I’ve become somewhat rudely reacquainted with an old nemesis recently: change. As a therapist, you would think change and I would be fast friends. Change is frequently what my clients come to therapy seeking: change in the form of growth, progress, and personal development. Change is the much-lauded bringer of recovery, revolution, and self-improvement. Yet, as I have noticed in my own life and in my clients, the actual process of change is much less appealing. In the short term, change brings about resistance (from self and others), stress, confusion, self-doubt, and an increase in coping mechanisms (both positive and negative).
Take the common example of getting sober. While loved ones are likely relieved and eager to support this change, a true commitment to sobriety means a significant alteration in behavior patterns, including communication, interpersonal dynamics, and emotion regulation. A mother who is thrilled that her son is sober may not be a mother thrilled that her son is bringing up grievances from the past that she’d rather not relive. A wife grateful to have her husband back may not be a wife grateful to encounter her husband’s untempered irritability when he can’t turn to alcohol to take the edge off. The newly sober individual then has to endure conflicting pressures from loved ones to keep the change they like—his sobriety—but not the changes they don’t like—irritability, radical honesty, confrontation, and depression. And in order to maintain the positive changes, he also has to rearrange his life accordingly, including avoiding old haunts and negative peer influences. This often leaves a gaping hole in his life—the absence of his favorite coping mechanisms, his best friends, and an activity that took up much of his time. And, to cope with all the added stressors of this new “positive” change, he has…meditation?
Every change in life brings about similar side effects that make the process of personal growth quite an uphill climb. Negative changes, such as a breakup or loss of a loved one, speak for themselves—no one would mistake a descent into despair, existential questioning, and having to stumble to fill all the roles a person took up in one’s life for a scenic ride. But even “positive” changes, like a new relationship or a promotion at work, can be a jolt to the system. A new relationship often means the fading of friendships as we commit much of our free time to basking in the electric heat of budding love, which in turn brings about guilt-trips from friends and a loss of autonomy. Both a promotion and a new relationship often stir self-doubt as we struggle to live up to what feels like a fortunate cosmic mistake, and take pains to disguise our inadequacies for as long as possible. More responsibility at work means longer hours, higher stakes, and an increase in stress. And often, with such positive changes, we give ourselves less room for growing pains and invalidate our distress—after all, what right do I have to complain about a promotion?
As a therapist, change is my currency. But while clients come seeking change, they also come for the effects of it—they’re struggling with a move, or a divorce, or a new baby. They want to change their response to change. So here’s my advice: With any change, whether it’s something we perceive as “good” or “bad,” give yourself plenty of room to grieve what you’ve lost. That’s right, all change involves grief and loss. The newly promoted has lost her extra hour of sleep, her ability to leave work at the office, and her freedom to gossip with friends at work (now that she’s their boss). The newly in love has lost his fun single life, his freedom to spend time with friends, his solitude, his ability to wear sweatpants as soon as he gets home without fear of being perceived as a slob. If you’re unsure of why you’re struggling with a change, consider what you’ve lost and how this might be affecting you. Even if you’re pleased with your net gain—the honeymooners likely wouldn’t trade back in for the single life—there’s still room for mourning and a necessary time to adjust. Anticipate needing some extra support or time for your go-to self-care activities during this time. Know that adapting to change doesn’t have a time limit. Even if a friend of yours went through the same transition and seemed unfazed, change affects each person differently depending on temperament, lifestyle, and a host of other factors. So don’t measure according to anyone else’s timeline.
And finally, if you’re struggling with the aftermath of a change and its nasty side effects and not sure how to rebuild or where to turn…therapy can be helpful, too. ☺