How to Help Yourself Through Change

It’s impossible to overstate the way this pandemic has changed our lives. Chances are, at this very moment, you are right smack in the middle of that change yourself. Maybe you’re reading this article from your dining table when you’d normally be in your office. Maybe you’re cramming it in after a long day of supervising your kids on Zoom. Maybe you’re reading it because you’re worried about having to change jobs, or because you’ve moved, or because you haven’t been able to see certain friends or family in more than a year.

It’s expected that this type of international emergency would set off our alarms in all kinds of ways. And yet, more than a year into the chaos, here we are. Somehow, we’ve persisted, adjusted, and heaved our way through this extraordinary upheaval. Yet, now, as more vaccines become available and restrictions alter, many of us are experiencing a new kind of fear and uncertainty about what our lives may look like or how we might “go back” to some form of normal.

Many of us are having to make decisions about going back to work, sending our kids to school, deciding what we’re comfortable doing and who we’re comfortable seeing. Even as we may feel hopeful or uplifted about the possibility of getting to a better place, we may continue to feel anxious about all of these transitions.

We are still living through a lot of uncertainty, and as neuroscience has demonstrated, our brains are already resistant to change. We spend most of our development deepening neural pathways and establishing how things work, so a sudden change can feel threatening. Our survival-driven brains are designed to perceive change as potentially dangerous. So, imagine the stress it puts on a person to adjust to an actual threat such as a global pandemic.

My point here is that it is normal for us to feel resistant to change. In this wild time, we face an invisible threat that has literally forced us to either stay home or to tread into a sea of danger. The decisions we make for ourselves and our families can feel overwhelming. Moreover, many of us don’t have the luxury of making certain choices and have had to withstand certain risks to our physical and mental health.

Because of all this unavoidable change being thrown our way, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to have self-compassion. We have to let ourselves off the hook for not having all the answers and for not always feeling able to “keep calm and carry on.” Every time we hit a twist or turn, our first response to ourselves should be one of affirmation and acceptance.

The three principles of self-compassion as outlined by researcher Kristin Neff include: self-kindness over self-judgment, mindfulness over identification with thinking, and common humanity over isolation. One way to help ourselves through change is to practice these three things when life throws us a curveball.

Self-kindness

It is very challenging to take clear-headed actions in our lives when our minds are over-analyzing and critiquing our every move. The harsh judgmental ways we treat and evaluate ourselves are rarely helpful, especially in a crisis. Instead, we should keep treating ourselves as we would a friend going through the same predicament. Whatever challenge we are faced with should be met with a self-kindness and support that allows us to have empathy for ourselves and what we’re experiencing.

Mindfulness

When change occurs, it is likely to trigger our stress response, sending out a signal to our nervous systems that can make us feel like we are in fight or flight mode. When this happens, we can take a deep breath and adopt a mindful approach to our reaction. We can remind ourselves that whatever we are feeling is okay. And we can let that feeling pass by us like a cloud over a mountain. We don’t have to feel obligated to get carried away by the feeling or all the “what if” thoughts that our minds can throw at us. Instead, we can step back and recognize them as just thoughts and feelings and not as absolute truths. We can take the time we need to reflect and respond, but we should also strive to give ourselves permission to just be in the moment and not get ahead of ourselves.

Common humanity

If there was ever an example of a shared human experience, this pandemic is it. Although each of our situations is personal and unique, we are all sharing in this time of uncertainty. We are all struggling with this immense amount of change. We should not feel singled out, less than, or different from anyone else. We are not alone. And it’s so important to be there for one another and lean on one another when we need it. Change is easier to navigate knowing others have been where we are. Even in unprecedented circumstances, there are people who find tools and solutions that can be shared as a community. No matter what, we must not allow ourselves to suffer in silence or alone.

The truth is, as much as this year has been marked by uncertainty, any second of any day can send our lives on a different path. We can’t control all of our outside circumstances, but we can have some say in our response to it. And while we may be faced with all kinds of emotions, we can always meet ourselves with self-compassion.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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