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How To Handle Big Life Changes

Are you someone who loves change and embraces chaos, or do you tend to like to know what’s about to happen and have a plan way in advance? What do you do when things don’t go to plan or don’t match up with the changes that you expected? Life can sometimes throw out some big life changes that we don’t anticipate, until we’re right in the middle of them. What do you do then? Whether it’s a relationship that’s ended, or a new one beginning, a marriage or a funeral, a birth or a big move, loss of a job or income or a new career, it can sometimes feel overwhelming. Sometimes even renovating, moving to a new house or moving in together with someone can feel challenging. But life changes don’t always have to be big for people to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes you might just be dealing with enough already, and then a small little change can be that straw on the camel’s back. Either way, change doesn’t always feel easy.

Why is that do you think? Why does our brain go into overload mode when changes happen? What are we scared of? When I was younger, I used to move schools a lot and I liked it. I looked forward to the idea that I could be whoever I wanted to be at my new school. It was like I could just erase the past me, and be someone else in an instant. But as I grew older and had more experiences where I just didn’t know what to expect or what would happen next, I began to dread moving. I didn’t like having to make new friends because it was a challenge for my shy personality. I didn’t want to think about fitting in, packing, getting comfortable in a new home, a new suburb, a new place where anything could happen. My whole world began to feel really uncertain and scary. As an adult, this feeling stayed with me when I went to university, started a new job, moved out of my parents place and tried to navigate life in general. Soon, anything new brought up pictures of a worst case scenario of what might happen. I stopped adventuring and being my curious self.

I began to feel sad and lonely the more that I isolated myself, but I didn’t want to do anything about it because it felt more safe to stay sad and lonely than to get out there into the uncertainty of the world and try a new approach. It felt vulnerable, like I was opening myself up to being hurt or bowled over by life itself. I so badly wanted to have more fun and adventures but I just couldn’t bring myself to step outside my comfort zone. The thing is, the more I enclosed myself in this zone, the smaller the comfort zone got. I was shrinking, hiding, cowering. I just knew I couldn’t live like this forever, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t know how to get over that frightened feeling, and push through to the other side that I knew existed.

I hated feeling like I had to start again

Sometimes it was as simple has “cheating” on a diet and feeling like I had blown it so I needed to start from scratch. Other times it was a big life change, like moving, where I felt like I needed to start my whole life over. Re-invent myself. Find myself. Discover a new way of being. I hated that. Have you ever had that feeling too? When you feel as if you’ve put all this effort into something, like your job, or your relationships, your business or your life, and then something happens to bring all your expectations and plans crashing down. And then you’re left with this feeling of uncertainty, like “What now?” and “What was it all for? Was all my effort wasted?”. I was terrified of putting my effort and energy into something new, something big or little, just in case it didn’t work out.

Have you ever felt stuck in this loop where a part of you really wants to change your career or job, or maybe you want to get married and have kids or just try something new and exciting like travelling the world? But then there’s that other part of you that wants everything to stay exactly the same as it is, because it’s comfortable there, it’s predictable and safe and all those big changes are way too scary and overwhelming to even begin. It’s the part of you that likes to tell you that your big dreams are “unrealistic” or that you need to be an expert before you start. Other times it can be the part of you that thinks of all the worst case scenarios just in case. It’s a well meaning part! It’s trying to protect you, but sometimes it can go into overdrive and you could end up like where I was: stuck.

So, what’s really going on?

In the background, your mind is working constantly to do its best to serve you. It really wants the best for you. One of the many jobs it has is to process all the information that is always coming in from the world around you and your senses. Sometimes it is processing so much information that in order to ensure that it can still help you function in the world, like make conversations and decisions, it will sort things into categories and chunks. This might mean that your brain deletes certain details, generalises or distorts information in specific patterns. One of the ways that this shows up, is that some people will tend to sort more towards finding the differences and details in things, and others will tend to notice more similarities and generalisations about things.

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Either way is just fine, and most people will notice both similarities and differences, it’s just that some of us will tend more towards one of them, more often or when under stress. For instance, my mum is brilliant at noticing details and differences, whereas my dad was amazing at noticing more sameness. You, me and everyone else could be anywhere along the scale. I personally was particularly good at noticing differences and could always pick out things that were unfamiliar, new or not what I expected. At times this tendency was useful for me, like when I was at work and it was important to notice details so that systems ran smoothly, or when I was doing my finances and noticing where something wasn’t adding up was very helpful. However, in my personal life, this tendency was not as helpful. Instead I found myself feeling more uncertain about changes and trying new things, because I was so focused on the details or the things that were not what I expected.

I usually had a picture of how I thought things should be and even, who I should be. But when life was changing or I was changing, it was like my reality wasn’t matching the picture anymore and I didn’t yet know how to create a new picture. I had invested so much into that old way of being, that old picture, that it was hard for me to imagine a new one. I would hold onto all my plans and ideals of how things “should” be, even as I could see in front of me that they weren’t. This is when I started to feel stuck. Stuck between the old and the new. For me, it sometimes showed up in my lack of taking action. I used to be so scared of wasting my time, and wasting my life on something that might not work out or might not be worth it or that simply wasn’t my picture, that I just didn’t do anything.

Do you notice yourself focusing more on the negatives about the upcoming changes? Are you worrying a lot or repetitively thinking about what might happen? When you’re facing changes in life, whether it’s a new relationship beginning, or an old one ending, a big move or changes in your health, if you tend to notice more of the differences, it can sometimes get in the way instead of helping. Sometimes when you’re noticing everything that’s not familiar to you, it’s almost like you’re deleting anything else that might be familiar. The thing about this is that familiarity can give us a feeling of comfort, of home, or even safety. So when you’re going through stages of uncertainty in life, like a big change or a decision that you’re not sure yet what the outcome will be, being able to find familiarity and comfort is important. It can really help you to transition through change so much more easily, or at least without feeling so overwhelmed most of the time.

So how can you find the comfort in an uncomfortable situation?

Back then, it was hard for me to see that by not taking any action and trying out new things, I was wasting away my energy and my time along with it. Until I learned how to let go of my expectations the idea of the perfect end goal. I realised that my life was not wasted as long as I was learning. That it’s OK to change my plan, change my mind and re-direct my path as I grow and learn. I also realised that whilst my tendency to focus on differences had been a valuable asset in my career, it was not serving me in my personal life.

Having my plans set in stone was not serving me, so I learned to lean into the flow of life and allow my plans to be flexible. I started to focus more on making progress towards answering the real burning questions in my mind, like what do I want in life? What is a meaningful life? Who do I want to be? Instead of holding onto the idea of the perfect life, and the perfect me. It took me some time to wrap my head around the idea of imperfection as a tool for creating my best life, but I’m so glad that I learned how.

This is how I did it:

What is similar here?

This is the question I began to ask myself whenever I noticed that I was focusing on differences in my personal life. Sometimes I was on a date and I would become aware of the fact that I was mentally flagging all the things that I didn’t have in common with my date, so I would change tack and ask myself “What is similar here?”. Often, the first thing I could think of was that we were both human! It was a start. Usually whenever I did this, it would help me become more curious about the other person, and ask more questions to get to know them. Often the conversation would flow better because I began to relax and lean into it.

The more that I practised this skill of looking for the similarities in things, people, situations, experiences and opinions, the more I began to see change as something that wasn’t as uncertain as I originally thought. I could see the parts of the change that were similar to other things I had experienced in life and got through, or the parts of the change that were similar to things in my life already. Like any skill, the more you practise looking for the similarities in things, the easier it becomes.

Focus on the positive possibilities.

I noticed that often when I was facing big life changes, or even little changes, I tended to ask a lot of “what if” questions, focusing on all the things that might not work out, that might not fit my picture or that might not be perfect. I believed I was thinking of the worst case scenario to protect myself from possible hurt, however I would repeat this thinking over and over and over again until the picture I had created in my mind was one of doom and gloom. With a picture of change like that, it’s no wonder I felt so scared!

I began to change this pattern of thinking by consciously looking for the positive “what ifs”. Sometimes the negative ones still popped up in my mind, but I played a game with myself that for every negative one, I had to imagine at least two positive ones. Over time it became easier and the picture I was creating in my mind became a happier one. One that was more curious about the changes to come, more hopeful and excited about the possibilities and opportunities that it might bring.

Breathe. Life is a process.

Sometimes I used to get caught up in the idea that my life needed to be a certain way, at a certain time, otherwise it meant that I something was wrong, or that I was wrong. For example, I used to have a picture of what a person’s life should look like by the time they turn 30. They should have a certain amount of money, be in a certain type of relationship with a certain job and a specific level of fitness. But when I turned 30 my life didn’t look anything like I thought it ought to. So much hadn’t gone to plan. So many details I hadn’t even thought of. But I was happy. In fact, I looked at all those specifics I had placed on life and realised that I didn’t really want many of those things anyway. I had accomplished so much more than I’d dreamed I would, and there were other things I was still working towards, but overall I liked my reality better than the old picture of “shoulds”. The beauty of change is that it means there is always an opportunity for things to turn out better than you could ever imagine. Sometimes in life, you just have to trust in the process, knowing that it will get you to wherever you’re meant to be. It might take you on a roller coaster or through a maze or up a mountain. But you’ll get there. Just breathe. You got this. The universe has your back.