I’m realizing how much we humans like to think we’re in control of things and how things are stable – coping with change isn’t our inherent strength. More precisely I’m beginning to understand how fearful you can get when you realize you AREN’T in control of things. On some level you know, with absolute certainty, that life is going to do whatever it wants anyway and you don’t really have a choice in the matter. Still, it’s human nature to go through elaborate gymnastics to try to pretend that the universe isn’t inherently chaotic. Which is hilarious, when you really think about it. Your happiness can’t depend on what’s happening around and to you – it has to be about how you cope with it.
This has come to the surface for me because, like every other topic I write about, something in my life has triggered it. As many of you know I’m recently married, recently pregnant and moving – which means I need a good reminder about coping with change and keeping my joyfulness in the process. In times like this, where one uncontrollable situation piles on top of another it is easy to watch yourself fall back on the human defaults. Eat more comfort food, drink more wine, get Grumpy or Weepy or really any other one of the Seven Dwarves with the possible exception of Sneezy. Maybe I have some control. Or, at the end of the day, maybe I don’t. Why should that change how I feel?
Here’s the thing – it’s really scary and vulnerable to know that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. The more the outcome matters to you, the scarier and more vulnerable it is. This is admitting that you are adrift in life and can’t see what is coming around the next corner. It is also liberating in a strange way. It means letting go of all of the things you think “should” happen or “could” happen and just waiting to see what is actually going to happen. It means letting go of what you want, and just waiting to see what IS – waiting for reality to show up. Actually allowing life to unfold in a surprising and often wonderful way and accepting whatever comes.
Of course in medicine this is a common crossroads for people to walk. The waiting for test results, the waiting for therapies and the waiting to see if a treatment plan is working. Accepting your own limitations, especially if those limits are changing, and learning to work with a new normal. My experience has been that for many people dealing with not being in control is more difficult than dealing with the condition itself.
Take Care of You First When You’re Coping With Change
Chances are if you’re coping with change or some unexpected situation has happened then this is when your schedule is most likely to be overfull, action-packed and non-stop. It could also be when your budget is the tightest, your pennies the most pinched and generally when you have the least extra anything. It is also the most important time to take time for you. Whether you have it or not, you can’t do without it. Your happiness is a priority. Don’t cancel the massage or the lunch with friends or the hour that you get to read or whatever. Leave room for you in your schedule because this is when you need recharge time the most. It’s also when you need real sleep and good food the most so those areas aren’t the places to cut corners either. Here are a few quick fixes for getting through tough times:
- Streamline Your Time – Quit the PTA, the extra committee at work, the neighborhood association that meets too frequently or whatever it is that you feel like you should be doing, but don’t need to be. The bottom line is that those things will go on just fine without you but you’ll move forward much better without the extra obligations. You can always go back to it later but right now you need that time for your life.
- Minimize Other Stress – If one area of your life is unexpectedly blowing up, then make sure the other areas of your life are staying calm. Say no to extra projects at work, delegate whatever you can, and stay away from office politics as well as actual politics – this isn’t the time.
- Ask for Help – You have a community of people, and humans are social animals. It helps your friends to feel like a part of your life if they can help you in some small way – especially when you’re in a crisis. It doesn’t have to be huge stuff, it can be tiny things but everything adds up. Besides there’s a wonderful warm-fuzzy that happens when someone in your community steps up for you. Besides – you will get to step up for them at some point, it’s what we do.
- Offload Junk – I’m not sure why this helps, but I’ve found that for a lot of people sending a load of stuff to goodwill and clearing some of the clutter out of their home actually helps to clear up mental clutter too – it’s like the magical sneak-attack stress fix. If you haven’t worn it or thought about it or dusted it for 6 months, toss it. It’s not making your life better in any way.
- Don’t Take On Other People’s Problems – Ironically, we love to do this. Roll around in someone else’s muck – for whatever reason it’s a very human thing. When everything is fine in your life that probably doesn’t really have any negative consequences, it’s probably just fine. When your life is blowing up is when it’s a problem. If you’re coping with change then you don’t also need to cope with other people’s change. So – what does this actually mean? Take a break from the evening news, from the water cooler gossip, from the facebook and the twitter. They will still be there when you re-emerge, I promise. But for now, take a break.
- Tackle One Thing At a Time – If you write out the whole list of what needs to be done and look at it like that you’ll probably take to heavy drinking. Make it into bite-sized pieces and just take everything one step at a time. Calling moving companies to get a quote is one step. Just do that one thing and you’ve made progress. Looking at the whole list can put almost anyone into a panic attack, but looking at single steps is doable. I use an organizer called todoist that syncs between my computer and phone and that helps to keep me on track. Break up the big jobs into single steps and divide those throughout the time that you have to get this transition finished. Leave tomorrow’s tasks for tomorrow. Just do one thing now.
- Make Sure Some Things Stay the Same – Okay so lots of things in your life are changing. Is there something you can keep constant to make you feel stable and secure no matter what is happening? Maybe it’s a cup of your favorite tea at night or having your favorite foods on-hand. Maybe it’s keeping your favorite pictures close or making sure you have your favorite candle burning so the room smells the same. It could be your favorite T shirt, your favorite socks, your favorite football. Whatever – the thing that stays the same doesn’t matter, it’s that *something* does. You need a good touchstone to tell you everything is okay, because it is.
- Hire Help – There is plenty of stuff you will have to do during a transition that is above and beyond all the normal stuff you have to do. If you can, hire out some of the normal stuff. Hire someone to mow the lawns, clean the toilets, prepare the meals, or whatever normal stuff you just can’t get to. It can be a really nice thing to take those basics off your to-do list. If money is tight then these are great areas to ask for help (although it would be a really good friend who would clean your toilets for you).
Change Your Words For Coping With Change
There is a great loophole here. A back-door to coping with change and with the unexpected. That is simply that the way you see things changes everything. Change your story about what’s happening and keep your happy. It is not the situation that’s happening, but your perception of it that matters. Your view on what is happening to you determines how you actually feel. The words you use about a situation become that situation. I like this video as an example of how words change people’s perceptions of things:
The situation in the video doesn’t change – a blind man is still asking for help, but how he’s asking is more likely to resonate with people in one scenario than the other. Words are powerful.
If you say something is too much for you to handle, then it is. You are right. If you say you’re handling it then you’re right – you are. If you try to see the wonderful possibilities and the good surprises that could come out of this change, then I honestly feel you’re more likely to notice those blessings when they happen.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
It’s a bestselling book (by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.) because most of us aren’t good at not sweating the small stuff. At the end of the day though, it really is small stuff. Don’t let the little stuff that normally gets to you add to the big stuff that’s happening right now. Most of this won’t matter in a year and really won’t matter in five. Just let it go.
Coping with change means letting go of a lot of the little things that you would normally stay on top of. Don’t worry about perfect – good enough is good enough right now (that’s why they call it good enough). Really it doesn’t matter if the dishes aren’t done, if the dog misses a walk or if your lawn is too tall. Just get through the big stuff and everything else will sort itself out. Other people live through this, you will too. And the best part is that you can stay happy while you do – you just have to make happy a priority.