Life transitions and change can be some of the most unsettling times in our life. Sometimes we choose the change and sometimes the change chooses us. Either way, we leave the shore of certainty and familiar and step out into the unknown, often with nothing to hold onto.
These times in our lives can be incredibly unsettling, and for some almost unbearable, not knowing what to do and how to move forward.
If we could hold onto something, it would be the blind faith that things will be ok, even though we can’t see it or even know what ‘ok’ looks like. It’s like stepping off the edge of a cliff, you can’t see the way down because there’s nothing but fog surrounding you and you have to believe that you’re going to land on your feet somehow.
When you jump off the cliff of certainty you begin your fall and this is when things get real. This is when your default response to fear kicks in. I don’t care who you are or how successful you are, everyone has a fear response to change. It’s evolutionary and it’s part of being human. You either fight, flight or freeze. You know which one you typically choose and you’ve most likely been doing this your whole life, developing this strategy when you were young as a way to survive and fine tuning it as you got older.
If you choose fight, you might be someone who fights the struggle and discomfort. You may get emotionally caught up in the struggle, guns blazing, emotions firing and cortisone surging. You may become extra edgy and start taking it out on those around you, finding a way to discharge your fear and discomfort on others. If you’re an anxious person, your anxiety will start peaking and you’ll be grasping for ways to ease the feeling just so you can function day to day. In fight mode, your emotions can often get the better of you and you’re more likely to fight change rather than embrace it.
If you choose flight, you’ll be looking for any way to get out of the situation, distract yourself and get out of dodge. You’ll avoid dealing with the situation and do things that make you feel better in the moment like go on vacation somewhere, buy a new car, buy some new clothes, book up your schedule so that you’re really busy, avoid certain people and social situations, consume things that numb your feelings (food, alcohol, drugs) or basically hide out until a time when you think it’s safe to come back to the world again. In flight mode, you choose to avoid change and the discomfort that comes with it and attempt to trick your brain into thinking that everything’s ok.
If you choose freeze, you’ll most likely lose the capacity to be effective or function very well in your day to day life. You may feel very tired, exhausted and feel that spending the day in bed watching Netflix is the best option. You feel almost paralyzed in your thinking and very stuck, not knowing which way to turn or what to do. You may even come to the conclusion that there is nothing you can do and there’s no way through this. You may entertain thoughts of helplessness and hopelessness. In freeze mode, you feel emotionally stuck and have a more negative and hopeless outlook to change.
Okay, you’re thinking great, now what? Whether I’m either fight, flight or freeze, it all sounds bad! Isn’t there an easier way? Can’t I just avoid all that and get through this change thing unscathed and without all the messy stuff!
Sorry, no. Change is messy. Life transitions are messy. It’s part of being human.
Change is supposed to be messy. And when I say messy, I mean messy with vibrant and vivid emotions conflicting and colliding as we respond to fear and uncertainty, and react and try to make sense of it all. It’s our evolutionary response to not like change. It’s our evolutionary response to feel fear in change because it meant sometimes that we could die! And neurologically, our brain is inherently lazy and doesn’t want to use up energy to create new thought pathways and connections. It wants efficiency, energy conservation and survival.
I guess the bigger question is how do you respond to your fear and stress response so that you can move through life transitions and the messy stuff and then get back on your feet quickly so that you can get back to being effective and happy in your life again?
The answer lies in the power of personal choice and the way you see your current challenge. The answer is to choose to turn and pivot on your feet, look in a new direction and choose to look at your life transition as an opportunity for growth. The main difference in how your life transition will play out, whether it will permanently take you down or not and how quickly you will get back up depends on your choice to either grow and learn from the experience, or become a victim to it.
The quality of your life depends on the quality of your choices.
The quality of our lives is directly linked to the quality of our choices. So it’s always your choice to either be empowered and grow from a challenge or become a victim and shrink because of it.
You may be reading this and thinking various things. It’s either resonating with you or you’re getting pissed off. You may be thinking of your current situation and wondering how on earth you can turn this into an opportunity! You might even be cursing at me (it’s ok, I’ve had that before) telling me to get my head out my optimistic whatever….
How is it possible to turn this horrible circumstance into an opportunity, you say to me. And how could I possibly know what it’s like to feel shattered and fall apart from a life circumstance? Sometimes life throws you stuff that’s unfair, sometimes things are done to you, sometimes people treat you in unimaginable ways and sometimes the unpredictable happens and pulls the carpet out from under you. And some things you can’t change. But staying mad or staying sad won’t help us move forward. We have to be willing to let go and choose another way forward.
We have to be willing to let go and choose another way forward.
How do I know this? Well, I know this because I’ve been there and found my way through it with courage to choose growth, learning and unwavering optimism. It became my shining light through the dark tunnels. I know what it feels like, all of it. I was treated in unimaginable ways by my ex-husband for 8 years, I became a mother, got divorced, I lost my father, I lost my dog, I lost my home and had to create a new one, and I had to career transition all in a very short period of time. This brief summary of the latest chapter of my life that I courageously share with you is not for pity and attention, but to show you that I get it, I understand the difficulty of life transitions and challenges and I’ve been there. I also share with you to show you that out of all that, it’s still possible to choose growth and remain optimistic. In the midst of emotional trauma, in the midst of grief, in the midst of uncertainty, you can still choose to be empowered, you can still choose to learn, and you can still pivot on your feet and choose to turn a challenge into an opportunity to grow yourself and learn what you’re capable of.
The brave undertaking of turning a life transition into a learning experience and a way to personally grow is no easy task and not for the faint hearted. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
In fact, you’re more capable of doing this than you know. And after going through this myself and working with many people in transition over the last 3 years as a coach, I’ve narrowed the process down into 5 steps, that are clear, actionable and transformative. These steps will help you move from fear response to learning and growth so that you can get back on your feet quickly again.
Offer Yourself Compassion. Offer yourself some compassion for how you’re feeling and what’s going on for you. It’s normal to be afraid, it’s normal to be uncomfortable and it’s normal to react. So no matter what you’re feeling or how you’re responding, first and foremost offer yourself some compassion and empathy, because most likely you’re needing it.
Reach out and tell someone what’s going on for you. And I mean what’s really going on for you, not just the superficial stuff that people may or may not already know. Tell someone what you’re really struggling with. Because most of the time we don’t tell others about what we’re going through because we’re ashamed about it, we’re embarrassed and we’re afraid of what others will think. Sometimes we don’t want others to worry about us and in a professional environment, we don’t want others to think we can’t do our job properly. Either way, shame loves it when we don’t share it, when we keep it in the dark. But when we have the courage to share it, and tell others what’s going on, then we can start to fix the problem and move forward. Talk to a friend or a coach, someone that you know well, you can trust and who can offer you empathy and an objective ear.
Ask yourself the questions ‘what can I learn here’, ‘what part of me has to grow in order to overcome this challenge’ and ‘what is the gift that I will be left with that I can share with others on the other side of this’? This step will take using the logical part of your brain, the problem solving centre: the neocortex. So you’ll have to find a way to calm yourself down and quiet the emotional noise caused by your fear response. There’s many ways to do this including exercise, meditation, engaging with friends, humour, listening to music, talking to your coach, connecting with nature and visualization. This is the key point in which you pivot and look in a new direction, towards where you want to go and how you want to grow.
Take action towards your growth. Once you can answer the questions step 3, then create a list of actions that you’ll do to take a step forward and create momentum. As soon as you take a step forward, you’re stepping away from your fear, you’re stepping away from your ‘stuckness’, you’re pulling your head out of the sand, and you’re taking control of your life. As soon as step forward you’re acting on your choice to grow and turn this experience and challenge into an opportunity. And that’s exciting. Growth is exciting because there’s hidden gifts and surprises waiting for you. There are people waiting for you. There are new doors opening for you. There are experiences waiting for you. And it’s all because you made the choice to grow.
Don’t look back, keep your eyes on the road! As you start to take traction and take steps forward during your change, it’s not always a clear path, there are still bumps along the road. But whatever you do, don’t turn back and give up just because it starts to feel uncomfortable again. Keep going, keep moving forward, keep carving out the new path because it will start to feel certain and comfortable again, you just have to push through the discomfort of getting there, to your new shore.
Nothing worth having comes easy.
These 5 steps are simple but by no means are they easy. But like they say, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” So if you find yourself amidst a major change or transition in your life, first know that you’re not alone. And second, there is a way to turn it into a positive, there is a way through this and who you’ll be and the growth you’ll experience once you overcome this challenge will be worth the effort and the struggle. You just need the courage to believe in possibilities and trust the process that lays ahead of you.