want to start looking and applying to new jobs just in case you are one of the people to get let go. Remember, when you can plan ahead, it gives you more space to process and think about what you want and ways to take action to make it happen.
Meet yourself with Compassion
We’ve talked about recognizing strength and planning ahead. Our next way to handle a big life change is bringing in compassion. I find when clients go through a big transition, they turn on themselves negatively. This fascinates me with how automatic this is. A chorus of “I should’ve done this,” “I’m such an idiot!” “Why didn’t I see this coming?” “I will never get through this!” echos in their minds.
Be your own friend. You may need the reminder, “Dude, you are going through something here”. Let’s respect that this is a big life change that is probably rocking your world in some way. It’s probably complicated with many facets of emotion. It’s probably hard to deal with in general because it involves changes, most likely people, and impacts your sense of being in some way. You certainly don’t need any of that self-deprecating noise. What you do need is a kind voice that shows up and tells you what will keep you sane, strong, and motivated. This is the voice of compassion. It’s the voice that says, “I know this sucks,” “I understand that your life is changing in some unpredicted way,” “and “Yes, this is hard! But you are strong and will get through this!”
The bully in our head has been there for a reason. It protects our ego and usually motivates us in some way. Most of the time, our bullies come from our caregiver’s voices we heard as a child or the self-talk that helped us get through school in the words, “You better study or you’ll be a failure!” I have a way of letting go of internal bullies and that’s through first building the awareness of your internal self-talk and letting it leave you. Label the negative words in your mind as your bully. Picture those negative words in your mind’s eye written out and then watch them move out and fade away. If you are really good at this visual, you can even wave goodbye to the words. “Bye bye jerkface, only kindness and compassion here!”
Once the negative is gone, shift your self-talk to a place of compassion:
“I am doing the best I can right now.”
“I am a strong and resilient person.”
“It’s ok to feel…”
“What I am going through is tough”
“I can learn from this.”
Being kind to yourself is no easy feat. If you are a perfectionist or competitive person, this way of handling a big life change can be life-changing because usually, compassion is not your prime source of self-talk.
The more we practice meeting and speaking to ourselves internally with compassion, the more equipped we are to handle a big life change. Sometimes, life is out of our control. Sometimes, it was in our control and we screwed it up. If we keep telling ourselves that things are inherently bad and that we are bad people, we will start to believe it even though it may not actually be our reality. Be kind, meet yourself where you are at, and treat yourself with the compassionate respect you deserve.
Space to Adjust
When a big life change happens, it usually happens fast where my clients describe they feel like they are “in a blur.” I can empathize with this experience. It’s like you suddenly found yourself someplace different and now whatever you once knew is gone.
So, now what?
During this time, my clients’ first instinct is typically to scramble. The divorced client I mentioned above felt pressured to have her new home and kids’ bedrooms set up immediately in her new home. She felt pressured to get things “back to normal” as quickly as possible. This stressed her out because she was working full time, figuring out childcare with her ex-partner, and now had a whole new living situation to set up. Space to adjust to a big life change is important because it gives us time to think about what we want in our new reality. In this “blur” it’s easy to gravitate towards what we know and what is comfortable or to get stuck in what we lost. What if there are ways to do things differently that will ultimately be better for us moving forward?
Give yourself the gift of time during a big life transition to adjust. Use this time to think about what you want now that may be different than before, what fears you are ready to face, or how you want to approach life now that it has changed. There’s a certain trust required in this space. You can trust yourself here and trust in the space. You will learn things about yourself in the space and use that to adjust to whatever new reality you have found yourself in.
For example, my divorced client took a step back and felt instant relief from minimizing the pressure of setting up a whole house by herself. She took some time to window shop in home stores to choose a new style that no longer required her partner’s approval and was solely her own. She made it an activity with her kids for them to pick out themes for their new rooms and be part of setting them up. Did it take longer? Sure it did, but the quality time, the relaxed fun, and the end result were worth the time it took to enjoy the process.
I get that some decisions need to be made quickly and that’s ok (when you meet yourself with compassion of course) because space can be minimal or extended. It could be 10 deep breaths. It could be a walk in nature. It could be a day, a week, a month, or more to make a big decision. You can use the previous way here of planning ahead to decide how much space to give yourself in this life change or feel it out. Whatever you decide, I hope the gift of space gives you a sense of peace during this difficult time.
Invest in the Change
After you’ve given yourself space to adjust to this big life change, it’s time to embrace it. At this point, you will have mostly worked through the emotions and the logistics of change. What’s missing is a personal contribution to show yourself that you are now on the other side of it, stronger, and wiser for living through this experience. This investment is highly individual and unique to you and only you can decide what it will be. Sometimes people know what it is all along, while other times it naturally happens without some symbolic transition of walking over a threshold.
If you’ve been through a breakup after a codependent relationship, perhaps your investment is enrolling in a painting class that’s just for you to reconnect with yourself. Or maybe it’s installing dating apps again to get back out there if you are ready to move on from your divorce. Perhaps it’s repurposing a closet of a loved one who was lost or going out to happy hour with coworkers at your new job. Whatever it is, this investment needs to have emotional commitment, a level of discomfort, and physical representation.
The emotional commitment is important because that’s the sign that you are ready to invest in this new reality, post the big transition. It means you have worked through the intensity of the original emotions you had at the start. You processed those internally, and have worked through the remainder of those emotions as the change occurred. Now, you have a desire to feel something different, and this is moving a little beyond the relief of the transition being over. You are ready to connect back to happiness now. You have learned from this transition and will know what you want to feel, or what feeling you want to move towards.
Do not be alarmed if there is a level of discomfort here. This is normal and part of the process of investing in this change. It’s the butterflies in your stomach that are telling you that you are ready to give back to yourself. Remember you are stronger and wiser now. You have learned a lot from this transition and are feeling ready to move forward. People often confuse this discomfort with still being uncomfortable with the change, and that’s typically not the case. This is the discomfort of moving forward, it’s your mind and body telling you that you are ready. It’s time to take a step forward and invest in yourself in some way.
The physical representation of this investment provides a knowingness that you have moved forward. Notice how I didn’t say, “Move on” because it’s important not to forget the growth that we just experienced. We need to see something that shows us that we have invested in our new reality and that we have entered it. We are in it and this means something…it means we are ready to get back to living life for us beyond the transition. From the examples before this is putting the paint brush to the canvas, it’s swiping on the dating app, it’s putting new things in that closet, or taking the first sip of your beverage at happy hour. It is symbolic and is a moment of celebration.
I hope that this post helps you through a current big life change or other transitions that you may experience in the future. Through reading this post, you have given yourself the internal wisdom that you can overcome whatever life throws at you. You know that you will need to “feel and heal.” You already possess innate strengths and resiliency because you have lived. You have the tools to plan ahead the best you can with what you know and what you already have. You can be kind to yourself through the transition process and give yourself permission to take the space that you need to make decisions or process emotions. Investing in your new reality is whatever you want to make of it or it can be something that happens on it’s own. You have it all, it’s there when you need it. Now, go live your great big, beautiful life as the person you are meant to become.