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Whether it’s you or someone you love facing a huge life change--the end of a long-term relationship, a job transition, the discovery of an illness or disease, or an unexpected surgery--we all deal with change and the chaos of emotions that surround these events in similar ways. Understanding the natural trajectory of emotions during huge change in your life can help us find our way through the chaos and debris left behind when it hits. Here are the common stages psychologists outline as the phases we go through when we deal with change:
Stage 1: Denial - This stage is where we refuse to accept the change that has been forced on us. We resist and we see change as bad. This is not what we expected our life to look like and we refuse to view it any other way. The comfort and security we’ve experienced to some degree has been yanked away and our illusion of control has been fully exposed.
Stage 2: Anger - Once we realize the change is going to happen whether we like it or not, we often move into a phase where anger is the predominate emotion. We get angry at the situation or the person who initiated the change, or we’ll sometimes direct the anger inward at ourselves.
Stage 3: Bargaining - In this phase, we try to bargain with the person who forced the change on us. This could be the attempt at reconciliation in a relationship or the place where we make a deal with God or ask that boss to reconsider his/her decision.
Stage 4: Depression - This stage is where we work through the feelings of loss we’re experiencing for the life, comfort, and security we thought we had but we’ve now lost. We’re grieving the loss of good health, that person who we’ve loved for decades, or job security. The emotions are powerful and important to navigate.
Stage 5: Acceptance - This is the final stage where we let go of anger and decide to move on with our lives. This doesn’t mean we don’t still ache and hurt from the situation, but we choose to get on with living our lives, whatever that life is going to look like in the future.
What we need to realize is that we all go through these stages when faced with change--big or small. Many people will flip-flop back and forth through several of these five steps, possibly getting stuck in one of them or shifting back to an earlier stage, right before truly moving on.
“I accept change. I am not so sure change accepts me.” Bob Dylan
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John Kotter, leadership guru and former professor at Harvard Business School, established an eight step model for change leadership back in 1996 and has since updated his change management strategy as Chief Innovation Officer at Kotter International. My Girlfriends' Guide to Managing Change is loosely based on his model, but adapted and twisted to fit our needs here (with one key additional step).
The Girlfriends' Guide to Managing Change
Step 1: Determine where you are on the emotional trajectory mentioned above. Which stage are you in? And what’s keeping you from moving toward acceptance? Take a step back and try to figure out where you are in dealing with the change forced on you. Are you still in the denial stage? The anger stage? By identifying your position, you can begin to manage your own progress and move toward acceptance at your own pace.
Step 2: Gather your survival posse and keep them close. These are your “change leaders,” those friends you call on when you’re bottoming out or when you need to vent. This team helps to keep you moving forward. They’re your cheerleaders, coaches, sounding boards for whatever change crisis you’re going through. Whether you need margarita therapy, a good cry, or a bitch session, this posse is your go-to team.
Step 3: Ask yourself where to next? Have a vision for where you want to go from here. How does this change open up new opportunities? And how can you turn this “bad” change into a positive situation that moves you into a position of strength? Develop a plan and envision where you want to go from this point forward in your life.
Step 4: Talk about your plan/vision. First, use your vision as a guiding light in making decisions. In the midst of major change is not a good time to make major decisions. So knowing where you’re headed next will help you make right decisions that keep moving you ahead. Does this decision support where I want to go? Sometimes, this vision might be as simple as getting out of the chaos into a “safe” place to heal or regroup. Nothing wrong with that kind of plan. Talk about it often. This helps you to formulate and develop your new reality as you’re moving through the change into a better place.
Step 5: Remove obstacles to your growth. Are there things or ways of doing things that are getting in the way of your growth? Identify these obstacles and eliminate them. Whatever is not nurturing or helping you grow is an obstacle creating stagnation. Weed out the bad, devote your energy to the good, building activities in your life.
Step 6: Keep a list of short-term wins. It’s important to celebrate success, even the little ones. Anything that moves us toward our goals is good. Note and celebrate your progress. This will keep you going, help recharge and motivate you.
Step 7: Build on change. Real change cuts deep. Take this opportunity to look at your change situation to examine the role you played leading up to it. Was there anything you could have done differently? Don’t get stuck in regrets here. There’s nothing you can do about the past except use it to help you become a better, stronger person. Examine, take note, and move on.
Step 8: Embrace change as an adventure and an opportunity for a fresh start. When possible, allow your change situation to spur you on to becoming the best you--the two-point-oh version. Use this change to help you reach your highest potential. How we respond to life change matters. No one has the power to determine your course in life except you. Make the most of it.
Step 9: Be kind to yourself. Donald Trump says, “People think they will get more of what they want by being harder on themselves when reality is we get more of what we want by being more compassionate and loving ourselves.” So love yourself. Give yourself the break you need. Grace goes a long way in helping us heal and adjust to change. Take care of yourself. Do things you love to do, that nurture your soul, and restore your emotional tank during this difficult time.
All right, enough of what I think. Let me know about your experience with life changes and how you deal with the difficult things that come your way.