I recently attended a conference on the importance of being proactive and taking responsibility in the face of imposed change. Indeed, taking action and mobilising yourself during a transition will likely help you find empowerment and feel better. Being curious and trying to understand the reason behind the change by informing yourself can also be helpful.
But then I continued my reflection. There have been times in transition periods when instead of feeling capable of enacting change, I felt a genuine, overwhelming and even paralysing sense of distress. What if I had been more proactive in the moment? Would I have been better off? What was missing in my approach? How should I have gone about it?
I was reminded that when experiencing change, these strategies can create positive outcomes:
- Learning about the process of change by reading this interesting article written by my colleague about How Understanding Your Emotions Can Help with Adapting to Life Changes and Transitions, for example;
- Following my intuition;
- Using various techniques and strategies to cope with difficult emotions;
- Finding support in the aspects that remain stable during the transition;
- Setting a goal or challenging myself to learn something;
- Letting go of my ideal situation and doing what I can with the tools given to me.
But an equally important part of the solution came to me while listening to this radio show by Sonia Lupien, Ph.D., that explains the stress trap: https://ici.radio-canada.ca/ohdio/premiere/emissions/penelope/segments/chronique/420701/sante-physique-mentale-bien-etre.
Despite our efforts to manage difficult emotions, when we find ourselves in a strong stress reaction, we are always at risk of forgetting our techniques and strategies and not being able to manage anything at all.
This may seem discouraging, especially when juxtaposed with optimistic speeches claiming that anything is possible and that we can achieve anything if we believe in ourselves or work hard enough. In reality, the facts show that we can accomplish a lot but not everything and only under certain conditions, not all of which depend on us. Not quite as marketable, huh? But it’s certainly more realistic and, in my opinion, more respectful of our emotions and reactions.
When I listen to my stress, my hope is that it will tell me that I have an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone, experience an interesting challenge and grow. But stress can also convey that my energy level or coping skills are not up to the task and that I need a break. It might tell me that external conditions aren’t right or in line with my values. The best way to respect myself might be to document and express my objection to the change imposed on me or distance myself from it altogether. And since stress is transferred from one person to another, I could be affected by my colleague’s or relative’s stress. Resolving stress and managing change cannot rely entirely on one person and their efforts.
Of course, I want to contribute positively to the changes that come my way. But if, despite my efforts, I don’t succeed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I should try harder. Optimistic rhetoric, when unaccompanied by its vital nuances, risks slipping into magical voluntarism and cruel optimism, concepts that are widely documented in psychology. They send the message that it’s entirely my fault if I fail, and I’ll just have to try harder next time. What if there are even more stressors and obstacles next time? This seems dangerously close to a risk factor for burnout.
In essence, our effort’s outcome depends on a multitude of factors. Many of these factors come from the system and society in which we evolve, and they can often counteract our plans without giving us a chance to react in time. In these cases, the guilt of being unable to adapt may not be a tool but an obstacle to taking control.
Stress, like all emotions, can carry many different messages, and it’s important to listen and respect yourself when discomfort persists despite how hard you try to welcome change. No one knows what you need and what you should accept or tolerate better than you. And if, despite your efforts, you find that your internal resources are no longer sufficient, remember that it’s also normal to need help to get through the change. Many professionals are ready to help you find the best path forward while considering your challenges, strengths, and precious nuances.
Content Specialist, Psychologist, Psy.D.
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