Now that summer has drawn to a close, people of all stripes are getting that sinking feeling… the party’s over and the cold, harsh reality of real life is upon us. Wait, cold harsh reality? Are we living in the depression-era dustbowl in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—or just turning the page on the calendar?
You don’t have to be making those big changes like going to college or kindergarten or parenting someone who is… all of us smell the change coming and we don’t like it. Well, we don’t like it right now. But give us a little time and chances are that we’ll like this change (that we’re currently vehemently resisting) so much that we’ll dig in our heels and won’t want to give it up come the next time we have to. And so goes the cycle of life.
Like waiting for a shot at the doctor’s office we sit with anticipatory anxiety about what is next. Anticipatory anxiety is like brain-freeze without the pleasure of eating heaping spoonfuls of Haagen Dazs or downing an icy margarita first. We can’t think, all we can do is sit and wait for the gripping feeling to pass. Under that icy cap of our minds, we imagine that life after (insert your specific change here) will be wholly different, wholly unfamiliar, and that we will be wholly unprepared for those unknown challenges. Why do we sit with anticipatory anxiety about what’s next? Well, since we have no actual data on how the change will be— given that it hasn’t happened yet— we do what we can to bide the time.
Is there a better way than to be the deer in the headlights in suspended animation as we close the page on one chapter on our lives and haven’t yet penned the new one?
Yes: know how transitions work.
Why don’t you feel good yet, even if it’s a good change? Because you haven’t located yourself yet in your new context. You are literally in transition. Think of transition as a place in and of itself. You’re not totally lost and disoriented, you’re merely between contexts. The change you’ve experienced— whether it is a new school year, a new relationship, even a new traffic pattern is abrupt— our adjustment, on the other hand, takes longer. Regardless of the specifics, transitions have roughly three predictable stages: know which one you’re in: that in and of itself will curtail the feeling of disorientation.
Stage One: Resisting/Reacting: Characterized by doubt and discomfort as you are actively objecting and negatively comparing your new situation to your old. You’re not looking, you’re judging and it doesn’t look good.
Stage Two: Adjusting/Exploring: Characterized by doing more than feeling: You’re gathering information on how to make this work, making choices, making connections, asking questions, digging in.
Stage Three: Living Well in the New Old or the Old New: This is the stage you don’t notice because, it doesn’t feel like a stage. You’ve arrived at your new destination. You’re accepting and incorporating the new so much, you wouldn’t have it any other way: the new is the (new) old.
Would it be more efficient to just skip to that final conclusion? Sure, but we just don’t work that way. But by understanding how change works, you won’t mistakenly, when you are in the early stages, take your discomfort as a sign of trouble or a wrong move, you’ll simply say— “Oh right, this is just how change is supposed to feel right now.”
How quickly will we move through these stages? Individual results may vary, but perhaps the wisdom of the charming, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will help us hang in beyond our many, “are we there yet?” concerns: “Everything will be alright in the end. So, if it is not alright, it is not yet the end.”
It all comes back to the swimming pool analogy: when you first get into a pool, it doesn’t feel good. It feels cold. You question briefly should I get out, or why did I get in, but then, anticipating what’s ahead—the refreshing feeling of floating weightlessly in water—you hang in and are greatly rewarded. It feels good! Why? Did someone change the water, warm it up? No, we adjusted. So with change, we must be willing to feel that initial discomfort, ride it out and trust that we’ll adjust. Here are some ideas to grease those wheels of change so they’ll move a little bit more efficiently.
Don’t Expect to Feel Fantastic at First: Expect the Opposite
You didn’t want to start kindergarten, then you didn’t want to leave elementary school, or middle school, you don’t want to start college—then it was the best time of your life and so on. So it is for adults. If you only think ahead on the unknown, you forget that you are a master at transitions. But even masters have to pay the piper. The way to be gracious (and cut down on your anguish) is not to expect that you’ll have a seamless process, but actually expect the opposite. If you expect discomfort, like slowing down slightly before a familiar bump in the road, it won’t send you flying when you hit it.
Fast Forward to the End and Put a Time Frame on the Adjustment
How do you think things will really turn out? Counter your anxious predictions with the facts. And while you’re at it, estimate how long you think it will take to settle into the new routine—a week? a month? a few? Even if your estimate is off, just being able to foresee the end of the adjustment curve suggests that this is possible (and likely).
Don’t Forget to Add Yourself to the Equation
You may feel powerless against change, but you’re in the picture too. How did all those previous changes get worked through? You can be sure that you had something (a lot) to do with that. All the tools and experience that you bring to the situation are there for you.
What Changes, What Doesn’t?
We may think when we start a new job, relationship, or school year that everything is new and that we not only have to reinvent the wheel, but the whole shebang. Focus on the things that are really changing and enjoy or take stock of what is already in good working order in your life. Appreciating what doesn’t need your attention may give you more energy to face head-on what does.
Don’t Think, Do, and Do Small
How do you feel about the transition? Chances are that if you wait for the motivation to feel better—“I’ll start doing x, once y is over”— y doesn’t come. Motivation follows behavior. As we see ourselves doing things, we feel more confident that we can. So don’t just sit there, do something, but do something small. Take the big goal: making friends at college, dating after a breakup, adjusting to a move and take it one call, one cup of coffee, one hello at a time. Build up from there.
The best things in life come out of change, often times even the changes that are unwanted. We don’t have to embrace change by diving in to those cold choppy waters headfirst, but if we can start by just dipping our toes in, one foot at a time, before we know it, we’ll be well on our way to arriving at our new destination.
© Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2012 Previously published on Huffington Post