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How to Deal with Big Life Changes

Two listeners—Karen and Janice—independently wrote in and asked how to deal with life’s big changes. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers four ways to handle life’s only constant.  

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
May 6, 2016
Episode #110

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Change is like a home renovation: stressful, messy, and without a guarantee of how things will turn out. But with a lot of work, some help, and some luck, the end result can be breathtaking.

Life’s big changes aren’t limited to the things your HR manager refers to as “life events”: getting married or divorced, losing or adding a family member, changing jobs, or retiring. A life change can be anything that leaves you wishing for an emergency stop button: immigrating, being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, coming out, gender transitioning, deployment. Even getting or losing a pet can change your life.

And around this time of year, for millions of students, change means graduating from high school or college. And for millions of parents, it means the change of an empty nest.

Thankfully, there’s a name for this kind of upheaval—it’s called role transition.  In a role transition, you disengage from one role and start again in another. Change is experienced as both loss and gain. Sometimes we feel the loss most acutely; for example, being diagnosed with an illness may mean the loss of functionality, even if it means gaining perspective on what matters most in your life.  With other changes we reap mostly gains: in getting married, we may be happy to trade in our single life for a loving partner.

So how to deal with life’s not-so-little changes? Let’s cover four tips on what to do besides hold onto your hat.

Tip #1: Acknowledge mixed feelings. Labeling what you’re feeling sounds basic, but when it comes to change, it’s surprisingly hard. That’s because there’s usually more than one emotion roiling around.

With any big change, you’ll probably feel the emotions that come with loss: grief and sadness.  But you may also feel positive emotions like happiness, excitement, satisfaction, or pride.  And then there are those that come with not knowing what the future may bring: vulnerability, anxiety, worry, and fear.  

The point is that feeling a big messy mix is totally normal. You can even feel totally opposite emotions at the same time. Have you ever laughed through your tears, or felt brave while your hands were shaking?  Exactly.

Tip #2: Pinpoint what you’ve lost and gained. Oftentimes, that big messy mix of emotions is all we feel. To gain some clarity, specify what you’re losing and what you’re gaining. For instance, our listener Janice couldn’t figure out why she felt a mix of sad, resentful, and excited whenever talk of her beloved sister’s wedding came up. After some reflection, she realized she was worried her close relationship with her sister would be gone forever—hence feeling sad and resentful.  But she also realized she was happy and excited for her sister to gain a partner who adored her, and to gain a good guy as a brother-in-law. Sifting out the loss and the gain helped Janet understand her conflicting feelings, and set her up for Tip #3, which is...

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