Contemplating a major life change can create significant levels of stress. Psychologist and author Joseph Burgo, PhD, offers strategies on how to cope.
Expert Source: Joseph Burgo, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives (New Rise Press, 2012). He writes the After Psychotherapy blog at www.afterpsychotherapy.com.
You’re on the verge of making some exciting positive change in your life, when suddenly you feel it: the cold, iron grip of the status quo. Even though part of you is excited about the possibility of change — a new job, a new home, a new relationship — there’s another part that’s attached to your present reality, comfortable with your inertia. And that part is making it very difficult for you to move forward.
Instead of feeling a sense of happy anticipation about the prospect of change, you might feel immobilized by a flurry of fears. There are so many questions: Am I really doing the right thing? How will my family and friends react to my new situation? Will I miss my old life? Or will I be overwhelmed by my new situation and decide that I’m just not up to its challenges? What if I fail? What if I succeed?
Joseph Burgo, PhD, has a few suggestions for moving beyond the anxieties that are holding you back, and for building a sense of calm confidence along the way.
Barriers to Overcome
- Anxiety about the unknown. Change is always a little scary, notes Burgo. Even if we are sick and tired of our current situation, or have outgrown it, at least it’s familiar. We can operate within it and negotiate familiar obstacles with relative ease. With any new situation comes new potential for discomfort and loss. Our worst-case scenarios and worrisome “what ifs” can keep us from feeling our way into a better reality.
- Fear of failure. The fear we feel when faced with a major life change is closely connected with shame, asserts Burgo. The sense that there is something basically flawed inside that might cause us to fail (and to be seen by others as a failure) can immobilize us before we begin. “Many people organize their lives around never having to feel that, and one of the best ways to avoid [the shameful feeling of failure] is to avoid the risk of a new enterprise,” says Burgo.
- Fear of success. You may worry about how success in your new endeavor will change your life, your friendships and your feelings about yourself — especially if, as a child, you picked up the idea that it’s dangerous to stand out or be special in any way. If you succeed in becoming the “new person” you want to be, will old friends abandon, judge or envy you? “If you are prone to a certain amount of envy or resentment of those who are more successful than you are, you may be particularly unsettled by the prospect of becoming a target of envy or resentment yourself,” says Burgo.
- Fear of death. Though it’s mostly an unconscious reaction, we may hesitate before big changes because, in Burgo’s words, “they tend to make us aware of the passage of time in ways that are kind of unpleasant — they bring up ideas about finality and death. When we’re stuck in a familiar routine, we lose track of the passage of time, but the big markers in our lives really bring into consciousness the fact that our lives are moving toward their end. That’s uncomfortable.”
- Self-judgment. Hesitation before any big change — even a positive one — is normal, but if you don’t realize this, you might interpret your fear as weakness or a lack of courage. “You may tell yourself, ‘This is supposed to be great. What’s wrong with me that I can’t just go for it?’” says Burgo.
- Worry over others’ expectations. If you’re making an unconventional change (downshifting jobs to claim more free time or moving to a smaller house, for example), you may worry that others will see you as an oddball or slacker, or in some other way judge you as being “wrong.”
Strategies for Success
- Cultivate self-compassion. “Fear of change is natural, normal and universal,” says Burgo. Discussing your situation with a coach or trusted friend can help you realize that you’re not weak or flawed just because change makes you nervous. Make sure the person you confide in is someone who will acknowledge how you feel without judging you or projecting his or her own anxieties. “Look for somebody who will really listen and understand your fear of change,” advises Burgo. The last thing you need is someone lecturing you or trying to problem-solve right away.
- Acknowledge what you’re giving up. Your former life served you well enough (and had enough good stuff going for it) that you held on to it for a long time. It got you where you are now. Taking stock of that, and expressing gratitude for what has been, is an important part of letting it go with grace. “Every change is a bittersweet experience,” says Burgo. So don’t expect to entirely avoid feelings of emptiness, regret, sadness and confusion. Just remember that, as with any transition, your feelings of sadness will lessen over time — particularly when the rewards of your postchange life become apparent.
- Put your focus on the future. “We fear change because it makes us feel out of control, and that our experience is unpredictable,” says Burgo. Seeking out more information can help us get more comfortable with our future reality. You might seek insight from others who have made similar changes, or dive into books, blogs and other resources to gather additional facts and insights about the change you’re anticipating. “You can’t control the future and know everything about it, of course, but having as clear an idea as possible about what your postchange life will involve can help you feel a little less vulnerable.”
- Don’t expect perfection. If you’re operating on the notion that your new life situation will magically solve all your problems, you may be discouraged and derailed too easily when obstacles and disappointment arise. If you catch yourself engaging in idealized, magical thinking about your new future, remind yourself that every good change brings some new challenges with it. Here again, talking with others who have been through a similar life transition can help.
- Get past your fear of judgment. It’s natural to have some concern for the way people view you and your decisions, says Burgo. But if you are deeply worried or fearful that others will judge you harshly for making a change, “it might be that you are projecting your own self-criticism onto them. You could also be avoiding some ambivalent feelings about your choice and attributing them to others.” By taking some time for introspection, and by identifying and exploring those ambivalent feelings, you help quell them.
- Connect with old favorites. When you embrace a change, you’ll inevitably experience a lot of newness, says Burgo, so it can be very helpful to comfort yourself with old and familiar things. Maintain your well-loved activities, rituals and routines. Enjoy visits to familiar places (or types of places). Make familiar dishes. Replay favorite films. “When I’m in transition,” says Burgo, “there are certain movies I always watch again because I know exactly how I’m going to feel seeing them, and that gives me emotional comfort.”
- Have faith in your relationships. Close, authentic bonds tend to endure even dramatic life changes. And the people who love you most will want you to pursue what is best for you. It is true that big life changes — from cross-country moves and new marriages to shifts in lifestyle — can change both family and social dynamics. But strong connections are flexible connections. They are born out of who you are as a person, not what you do, where you are, whom you love or how much you earn. Keep in mind that one of the best things you can give others is the gift of your authentic self — something that the big change you’re contemplating will help you explore and reveal.