We have all been there, just when you think you have everything figured out—every expectation gets turned on its head. The unexpected—a layoff, a breakup, a pregnancy, a new relationship, a move—blindsides you and changes your course.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said it all—“the only constant is change.” Whether the change is positive or has you less-than-thrilled, there are ways you can cope—and even embrace life’s unexpected forays.
1. Adapt your language.
According to Paula Davis-Laack, JD, MAPP—a lawyer turned stress and resilience expert— we tell ourselves stories when change and setback happen. We all have an "explanatory style" that's either optimistic or pessimistic. Change can be extremely emotionally challenging, but Davis-Laack suggests re-framing your thoughts and explanatory style can help make your experience with change more positive.
She gives the example of being moved to a new department at work with a boss who people don't like. “Rather than thinking I'll never be able to work for her,” explains Davis-Laack, “think instead, this might be a tough transition, but I'm going to remain committed to keeping the lines of communication open.” When viewed in a positive light, change can open new doors and lead us toward new and exciting possibilities.
2. Appreciate conflicting emotions.
There is indeed a season for all things, a time to laugh and a time to weep—sometimes simultaneously. Last year, I was offered a job that I had not applied for. I accepted the position because it was a huge professional step forward, but it meant leaving a job and people I really loved. The first month of my new job was an emotional roller coaster, fluctuating from elation to grief on a regular basis!
Part of embracing change is acknowledging the duality of emotion that can arise when something unexpected happens. Davis-Laack suggests making a list of the specific emotions you are processing, and ask yourself if you've experienced them before. If so, how did you handle those situations? Davis-Laack explains that "past events are helpful road maps or templates for present and future challenges.”
3. Acclimate to your circumstance.
Adjusting to a big change takes time, and it often causes a good deal of discomfort and frustration. Davis-Laack calls for a solution-oriented mindset which she refers to as "embracing the suck." Being able to be honest about the adjustments you must make to accept a good change is also true of accepting unwanted change—accept the unpleasantness, and know it won't last forever.
4. Adjust your vision.
For most of us, accepting change doesn’t come easily or naturally. But it’s often because we continually stumble over the same roadblocks to progress, instead of learning to move them out of the way. Davis-Laack identifies three major barriers to accepting change:
a. Lack of self-regulation or self-control. To help with self-control, Davis-Laack advises, begin by taking care of yourself. Increase your willpower by getting rest, managing stress, and removing temptation. In other words, “keep the cookies out of the house!” says Davis-Laack.
b. Your view of change. Are you someone who sees opportunity, or tries to minimize and control loss? A recent study by H.G. Halvorson and E.T. Higgins shows that seeing change as a combination of promotion (seeing change as an opportunity to gain something better) and prevention (avoidance of something negative) are critical to embracing change. In other words, it’s good to acknowledge that quitting smoking or losing weight has rewards—your actions will promote better health at the same time as avoiding (or preventing) future illness.
c. A fixed mindset. Do you give up easily, avoid challenges or shy away from change? It could be that a fixed mindset is challenging you. Davis-Laack says positive reinforcement is key. "You can promote a growth mindset by talking to people about times when you've overcome an obstacle," she says. Also very helpful are positive reinforcement and praise. So share your desired change with someone who can be your cheerleader.
If any of these roadblocks seem familiar, you're not alone. We hope these tools can help you adapt to unexpected changes. And it’s during these times of change when we can also take a moment to truly appreciate the constants in our lives—whether family, friends, or even your own sense of inner peace. Write in your journal. Reach out to loved ones. Connecting with these constants can help smooth out whatever obstacles life throws your way.
(Photo by Ben Giesbrecht)