From the moment we are born, until the moment we die, our life is a series of highs and lows, gains and losses, beginnings and endings. It’s true that the only constant in life is change. Not to sound morbid, but one day we are all going to die – it’s actually one of the few things we can be completely certain of! Yet, we are actually programmed to deny our own mortality on a daily basis in order to maintain our existential stability. Can you imagine what it would be like if you walked around every day constantly fearing your own death? You’d be an anxious mess, and you probably wouldn’t be able to thrive or function. So, we become attached to things, people, environments, the past, thoughts and ideas to keep ourselves sane. It’s actually quite optimistic of us, when you think about it like that, and for the most part, it works…. except when it doesn’t, and that’s when things gets a bit messy and shit. So, today, I’m going to talk a little bit about change.
Change is happening constantly. It is happening within your body every single second of every single day. Your cells are constantly working, communicating with each other, multiplying, evolving and dying. Change is also happening outside of our bodies too, and our bodies are constantly adapting to these changes, however subtle. In fact, we’ve evolved to become so good at doing this, that most of the time we don’t even notice that we’re doing it. Our bodies adjust to light, temperature and atmospheric changes. Our bodies actually even have to rely on some changes in order to function. Biological rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a cycle. In fact, we all have a master clock inside of us that keeps track of all these rhythms and it is ticking away in your hypothalamus right now as we speak. Our sleep-wake cycle is dependent upon a circadian cycle and light changes; the reproduction of our species relies on a menstrual cycle and hormone changes; our ability to maintain our attention even runs on a cycle, the ultradian rhythm, which is 90 minutes in duration… I think you get the gist.
So, you can already see how change is essential for life, and adapting to change is also essential for life. Not just for human life, but for all life. Think seasonal changes, think weather changes, think climate changes. Everything is interconnected, and yet somehow, it just magically works and flows. Things change at just the right time for the right process to occur. Just thinking about all that makes me feel in awe of the existence of life and its ability to evolve and thrive on this planet. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was the ultimate story of change, and I remember being so excited to learn all about it in Human Physiology 101. It also helped that I had a lecturer who was discernibly excited about teaching it.
The good news is that a lot of good stuff happens because of change. For example, if nothing ever changed, we wouldn’t have butterflies! When people think of change, they often think about the metamorphosis of the butterfly. The butterfly must struggle to come out of the cocoon, but did you know that if there were no struggle the butterfly wouldn’t be able to fly? This is because during the struggle, the blood flows into its wings, which allows it to fly. It gives purpose and meaning to the suffering when you think about it like that. We can sometimes find meaning and purpose in our own suffering, too. I did a lot of research on Post-Traumatic Growth when I was writing my thesis (which was on vicarious resilience in therapists and therapists in training working with clients who have experienced trauma or difficult life events, in case you were wondering). I know that I’ve talked a lot about stories on this blog, but the other cool thing about stories is that the more meaning we are able to attribute to the story of our suffering, the more likely we are to be able to cope with it. That’s what Narrative and Schema therapies are all about – changing stories. The experience of pain is inevitable, but our interpretation of the pain is what causes the suffering. In some ways, this can be empowering to know, because it means we have options in the face of change, suffering, loss and pain. Changing the way we think about it can sometimes change our perception of it. In psychology, when a story is helpful, it’s said to be adaptive, and when a story is not so helpful, it’s maladaptive. My job is to work collaboratively with people to help them change their maladaptive stories into more adaptive ones.
Accordingly, you can see that we can create or unlock change within ourselves to help us deal with pain, suffering and loss. We don’t necessarily always have to change the story to cope, either. Sometimes it’s a more practical approach that creates meaningful change. In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, for example, clients learn that when they are faced with a problem they have four options:
- They can either identify what needs to change and solve the problem,
- If they can’t solve it then they have the option to change the way they feel about it,
- If they can’t change the way they feel then they have the option to accept it (which, once again, doesn’t mean liking or approving of it) or,
- They can choose to stay miserable.
Marsha Linehan is pretty blunt at the best of times! Thinking of problems in this way can sometimes help you to move into a problem-focused coping mode. It basically helps you to shift the focus away from the stuff you don’t have control over, and back onto what you do have control over. It’s directing your focus to what’s going to be most helpful and adaptive in that moment. It also allows you to take some responsibility and ownership over your life and whatever has happened or changed. When we have an external locus of control we are always focused on attributing responsibility to external factors and events (blaming others, for example), whereas when we have an internal locus of control we are able to focus on our own role within the system. Given we don’t really have much control over anything outside of ourselves, it’s obviously going to be more helpful to focus on what we do have control over rather than what we don’t. It allows us to be the change we wish to see in the world, as the famous saying goes.
As a helper, I have learned that human beings can go through some really awful shit in life, and yet most of the time they can still manage to come out of it and not only survive, but thrive! This is because resilience is born out of struggle and we are a pretty resilient bunch. This is good news! The other good news about change is that it means that the bad times don’t last forever. Of course, the flip side of this is that good times won’t last forever either, but being aware of this only makes you appreciate them more when they do happen, right?
Some people not only fear changes that are outside of their control, but also fear initiating positive changes that are within their control, and this keeps them stuck in a “comfort zone”. They don’t want to step outside of their comfort zone because they are scared of what might happen. But by not stepping out, they also miss out on the magic of life. Besides, the comfort zone is an illusion anyway. Bad stuff can happen even when you’ve created an imaginary comfort zone, no matter how high you build those walls. The comfort zone serves no other purpose besides convincing you that you are safe within it… it creates a false sense of security in a world where there simply is no certainty. Remember, taking well informed and calculated risks is a wise move, and increases your chances of finding success and happiness, too. You can’t control what happens, but you can believe in yourself and have faith in your ability to cope with whatever does happen. Everything you’ve ever wanted is usually on the other side of fear. It takes courage to take that leap, but what other choice do you have? To stay stuck? How boring!
“Sometimes your only available form of transportation is a leap of faith” – Margaret Shepard.
After a loss or change, you can beg and beg for it to go back to how it was before. You may feel that you need whatever it was that you lost in order to survive. You don’t. Whenever I have felt this way, it’s been because I was scared of letting go. It takes bravery to finally let go and say good-bye… but you do need to let go in order to welcome new beginnings. Every ending leads to a new beginning… it really does! You never would have believed me if you told you where I was this time last year and what I was going through… but here I am. It was hard…. really hard, but now I am in a better place. It’s powerful to realise that you are the only person who can save you. Other people can be there for you and support you, or even give you some ideas on how you might get through the change. But, I’ll tell you a secret, the only person who has ever been there for me through thick and thin, who has comforted me when I have been down, who has provided me with the strength I needed and who I have been able to rely on is me… It takes courage to love and nurture yourself through the process of change, but you are the one who is coping with whatever it is, so you need to be caring for yourself through that process.
I have learned so much about myself and the world just by paying attention to the things I previously used to ignore. Of course, I had to learn all this the hard way. I stayed in a job I hated until I got sick. I stayed in a relationship that wasn’t making me happy until I had a break down. We all have life traps. We all fall down holes. It takes courage and strength to recognise when you’ve fallen into a hole and to be able to find the way back out…. but we always do, and when we do, we grow stronger and more resilient. My favourite social researcher, Brené Brown, talks about this in greater detail in her latest book, Rising Strong. Each time we fall, we learn something new about ourselves and the world. Knowledge is power. We can’t change what we don’t notice. So pay attention to what your body and heart are telling you…. and put it into action. You won’t regret it.
I’m starting to learn to listen to myself and my body more, and you should too. I used to be someone who would push myself and have unrelenting standards for myself… and I still sort of do. I am ambitious. I am a dreamer. I am idealistic. However, I listen to myself now. If I am tired, I rest. If I am feeling overworked, I delegate out. If I feel overwhelmed, I take a break. If I’m not enjoying something, I stop. I follow my heart now and I listen to my intuition. I listen to my body and my feelings and I respond appropriately. I no longer ignore the feelings. I respond to them and validate them. Our feelings are messengers and they are telling us something. If we ignore physical pain then we get sick. In the same way, if we ignore our emotions, we get mentally unwell. Therefore, I bring a greater sense of kindness and compassion to myself when I’m going through a difficult time or coping with some change, and this helps a lot.
In a world where everything is constantly changing all around us, we can maintain some consistency in how we cope. Look to your core values to guide and direct you toward the best way to cope. Everyone copes differently. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. You have to figure out what helps you, and put it into action. I believe in you and I know you can get through it, whatever it is that you’re faced with. You’re programed to, after all 🙂
How do you normally cope with change? Do you like it or loathe it? What are your thoughts on change? What helps? You can share them with me and each other, if you want 🙂