“The process of metamorphosis is scary and sometimes painful, but it is also the way to experience wonderful new adventures we weren’t even able to imagine in our “caterpillar” identities. Accept the process: care for yourself, dream big, work hard, and keep learning. Then don’t be surprised when one morning, you wake up to find that you have wings.” ~Martha Beck
The dreaded “C” word.
Some embrace it.
Others, not so much.
The rest of us? I’m guessing we fall somewhere in between.
If you haven’t experienced a major life change yet, hang on, because–you will. It’s inevitable. Change is a part of life that we can’t skip over, no matter how hard we might want to. Maybe it’s a career change, a new marriage, or a divorce. Maybe you just had your first child or grandchild. Maybe your baby is about to start kindergarten or they are leaving the nest for the first time. Maybe you are facing a sudden illness or injury or maybe you are facing the loss of someone you love. Maybe it’s something entirely different. Whatever you’ve experienced, change, whether it’s a welcome one or not, can be quite scary, messy, and difficult to navigate. (It can be joyful and beautiful too, but that’s a story for another day.) You would think that after living for a certain number of years on this planet we’d get the hang of it, right? But, we mostly don’t. At least in my experience anyway! Change is H-A-R-D and there is no getting around it, you can only go through. Unfortunately, there is no play-by-play manual that shows us the way, mainly because every change and every human are different. There’s no one size fits all model for being human and/or surviving change.
Last year, at the age of 47, I dove headfirst into a mid-life career change when I moved from working as a director of a nonprofit agency advocating for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, to working as a high school teacher. (Yeah, you heard that right.) This change came on top of a few other big life changes like finishing grad school and becoming a first-time grandparent for starters. The career change was positive, one that I sought after and welcomed. I knew my transition would be a rough one but because I was well-versed on how to deal with change (in fact, previously, I had taught others about navigating life change) and how to take care of myself in the process, I wasn’t super worried the transition. In retrospect, the fact that I wasn’t super worried should have been my first clue that shit was about to hit the fan, but in the stress and angst of my change, I totally lost sight of my path. I couldn’t manage my anxiety like usual and I could feel depression aching to grab hold. A very long story short, I seriously thought I was L-O-S-I-N-G my shit for good. And I was a little freaky about it all. Prolonged stress had hijacked my brain and I was pretty sure I was on the fast track to derailing. My body finally shut me down (as in I had to take a sick day) before I began to get a clue what I was really dealing with.
The stress I was under due to the changes I was in the midst of, had taken a serious toll on my body, mind, and spirit. One that has taken months to recover from. It got so bad that about midway through the school year I actually thought there was something physically wrong with me (like I had a serious disease or something) yet, in actuality, it was my body sending a giant SOS signal to slow the heck down and figure my shit out. It took a few months and a lot of patience, but eventually, things began to get better. Now, several months later, I’ve gotten somewhat of a grip and I thought I’d share what I did to survive my mid-life crisis, although if I am being honest, I probably didn’t do any of this consciously at first as I’m pretty sure some innate, well-trained survival forces kicked in to keep me going. There is no particular order to what I have written as for me as these steps all kind of blended into one ginormous mess of a process. If you are struggling with changes, I hope you’ll find some value in my words. Take what you need now, and come back later if you need the rest.
- Recognize the grief that accompanies change. Sounds weird, right? Why would there be grief attached to a change that I chose and welcomed? Well, often times we forget that every time we have a life change, we lose something. Change equals loss. Plain and simple. You can’t have one without the other. It’s quite obvious to see the loss and experience the accompanying grief when there is a loss of life, or job loss, or major illness, etc. but it’s not so obvious when the change is a positive one. For me, (nutshell version here) the loss of the comfortability in my previous job led to a loss of self-confidence in my new position, which eventually gave way to a total loss of my sense of self which created room for some pretty intense self-loathing. The stress of the unrecognized grief was tremendous. It was devastating to me for a while there until I figured out that I need to make space to honor what I lost when switched careers. By making space for my grief, I was able to open the door to celebrate all the new and wonderful people and things that my new career had to offer.
- PRACTICE GRATITUDE! Yes, those words deserve all caps and bold. I cannot stress this enough. Practicing gratitude has saved me from myself and has lifted me from the depths of some pretty unrelenting grief in my life. It truly is difficult to feel sorry for yourself if you begin to look at your circumstances in a different light. Apparently, through the angst of my career change, I’d abandoned the practice. When I resumed and began making a conscious effort to be grateful, even when I absolutely wasn’t feeling it, my outlook began to change and my mood began to shift to a more positive one. My self-esteem started to improve and my mental strength began to increase. Practicing gratitude had ignited the process of getting over myself (for the umpteenth time in my life) and that paved the way for a clearer path for me to keep moving forward. (For more on the life changing power of practicing gratitude, start here with this short read, 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round )
- Manage stress. Well, let’s just say this is a mighty, big topic, one that I will barely, and I mean, barely, scratch the surface on here. For starters, I’ll offer this. Did you know that we are not made to handle long-term stress? I repeat, we are NOT created to handle long term stress. Ever heard of the flight, fight, or freeze response? Well, in short, when we are stressed, the part of our brain designed to keep us safe from a potentially dangerous situation (our amygdala) is activated. When that happens, the part of our brain that we need to think critically, to process, to learn, and grow, etc. (our prefrontal cortex) shuts down, which makes things difficult because we need our pre-frontal cortexes to help us think through our current dilemma. Our fight, flight, or freeze process was designed as a short-term stress response to keep us safe. Prolonged stress damages our brain. (Science backs this up. Google it or message me for some research.) Because I was under a period of prolonged stress my brain wasn’t functioning as it should. It took me figuring some stuff out (at a much slower rate than normal) and then beginning to tackle some of my stress before my brain finally started to calm down. Finally, with some stress subsiding, I was able to start thinking more clearly, which made moving forward much easier. Side note: It is important to remember that we all deal with stress in our own way. Nobody can tell you exactly what you need to do because we are all different. Regardless, do your homework on stress management and then learn to manage yours! For real. Get to the core of what’s causing your stress and figure out what you need to do to keep yourself healthy–body, mind, and spirit. BE HONEST with yourself. Retail therapy, alcohol, food, drugs, or the oft-touted hot bubble bath with a glass of wine, are only band-aids and band-aids are only temporary. They stop the bleeding but don’t heal the wound. Does that make sense? (Go here for more information on what stress does to your brain. You’ll be shocked.)
- Find a mentor or a friend. REACH OUT! We have been conditioned in this society to believe that we can go it alone when times get tough, you know, the ridiculous bootstrap mentality, (which I totally call bullshit on by the way.) We try to figure it out on our own because we don’t want to appear weak, or unintelligent, or unprepared. Or maybe we don’t feel comfortable burdening others with problems that we think that we should be able to handle on our own. Well, guess what? We are not made to go it alone. We need other people. Let me say it again. We need other people. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. (Thanks to the coworker that reminded me of that when I was struggling.) When I finally began to figure out what was going on with me, I mustered up what courage I had left and spilled it all to some of my new coworkers. I cannot tell you how good it felt to be supported and to hear the words “me too” come from some of them. There is so much restorative power in learning that you aren’t alone in your struggles. A good friend or mentor will listen without judging and be there to walk alongside you as you figure things out. (For more on the value of mentoring, check out this article. Eight Qualities of a Great Teacher Mentor. Even though this is an education themed article, the qualities apply to all.)
- Authentic reflection. Equally as powerful in my book as practicing gratitude, is practicing authentic reflection. When you are honest with yourself about how things are really going, you can begin to lay the groundwork for dealing with whatever you need to deal with. What is going well? What isn’t? And most importantly, why? By taking the time to critically think about a situation or event, you can begin to see what you can do differently to navigate better. For the record, authentic reflection is not an easy task. In fact, often times, at least in my case, it sucks and is hard because for reflection to be effective, you need to be brutally honest with yourself and maybe face parts of you that you don’t really want to. (Or you might have to take ownership of your role in something instead of blaming others or something similar. Anyways, you get my drift.) On the flip side of that ugly stuff though, you might actually discover some awesome pieces to the puzzle that you hadn’t noticed before or maybe you’ll discover something pretty cool about yourself! Regardless of where your reflections bring you, remember that for reflection to be truly meaningful, for you to learn and grow, you must be willing to take action with what you discover–good, bad, or otherwise. (My actions over the past months were the steps above. You don’t have to change the world with your actions, just yourself. Not always easy, but always worth it.)
It’s funny. Even after writing all of this, I feel like it’s just the beginning of the story. I’m still reflecting on all of this, even a couple months after scribbling this all down for the first time. No doubt I’ll be writing more in the future. For now, though, this is what I have for you and I’ll leave you with this. . . Remember that change, whether it’s welcomed or not, is often hard, and messy, and scary, but you will get through it. And maybe, just maybe, if you look for it, you’ll find some joy and beauty along the way.