Understanding the challenge of change
On 8 January 2008, in my 40s, I left my home in London with my pregnant wife to move to her home in Sydney, Australia.
I left behind my city, my close family and my life long friends.
I left behind pretty much everything I’d ever known and everyone I had a shared history with.
Not long after we arrived in Sydney, my much-loved aunt died.
A few weeks later, after a very difficult birth, my beautiful daughter, Amelia was born.
Not long after that, both my wife and I pretty much fell apart.
So what happened?
The challenge of change
Significant change can be a major challenge. There can be a surprising range and progression of emotions involved.
This can be difficult to manage over the long term, even when the change is ostensibly a positive one.
If you are contemplating change or dealing with change right now, it will help if you have some understanding of how we typically respond to change.
In this and some subsequent posts, I’ll look at some of the change frameworks that I have found useful in coaching people through transitions.
I have to admit that I wish I had been aware of this thinking back in 2008.
Transition and crisis
Psychologist Dai Williams provides us with a model of change that seems especially relevant to unexpected or unprepared for change. He points out that these kinds of changes can be incredibly destabilising, regardless of whether, ostensibly, they are positive or negative.
According to Williams there can often be a period of “deep inner crisis” 6 months or so after the change.
These crises can be major turning points if well supported.
But if support is inadequate, they can lead to major psychological breakdown, poor performance, errors of judgement and career or relationship failures (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: The transition cycle – a template for human responses to change, adapted from Hopson and Adamans (1976)
Williams suggests that the following factors are either enablers or inhibitors in the transition process.
Enabling factors in transitions
- Economic security – sufficient resources, no debt, stable income, own home, low commitments, multiple-income household.
- Emotional security – supportive partner, stable childhood, support networks, openness on emotional and mental health issues.
- Health – good physical fitness, prudent lifestyle, quality time for leisure.
- Prior transition skills – positive transition experiences in the past
- Clear goals – purposeful and values led process.
- Supportive operating environment (work or family) – high respect / low control culture, good morale, clear role and contract terms, life~work boundaries respected.
- Transition support – practical support, life/career planning, tolerance, dignity, valuing the past, freedom/recognition for new ideas
Inhibiting factors in transitions
- Economic insecurity – low income, debt, high financial commitments, fear of job loss.
- Emotional insecurity – no partner, few friends, dependent relatives, secret grief (lost lover or child), sense of guilt, unresolved issues or regrets, multiple transitions, anxiety over being diagnosed mentally ill.
- Health – chronic or undiagnosed conditions, low fitness, fatigue, lifestyle
- Hostile operating environments (work or family) – work overload, unrealistic demands, insufficient resources, abuse of work/life boundary Low respect/high control culture.
- Poor transition management – no support, no preparation for change, unrealistic time scales. No monitoring of key issues pre-crisis. No opportunity for fresh insights. Past achievements ignored or rubbished.
When I think back to the period around our move from the U.K to Australia, I can see now that for us many of the key enabling factors were missing. We lacked economic security, prior transitions skills, clear goals, supportive environments and transition support.
We also experienced a number of the inhibiting factors – emotional insecurity, poor health, hostile environments, poor transition management.
In fact, even after nearly 10 years, I have never really felt settled living in Australia and as I reflect back now in the light of Williams transition model, it is not all surprising.
This experience suggests that my emergence from the crisis point was not entirely successful. In the terms of Figure 1 above, I’d suggest I only made a partial recovery.
Williams writes that emergence from the transition cycle:
is facilitated by valuing the past and still viable beliefs before letting go of obsolete concepts, expectations and behaviours …There can be a rapid, spontaneous breakout from the crisis phase – a defining moment or catharsis that triggers this process. Once begun the restructuring or recovery process can occur within a few weeks. It liberates creativity, confidence, optimism, a search for new meanings and a Gestalt type quest for a fully integrated view of the new reality. To see a person transforming their life in the recovery phase is like watching a flower open.
The critical point that I take from this, based on my experience, is the letting go.
It seems that what we need in these kinds of transition processes is a way to hang on to what is valued from the past, without allowing it to overshadow the present.
If we cling too tightly to what has gone before, we risk preventing the future from ever beginning.
So, in recent months by focusing on mindfulness practices and with a bit of help from Tara Brach (this reflection, especially), I’ve been practicing letting go a little bit more.
So far, so good.
Hopson, B. & Adams, J. (1976) Transition – Understanding and managing personal change.
Williams, D. (1999) Life events and career change: transition psychology in practice
Williams Futures, Vol.31 (6) August 1999, 609-616