How to Negotiate Major Life Changes

Heraclitus was born in Ephesus in the 6th century BCE. He was a Greek philosopher and is famous for his doctrine of change being central to the universe. He said,

‘Change is the only constant in life.’

Change is a normal, natural part of life. We cannot get away from it. Everything is subject to change. People change, circumstances change, things change. Change can be small, big, subtle, or sudden.

There are some aspects of change we are familiar with:

1. Change is an integral part of life

Our lives are constantly changing. No two days are the same. Our thoughts and experiences may suggest familiarity but no matter how predictable life seems, there are always subtle variations that require our accommodation and adjustment.

2. Change is inevitable

Change is a necessary part of life. Life without any change simply does not exist. Although change may be unsettling, even painful, it is not something we can prevent. Whether it be the prospect of a new job, the end of a long-term relationship, a re-location to a new suburb, or an unwanted medical diagnosis, the consequences are real and unavoidable.

3. Change is disruptive

Change can arrive unexpectedly, upending our daily existence. Such was the case when COVID 19 took hold, forcing us into lockdown. Its presence in our communities threw up questions no one seemed to have thought about. We soon became aware that it was going to have a significant impact on our lives, affecting our social connections, our means of communicating, our ability to travel, our participation in social and cultural events, and our work schedules.

Like all unwanted change, it has been emotionally upsetting and a challenge to our equilibrium. We can see our jobs and personal lives shifting before our eyes. We know we will never fully return to “normal.”

4. Change can be voluntary or involuntary

Change may be of our own making, such as starting a new job or getting married. We welcome the change, accepting the likely challenges while appreciating the obvious benefits.

But some changes are beyond our control, like a bereavement or a redundancy. They can occur suddenly and unexpectedly. A personal crisis of this kind can potentially destabilise our minds, requiring us to alter our understanding of how things are and adapt fully to a new reality.

However, not all voluntary changes have a positive outcome, and conversely, not all involuntary changes are a disaster. You might voluntarily purchase a new home only to discover that the mobile coverage is poor, and the area is subject to flooding. Alternatively, you might lose all your possessions in a house fire only to have a group of neighbours rally around and arrange alternate accommodation and financial assistance.

5. Change affects everyone differently

Some people resist change. They sense the threat and are averse to the consequences – the instability, upheaval, unpredictability, and disorientation. They prefer the certainties of a stable existence. They like to feel safe and secure. They do not want to be taken out of their comfort zone nor want the prospect of an uncertain future. They resist the idea of being placed in a situation where they will be forced to confront their fears and insecurities.

Some people welcome change, seeing it as transformative, an opportunity for rejuvenation, progress, innovation, and growth. People with a positive outlook can adapt and be flexible to changing circumstances. But even they struggle with the unexpected changes that happen outside their control.

Change is not to be confused with transition. They are not the same. The difference is subtle but important. Change is something that happens to people, even if they do not agree with it. Transition, on the other hand, is internal: it is what happens in people’s minds as they go through change.

William Bridges, PhD, author of ‘Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes’, says ‘change is situational while transition is psychological.’ Bridges stresses the importance of transition as a vital component of change. He says,

‘Unless transition happens the change will not work.’

Transition, he argues, is the process we go through to adapt to change. The period of transition cannot be rushed. The time taken will reflect our circumstances and will continue until the change is incorporated in our lives.

Bridges explains that all transitions are composed of three phases:

  • An ending
  • A neutral zone
  • A new beginning

Endings are the first phase of the transition process. They always come first for the ending makes the beginning possible. Bridges describes ending as ‘the disorientating experience of something familiar changing, leaving, dying.’

Several years ago, I saw an Ear, Nose, and Throat surgeon. I had been experiencing some difficulty breathing at night. After a thorough appraisal, he felt I would benefit from surgery on my nose. With a plan in place, our conversation drifted on to other subjects like family and personal interests. When I mentioned ‘retirement’, he was curious to hear of my experience. He said he was contemplating retirement but had conflicting emotions.

Retirement is a major life change, particularly for someone who has had a long and rewarding career. The losses are considerable and cannot be glossed over. When a surgeon retires, he (or she) is leaving behind a lifetime of service. A surgeon undergoes years of training, is highly skilled in surgical procedures, derives personal satisfaction from improving people’s lives, is appreciated for his life changing work, enjoys the support and friendship of his colleagues, and is rewarded financially for his expertise.

Retirement is more than making adequate financial preparations, choosing a good place to live, and developing some new interests. Getting set for the change does not prepare you for the transition.

Endings make us fearful. They break our connection with a setting in which we have come to know ourselves, where we have formed our identity. Loss of identity is one of the hardest parts of change. 

Retirement challenges a person’s identity. We know who we were but ‘Who am I now?’

Whenever change occurs, appraise your losses, know what you are leaving behind, grieve what you had to let go, accept life will be different, and embrace the new. Remind yourself that you must relinquish old dreams to generate new ones.

Bridges offers some good advice about preparing for change. He says,

‘We do not help ourselves by starting a new journey without unpicking our baggage from the old one. You travel more easily when you lighten your load.’

William Bridges PhD

The neutral zone is the time in between the ending and the new beginning. It is a time of withdrawal, where we take time out from what may have been a busy and unrelenting schedule. Some people regard this intermediate phase as being meaningless and irrelevant. They believe it is best to plunge straight in. But periods of introspection and reorientation are essential to successfully negotiating major change.  

The internal changes going on may take some time and give rise to feelings of being unhinged. However, they are important in making us the person we need to be for what lies ahead.

We lived in New Zealand for eleven years on the east coast of the north island. Regional living has much to commend it. We appreciated the natural beauty, the slower pace of life, the cultural differences, and the sense of community. I worked in Christian Bookselling. I love books and I love the way they change our thinking and our priorities.

Returning to Australia was a major life change. It was hard. We understood that we could never capture the life we had, and it hurt. I did not want to have to think about a new job as I felt so fulfilled in what I was previously doing. It was a desolate place. I had some experience of being voluntarily unemployed and it was humbling. All pretention is stripped away. It is a case of finding the inner reserves to build your life again. It is not a process you can rush. It took me three months to take my first tentative step towards a new career despite the lingering reservations.

A new beginning is the third phase. It is a return from the wilderness, from a period of disengagement. Beginnings can be exciting, but they can also reactivate old anxieties. We are faced with an unknown and uncertain landscape. We feel weary at having to put ourselves forward, to demonstrate our strengths and prove our reliability. We fear our best intentions might be sabotaged.

New beginnings are full of so much hope and intention. They allow for reinvention and renewal. There is a new rhythm to your life. You have conquered the uncertainties and have opened a new chapter. The change has brought new energy and purpose. You have a new confidence in your ability to handle change. You have every reason to celebrate.

‘Every end is a new beginning.’

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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