Beginnings: Psychological Perspectives on Four Types of Change

A life change balance sheet

Posted Dec 28, 2010

The ending of one year and beginning of the next is traditionally the time when we contemplate the possibility of change. Typically, our ideas about change are expressed in terms of New Year's resolutions-- promises we make to ourselves that turn out to be challenging to maintain once we get back to our normal routines.

Thinking about changes in our lives and then implementing those changes is a process that doesn't have to be relegated to the January 1 date on the calendar. In The Search for Fulfillment, I reported on the results of my 40-year follow-up study in which I identified five life pathways. The most successful in terms of psychological well-being was the "Authentic Road" in which people changed to achieve the greatest fulfillment in their lives. They didn't wait for the calendar to determine the pace of change.

My work on this topic has led to many fascinating encounters with people who have dealt with change in their own lives. Recently, I was contacted by Janice M. Van Dyck, author of "Finding Frances." This is an inspiring novel based on the circumstances of a terminally ill woman who was determined to set the own terms of the ending of her life. Van Dyck shared with me her thoughts about types of beginnings. Unlike the typical New Year's resolutions, these beginnings don't carry an expiration date. They provide guidance to anyone ready to discover their own Authentic Road.

Van Dyck identifies four types of beginnings. Below, I've placed her words in italics and quotes. Following her description of each type, I've shared my observations from a psychologist's perspective:

1. "The I Can't Wait! Beginning marks the voluntary start of a new phase of life, like when we start our dream job, get married or buy that amazing new piece of technology. But while it can be exhilarating, it also means we have to learn new things and stretch out of our comfort zone, which requires great confidence in our direction. Is there any sweeter satisfaction than identifying a goal and succeeding at it? This type of beginning is full of possibilities. Sacrifice? It doesn't feel like sacrifice at all because great things are just around the corner."

The value of stretching outside of your comfort zone is supported by extensive psychological research on the cognitive and emotional benefits of branching out in new directions. In my research, I found that people on the so-called "Straight and Narrow Pathway" were least likely to grow psychologically. By sticking within their comfort zones, they fail to take advantage of what Van Dyck calls the "exhilarating" feelings associated with change. The "I Can't Wait" approach to change carries with it potential dangers, however. It's necessary to balance out your optimism about what's around the corner with a dose of reality. Make sure you've checked out your options and have a fall-back position in case things don't work out.

2. "The I Know I Have To Beginning also brings new opportunity, but we try to avoid its arrival. Like when the kids go off to college, or when the doctor tells us it's really time to lose those extra pounds. This new beginning requires us to go beyond stretching. It's when, despite our mind and body's requirement for homeostasis and predictability, we voluntarily commit to changing the shape of our lives. It might be goodbye to a bad habit, or it might have consequences for others, like leaving the kids with the other parent after divorce, or committing to end a codependent relationship. It requires courage, determination and often perseverance for this new start to be successful, but in closing one door, we simultaneously open another."

This type of beginning actually has two components depending how the need to change originated. One involves external circumstances and the other involves acting on changes that we decide we must initiate. These two types of change require two types of coping. The first is emotion-focused, meaning that we change the way we feel about a stressful event rather than acting to control the outcome of the event. Coping with a change that you didn't initiate requires that you change your perception of the event. Consider what happens when you find out you have to move away from the town in which you grew up, you have to leave a job that you've loved, or say goodbye to your best friend who is moving to another country. Using emotion-focused coping helps you see the silver lining. If you are the one who has to leave a beloved town or job, look at the positive aspects of the new town or job situation. Find ways to derive pleasure out of change and use what you know about the benefits of change to experience psychological growth.

In the second type of change- the internally driven type- you will handle the situation more successfully if you employ problem-focused coping. You know a change must be made, so start planning in steps about how you will accomplish the change. Chart out what you need to do and then set up mini-goals to chart your progress. As you lead up to the final steps, boost your confidence by showing that you succeeded at those mini-goals. You'll then be ready when the time comes to commit to the final steps in the change process.

3. "The Please Don't Make Me Do This Beginning is hard because someone or something else has initiated the change. I remember saying after my divorce, "I hope I never again have to work that hard for something I didn't want." Starting over when we don't want to can reinforce our sense of weakness and ineffectiveness in the world. We didn't ask to lose our jobs or be forced to start a lawsuit against a dishonest contractor. Sure, we can try to turn it into a more positive I Can't Wait! Beginning, but let's face it - doing anything against our will can make us feel like a victim. If we're prone to depression, that can be dangerous because it feeds that inner voice of hopelessness and the feeling that we're not quite good enough."

Feeling that change is forced upon you is always difficult, and Van Dyck notes that this type of beginning can be dangerous to people prone to depression. In my own research, I found that people on what I called the "Downward Slope" tended to perceive change initiated from others in ways that reinforced their own feelings of low self-esteem. They felt that they were victims of outside forces. The way to avoid the Downward Slope is to take a realistic and honest look at these changes forced upon you. Emotion-focused coping, the type that involves a little bit of denial of reality, can work for a while until the pain is eased. Then, it's time to get going on problem-focused coping. Ask yourself the tough questions: To what extent were these circumstances truly forced upon you? To what extent did you contribute to the outcome? Are there ways you can learn from the experience so that you can take control of and manage the unforeseen events that await you now? Feeling ineffective, weak, and hopeless- the thoughts that contribute to depression- is an emotional state that can be overcome. If you can't do this on your own, seek out a therapist, preferably one who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy.

4. "The Where Do I Start? Beginning is the hardest. It means the bottom has completely dropped out unexpectedly, and we are scrambling to face a world that has changed overnight. This might be brought about by disaster, illness or death. It can stir up all kinds of feelings, from relief to guilt, from sadness to anger and back again. Every emotion is fair game, and all of them impede the actual act of starting over."

Changes that are completely unanticipated, that cause severe stress, and that leave a person feeling bereft, are the ones that everyone dreads. Yet, we also know that people can become stronger when forced to cope with life's toughest losses. In my book, I found a small but inspiring group of participants who had coped with major personal traumas and come out on the other side with amazingly high levels of life satisfaction. I called this pathway the "Triumphant Trail." In teasing out the characteristics that made this group different from those on the Downward Slope, I identified personal characteristics of great personal resilience that showed up early in these people's lives. Their solid bedrock of faith in others and themselves allowed them to withstand the trials to which they were put later in their lives.

No one seeks the Triumphant Trail, but because change due to loss is a part of life, we can all grow from this type of test of our true emotional mettle. There are plenty of examples each day in the news of people who cope successfully with natural disasters ranging from earthquakes to fires to mudslides. Somehow people manage to dig down deep into their personal resources and find ways to move on with their lives.

Identifying your emotions is the first step to managing your reaction to traumatic change. As you move on to the next steps of reorganizing your life, it's okay to mourn actively your loss. Researchers studying bereavement have shown clearly that you don't have to throw out your old memories in order to move on and confront the new. Each experience, whether it is one of loss or gain, becomes part of who we are.

How can you benefit from this knowledge about beginnings? Here are five tips:

1. Keep yourself open to change. Even if your life seems perfect in every way, be ready to adapt to new circumstances. If you feel that things are getting stale, look for small ways to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone.

2. Use appropriate coping strategies.There is no one "best" way to cope with stressful life events. Instead, use emotion-focused coping to help you feel better when events are inevitable, and problem-focused coping to change the outcome of events that require you to act.

3. Reframe change in positive terms. Even changes that were forced upon you can have benefits. Learn about yourself from negative events and then use that knowledge to help you cope more successfully from future changes.

4. Be realistic in planning changes. Don't just jump into something new because it seems to hold the magic bullet to happiness. Take stock and evaluate the chances of success of your future ventures.

5. Find help if you need it. Therapy, counseling, and support groups all provide effective methods of helping you cope with change. Do your own online research first and then seek out local resources that are best suited to your own personal circumstances.

Beginnings can occur at any time of year. You can make these beginnings work to boost your own fulfillment, at any age.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010