This is a longer article which shares my perspectives on change as a cycle and offers some tips for weathering the stormy seas of impermanence.
During periods of uncertainty or transition it can often feel as if one is caught up in a tornado of constant movement and panic as the mind generates questions, problems and fear does its usual dance, mutating into all kinds of worse case scenarios.
Finding a still point can seem impossible. Yet even when we are resting, the body is in the midst of continual movement as our cells regenerate and replicate.
Human beings face a ongoing paradox. At our roots, we have a need for basic security and stability. However, when we really look into the cycles of the natural world, we see that impermanence is a constant phenomenon. Can we really be sure of permanence?
The transitions of the seasons perhaps guide us to the cyclical nature of change. They demonstrate that there is a point of fullness or harvest at Summer. This naturally and inevitably progresses towards a time of emptiness with the dying away of Autumn into Winter and the seeds of new growth incubate and germinate towards the fullness of spring. The earth has been evolving with this cyclical process for millions of years. Yet when faced with change, our deepest fears and emotions can emerge and create immense suffering and anxiety.
The Cyclical Nature of Change
The framework of the western work culture and psyche until recently was built on this basic need for security and a perception of permanence. Marriage meant “forever” and the “job for life” was an integral part of that system. However, as we have seen, bigger global changes eventually impact on smaller communities and individuals.
Advances in technology have dramatically changed our society and work cultures; certainty is now defunct, making way for tele-working, the portfolio career and the need for regular career re-branding. Downsizing has lead to increased redundancy, and more people than ever before embarking upon the journey towards self-employment. In a very short space of time, we have adapted heroically to these changes.
The Five Stages of Transition
When change is forced upon us by external events, the chances are that we may not be able to control it and managing the change process may be hampered by our feelings of impotence. When the change has a major impact on our life for example the death of a loved one, divorce, illness or a loss of a job, we will inevitably go through a process of bereavement.
We may find ourselves at one of the stages of transition as described by Eizabeth Kübler-Ross in her work around death and bereavement. (Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth, 1970).
Kübler-Ross and her associates noticed that people seemed to move through these stages as a way of coping with and living through the transition. There is health in this organic process of adapting to circumstances. However, as we are continually adapting to changes, problems may occur if we become stuck in one or more of the stages which can block movement towards acceptance, letting go and moving forward
Whilst these stages were initially observed in people facing death, they can be a helpful tool to consider in relation to other periods of transition such as divorce or redundancy.
Each individual will pass through and experience these phases differently. This will depend on many factors, including, how they find meaning, how they have met similar challenges in the past, belief systems and the support and resources they have in their life.
The following is a brief description of the stages.
- Denial and isolation
This is usually an initial and temporary stage. The psyche organically creates a shock absorber to make time for the news to sink in and make sense of what is happening. For example, when someone has been told of a terminal illness, they may ask for the results to be checked and rechecked again or simply refuse to believe it. However, staying stuck in denial creates a sense of isolation as people around find it harder to relate to the person as they become more out of contact.
Denial is difficult to sustain long term and may eventually mobilise into anger or feelings of outrage, envy, resentment or “why me”? This is a challenging stage for the person and those involved, as feelings become displaced and projected onto external events, people, places and things. Empathy for the person in this stage, can become challenging and people might try to avoid them causing yet more isolation. It is easy to react or take things personally, however, compassion is crucial at this time to understand the individual is actually suffering as they adapt to these new changes in their circumstances.
Kübler-Ross says this is an often forgotten or silent stage, which highlights feelings of guilt or “if only I had done things differently…”. People find themselves focusing on important deadlines and making silent promises around these.
This is an almost inevitable descent into feeling loss as the person begins to face life in a different or changed way. This is a natural part of the cycle especially when a person is either facing death or bereavement of a loved one. To some people, the loss of a partner through divorce, or the loss of a job through redundancy can feel like a death to them.
Where people have been able to express their feelings of anger, grief or sadness and have had support around this, they may come to the stage of acceptance which is a more neutral position, or a surrender where the fighting has stopped and there is more spaciousness or calmness.For some people, even events which are perceived as “positive”, such as getting married or leaving a job to become self employed, may trigger a similar process as they adapt to the change.
Tips for riding the waves of change
- Support – is extremely beneficial, talking to a trusted friend, partner, mentor or spiritual advisor, counsellor or someone who has experienced a similar event. There are many support groups or “on line” communities and forums you can join.
- Making Meaning – some people find making sense or meaning out of the situation to be invaluable to their ability to move through change. For example, contemplation on the changing nature of the seasons might help or exploring how you coped when faced with a similar situation in the past. One person I know, developed an understanding of transition as a mythological journey. She created her own story around it and found reading myths and archetypal stories around the hero’s journey immensely valuable in understanding the cyclical patterns of change.
- Take care of yourself – change can bring out vulnerabilities and fears which may lead to erratic lifestyle patterns such as heavy drinking and not eating regularly etc. Remember, there is a vulnerable person who may be panicking underneath all the coping. Simple things like eating well, resting, having some form of relaxation technique, e.g massage or a relaxing bath is supportive to the whole of you.
- Avoid the temptation to totally isolate – gather your most trusted friends and explain to them what is happening. Enlist their support in helping you through this time by telling them how they might help you.
- Acknowledge your emotions – accepting and expressing feelings is an important way of moving forward. For example, a natural part of the grief process is to cry and feel sad. Writing down all your fears can help you to look at them and think about them in a different way to being paralysed or overwhelmed by them.
- Seek help – If you find yourself feeling immobilised by fear or depression, seek help from your G.P., a qualified counsellor, or psychotherapist. This is not a sign of weakness but rather courage, strength and dealing with the issue.
- Create balanced scenarios – if you are going through a job/career transition, worse case scenarios are only a small part of scenario planning as they can help us to plan sensible contingencies. However, when not balanced with other more positive possibilities, they can cause freezing and panic and led to feeling immobilised and unmotivated.
- Change is growth – developing an understanding of change as part of an evolutionary process in your life can be a positive way to view the events.
- Prepare for change – If you know a period of transition is coming up, prepare by making other smaller changes in your routines or habits, e.g. Watching a different television programme, trying a different kind of food, reading a different type of book to the ones you usually do etc
- Trust the process – and trust yourself!
“No matter how long the Winter, Spring is sure to follow”
Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth, On death & dying : what the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy & their own families, Publisher: New York : Scribner, 2014