Blog · Mental Health

Navigating Change

When I was a teenager, change was the greatest source of anxiety for me. The burning feeling of fear housed in my solar plexus sat there, unchallenged. It was silent, and sadly, par for the course in my everyday life. Luckily, that feeling didn’t stop me from trying new things or taking on new ventures, but it did make the process of moving forward into new chapters very difficult; especially when the changes were not of my making. In this post, I’ll take a look at some strategies that have helped me to navigate some of the big changes in my life.

I remember when my first serious boyfriend crushed my soul. What felt the worst was that suddenly, I had lost a relationship that was very important to me. It was an immediate shift from enjoying a comfortable connection with that person to an empty feeling that left a cavernous space in my heart (remember, I was a teenager – things are always more dramatic at that age). To my sense of well-being, it was like walking a balance beam in an earthquake. I was rattled to my core. Not knowing what I was going to do, how I was going to feel, or if the bad feeling would ever go away scared the bejesus out of me.

Of course, in time I was able to heal and move on. I busied myself with activity and projects, even participating in a summer theatre program that the ex-boyfriend also attended. The fear of what my future emotional landscape would look like faded as the future became the past and I learned that I was going to be okay.

Even as we successfully learn these life lessons, our brains find new ways to inject that fear of the unknown into our everyday thoughts, and it feels like we have to retrain ourselves to cope with the looming anxiety over and over again. Sometimes, we have to take a hard look at what we can do when we feel the weight of fear squeezing at our gut. This is where our old friend mindfulness can assist.

Fear of the unknown is enough to freeze people in their tracks. It permeates every part of our existence because we cannot predict the future, no matter how hard we plan or ruminate over the endless possibilities and outcomes. If we just think of everything that could happen, then we will be prepared for whatever does happen. Right?

More often than not, that’s wrong. As intelligent as we are, the possibilities our brains come up with are either overzealous creations that never come to pass and/or unrealistic expectations of what we think might happen. The anxious “what if” does more damage to our fragile psyches than the benefit we think it will have. Being mindful of more centralized realities – what we know about who we are, what we are capable of, and the strengths we have to offer – is the “magic” that can help us navigate the uncertainty.

My husband recently changed jobs. After twenty-two years in a steady position, where he built relationships, a pension, and a healthy severance package, he was offered an opportunity to explore a big career move that was both enticing and frightening. Was he ready to break ties with everything that he knew and give up the benefits he had earned? He is not a “job-jumper” type – if anything, he’s more of a “lifer.” But the conditions of the position he was in were slowly eating away at him – I could see him struggling to find any joy in the work that he did every day. The daily stress became regularly inordinate and unbearable. If he had stayed, what would have been the mental health cost?

Of course, the flip side is the fear of the unknown – despite all the positives put before him, not knowing if this new position, no matter how perfect it looked on paper, was really going to be everything that it promised? Would he be walking away from one mental health disaster that he knew to another that he didn’t? How would this move affect our family? It’s the battle between the devil you know versus the potential devil you don’t. This is when the anxiety sets in and for many, can rob one of taking an opportunity that can offer great professional and personal satisfaction. In the decision-making process, what he tried to stay away from were the nebulous “what ifs” and instead focused on learning what he needed to know in order to make the best decision. Thankfully, after carefully researching, interviewing for weeks, and weighing the pros and cons with me, he opted for the challenge of change.

Before I became a teacher, I was aiming to be a performer. I studied it in college and got my foot in the door with several acting gigs. I had no intention of being a teacher – at least, not as my sole career path. But when opportunity knocked, it shook up everything I had planned for myself up until that moment. After taking a part-time theater director/choreographer position at a local high school, the principal thought I would be a good person to start a dance program for the school. At that moment, I had to re-evaluate everything I was doing up until then. Did I want to course correct, stay close to home, and not go after the career that I had put all of my energies into pursuing? Did I want to go back to school, get a Master’s degree and start something from scratch? What if I did all that and it didn’t work out?

Despite the last, nebulous “what if,” the answer to my questions quickly came to me.

There were several truths that brought some clarity to my decision. First, I was starting to get disenchanted with the business of trying to be a performer. What I fell in love with about performing was not the reality that I was living in pursuit of my “dream.” Second, I was engaged to be married and didn’t want to spend my life away from my husband and potential family. Third, I really liked teaching and was often reminded that I was good at it. The opportunity to set up shop as an arts educator in a public school checked off all the boxes of what I really wanted:

  • Be creative
  • Have autonomy and productivity in my career
  • Have a family
  • Pay-it-forward to students who loved the performing arts
  • Set up a stable future that I could be proud of.

But was I really ready to embark on something that would take many more years to establish? Was I ready and able to do the work and take the responsibility of becoming a teacher? Was I willing to put off having kids to finish a degree? Was I willing to take the risk?

It was a firm yes. Twenty-five years later, I’d still agree it was the best decision.

Whenever you are on the precipice of something new, there are always more questions than answers. Most of the questions cannot be answered right away and that feels…terrible. How can you move forward if you don’t really know what you are moving into? How can you set up a future with no guarantee that you will be successful?

The reality is that you will never have all of the answers before you start. Sometimes, the questions are no more than obstacles designed to keep you where you are; to prevent you from breaking the familiarity of status quo. Status quo is what we know, and even if it is not “perfect” we have the power to manage it and course correct as is necessary. We know we always have access to that power, which keeps us sticking to that course.

Why is it that you have the power to manage a familiar, less-than-acceptable situation? Maybe it’s because you have developed a series of skill sets in an environment to which you’ve already adjusted. You’ve developed coping strategies and problem-solving abilities within the parameters of the environment you already know. It’s emotionally comfortable, even if it’s not “right.” What you need to ask yourself is, “How can I apply that skill set, and continue to develop new skills, in a new paradigm?”

Case in point: both my husband and I, at different points in our lives, were presented with career-changing options that were both enticing and scary. Mine was at the beginning of my career, his was over twenty years in. The questions and reasons for pursuing or not pursuing were very different, but they both required great consideration in order to make a commitment. We both had a lot to lose if things didn’t work out. What we relied heavily on were the talents and skills we had developed that would inform and support every move we made. We knew how to operate in the new environments that we were entering, and we were not afraid of doing the work required to be successful. In the end, the opportunities for change we were presented with were challenges we really wanted to dive into. We could envision ourselves in our new roles and knew we could bring the best of ourselves to make our new ventures successful.

I cannot stress enough the importance of a support system. Even though we had to do the work on our own to make the new opportunities come to pass, we had the emotional and mental support of each other to help us navigate when we weren’t feeling completely sure of ourselves. We are each other’s sounding board, the shoulder we lean into when we need it, and each other’s greatest cheerleader. It is, in part, because of that support that we had the strength to say yes.

Opportunity is a chance to mold yourself, adding new raw materials that you pick up along the way, into a new work of art. We take what we have and we keep making upgrades and improvements. Apple’s first iPhone was great – a groundbreaking feat of technology. Think about how far those little devices have come. Steve Jobs kept taking what he had and making it better, one version at a time. Whatever fears he had or obstacles he navigated (I’m sure there were many), he did not let them stop his forward progress. He had enough faith in his ideas and skills, his ability to learn, and the community he assembled to make his big ideas come to life. 

While most of us don’t take on the magnitude of work that Steve Jobs has, we all have our mountains to climb. Here, I offer a few ideas that have helped me to navigate mine.

  • Acknowledge the feeling that squeezes your gut, then realize that it doesn’t have to stop you. Ask yourself “What am I really afraid of? What is the worst that can happen?” Chances are, even the worst logical outcome is something you can deal with. And then, keep moving forward.
  • This too shall pass – Remember that the feeling of fear will pass once you start moving. Then, it will become about doing the work.
  • There is power in saying “Yes I can.” Acknowledge your strengths and give yourself permission to act.
  • Put your anxious energy into action. Ask questions, do research, write about it, send a resume – whatever you do, don’t keep things locked up in your head. Keeping things locked away makes them fester, going sour and growing mold. Air out your concerns so you know what challenges you face.
  • Use your support system. Lean on them, use their resources when yours runs dry. People who care about you will do what they can to help, and sometimes, they actually have some useful ideas. 

Navigating change can be a black hole of stress or an opportunity to welcome the challenge of improving your life. Next time you face your next big decision, consider your perspective about new things. If they scare you, good! That means they are something that could make your life that much better, and worth the effort it takes to manifest an opportunity. Be mindful of the reality of your situation, then give yourself permission to say yes, and use your power to make it happen. You’ll thank yourself later.

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