In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

5 Tips to Help You Respond Effectively to Change

Thriving through Change

Why do some people thrive through change and transition while others experience great difficulty? Are there individual characteristics or traits that explain how people weather the storm of change? Is there a personality profile that describes better coping skills and contributes to a better outcome? All good questions, but the fact is there just aren't simple answers.

Of course, having mastered the art of change over the course of a lifetime provides a great advantage. The more experience you have with the process, the more you come to know what to expect along the way. More importantly, you gain knowledge through your own cumulative personal transitions about your response to change. Over time, you have the opportunity to alter your responses to change in order to create a more satisfying experience.

But until you reach that level of comfort and command of the process through change, there are some basic things to consider and some things you can actually do to help you negotiate and navigate your course.

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Keep things in perspective. Being able to step back and observe the singular change/transition within "the bigger picture" of your life up to that point helps to moderate how you think and feel about a certain event. When all is said and done, a singular event may not seem as sweeping and dramatic if placed within this context. Learning to keep things in proper perspective may help reduce distraction and mitigate emotional responses, keeping you solidly focused in the "here and now" of your life.

Practice the 5 "P's".

  • Learn patience. Generally, things do not happen overnight. In fact, it may take some time before a desired and/or reasonable outcome is reached. Don't be impulsive or try to rush the results. Patience will help you arrive at the best possible place you need to be.
  • Be persistent. It's easy to want to give up, especially when things are not going your way, or are even looking glum. Keep on chipping away at the issues; the outcome or solution you're seeking may be just around the bend.
  • Be practical. Some changes require an immediate response to remedy a situation, but in most instances, there's simply no rush to the finish line. Go about your life in a way that focuses attention on maintaining balance. Stay present, firmly rooted, in the here and now. In other words, create a structure that provides stability and support while you're in the process of transitioning.
  • Be positive. Expect "up and down". In fact, that's more the norm while you're going through change. A sense of optimism will help equalize the hills and valleys and will keep you focused and committed.
  • Have a purpose. No matter how many major changes and transitions you go through during the course of your life, having an organizing guiding principle that is vital to you and gives meaning to your life is essential.

In addition, keeping an open mind and being curious about the possibilities that change promises, being flexible, staying motivated, and having a sense of humor will buoy your resiliency and help you persevere.

Stay focused on who you are and what you need. This is often difficult since so much of the way we define ourselves is through the "externals"--- relationships, work, power, money, status, etc. It's easier said than done to focus on just your Self, first and foremost, when other factors, especially people in your intimate world, are part of the change. Compromise may be necessary and you may not always get what you want completely. But that principle is pretty basic to most situations in life.

Having said that, it's been suggested that adapting an orientation to life that relies primarily on one's own personal resources, is advantageous for making change. When dependency on outside forces is diminished, it becomes easier for the individual to reinvent themselves whenever necessary.

Question, assess, and evaluate your core beliefs about change. Since many of our problems/issues have been "inherited" from our parents, passed down through the family and even generationally driven, so much of our time is spent trying to distance, disengage, and disentangle ourselves from these. Sometimes there is a conscious recognition that these issues are being superimposed on our lives, but other times these issues only get expressed by subconsciously acting them out in our relationships with others.

Our beliefs are largely molded (one can even say, we are programmed) by parents, teachers, and other authority figures during our earliest years. What we come to believe is often never questioned and is considered to be absolute and true. So just imagine if what you hear about change is negative messaging: "Nothing ever good comes of change." "Change is too much work; it's not worth the trouble." Don't take risks; there's too much to lose." And what about the implied, but often unspoken messages: "We don't want you to change." "What will happen to us if you change?" Sometimes, even guilt or threat is used to try to prevent change in those closest to us. So, whose neurosis is this, anyway?

Take as much time as you need before you respond. So much of human behavior is reactionary, not responsive, and often not responsible. We are constantly reacting to what is imposed upon us from outside of ourselves, rather than just being able to take the necessary action for what is most essential for ourselves and our well-being. Make needed decisions responsibly as they come up and absolutely don't try to make sweeping change in one fell swoop.

A final word about therapy. If you find yourself totally confused and lost in the process of going through change, by all means seek professional guidance. It's interesting to note that in a large study comparing the efficacy of various modalities and treatments, researchers found that the main element responsible for change, which accounted for about 40% of improvement, is the client/extra-therapeutic factor. It's the individual's desire to change that allows them to draw upon their own "generative, self-healing capacities" that drives the success of the treatment. 

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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