6 Simple Ways to Cope Better with Big Life Changes
If you’ve gone through a big life change or upheaval before (although I mean, who hasn’t?), you’ll know that adjusting to a new reality can be somewhat challenging.
When we’re going through a life transition, for example — moving countries or cities, dealing with a job or career change, going through a break up or ending a long-term friendship, we can end up feeling totally lost.
This is, in my experience, because we really struggle when we have to give up an aspect of our identity, particularly ones that might form the very core of who we are.
Everyone defines themselves in a particular way— it might be that we define ourselves through the things we do, the people we associate with, or the goals we have.
Our identities are an amalgamation of different things, including everything from the college we went to, to our political beliefs, to where we shop for groceries.
Naturally, some features of our identities will be more important to us than others. As artist and writer Edward Gorey said,
“I am a person before I am anything else. I never say I am a writer. I never say I am an artist…I am a person who does those things.”
For some of us, though, our professions do form an important part of our identities.
How we see ourselves is so important. So, for example, if you see yourself as a “copywriter at X company”, and later on you leave that job for whatever reason, you’ll naturally feel the loss of that label as part of your identity.
That job position, or that relationship, or that location, was part of your identity — and now it isn’t.
If you’ve always seen yourself as a dancer, and somehow sustain an injury that prevents you from ever dancing again, you will probably experience a major identity crisis.
Why should it be uncomfortable or distressing to lose a facet of our identity? Well, labels are comforting. Humans love categorising and labelling the world around us. We love to compare and contrast (I am a writer, therefore I am not a computer scientist, or an architect, etc…).
Perhaps your job position or relationship status gives you confidence. When your job or relationship goes away, your confidence could take a hit. How do we stop that from happening, or at least soften the blow?
Michelle Obama talks about leaving the White House and adjusting to a new life outside of the presidency, which I think we can all agree is quite a major life change, in her autobiography, Becoming:
“When it ends, when you walk out the door that last time from the world’s most famous address, you’re left in many ways to find yourself again,” she writes.
Whether you yourself made the change, or the tectonic plates of life shifted beneath you and made everything come tumbling down, here are some techniques that might help you to cope with what’s going on in your life right now.
I’m drawing a lot on my own experience, having recently relocated from Spain back to my home country of South Africa. I moved back home in April 2019 without a job, without any real plans, and knowing that I was giving up a wonderful life in a fantastic country to live closer to my family.
Here’s how I’ve learned to cope with a difficult transition, and to somehow “find myself” again.
1. Don’t fight it
This one is simple. Things are not going to be how they were before. As difficult as it is to accept this, you have to let go of what was, so that you can open yourself to new possibilities.
My first three weeks back home were hard. I was frustrated, insecure, and I felt really out of place. I questioned my decision to come home, I argued with family members, and I constantly compared my old life to my new life. I was working against myself.
The decision was made, and I had to make the most of it. Instead of fighting against the current, I had to go with the flow. I had to learn to take each day as it came, to accept my new reality, and to work hard to build up my life once again.
2. Lean on your support crew
Family and friends are always important, but their support is even more indispensable when you are going through a big life change.
It’s also comforting to have some continuity while everything around you might be changing. As I mentioned before, fighting with those close to you is not going to help. These are people that love you and want to help you.
What helped me when I felt like I was slowly going insane, was to sit and have a five-minute talk with my mom. I’d tell her what I’d gone through that day, where my mind was at, and I’d share some of my worries and concerns.
Sometimes you just need someone to listen to you, and reassure you that everything is going to be OK.
Of course, we should seek to be able to reassure ourselves, but there is no shame in reaching out to others when you really need to hear a voice of reason.
As the hugely popular author and speaker Brené Brown says, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
3. Sit with yourself
This is key. You might be tempted to stay as busy as possible to distract yourself from whatever is suddenly missing from your life.
I’d encourage you to find a small gap in your day to just be still, to sit with yourself and not to run away from what you’re feeling.
As so many of today’s top psychologists and thought-leaders will say, you need to feel your feelings. Yoga, mindfullness, and meditation are hugely helpful in this area.
When I felt my anxiety starting to mount, or I started to panic about how I was going to get my life together, I took some time to decompress and just be still.
If you’ve never meditated before, a guided meditation is a great option. I really love Sam Hariss’s app, Waking Up. It has a free 50-day intro course, which could really help in terms of finding a bit of inner peace during a stressful time.
A friend of mine is going through a terrible divorce, and I asked her what’s getting her through all of this. Her answer was simply — “exercise”.
I have to say that when it comes to exercise, I am pretty slack. But for my friend, going to the gym everyday is giving her focus and a much-needed endorphin boost. She wants to lose weight, and has already lost a couple of kilos.
Having a goal that you can work towards will keep you driven and motivated, and it’s a great way to give yourself a feeling of control, however small or fleeting.
In my case, I haven’t exactly been clocking 10kms on the treadmill every day. I did make a promise to take the family dogs for a walk every day, and that bit of exercise and fresh air really does me good.
5. Give it time
This is maybe the most important one, and even if you disregard the other points, at least let this one sink in.
Somewhere in week two of my return to South Africa I was curled up in bed in an anxiety-fuelled Google session, looking up everything from rental costs in Bristol to writing jobs in Sydney.
I was so caught up in a cycle of panic and insecurity and shame that I thought the only way out was to jump ship and go somewhere else. I just couldn’t see things working out in my home country, it was obviously a bad move and bound to be a failure, and so the only logical step for me was to get out — fast.
If I had known that all of that would pass and I would soon be feeling quite content and normal in just a few more weeks, that would have saved me quite a lot of anguish.
It’s not a secret that time does heal a vast number of ailments. And when life is feeling strange and the anxiety is balling up in your stomach or chest, the only way to get through it is to tell yourself that it will pass. And it will.
6. Find yourself again
Once things have calmed down a bit, you can start to find new ways of being, new facets to your identity.
In my case, I am no longer an English teacher in Valencia, Spain. But I am what I’ve always wanted to be — finally, I can call myself a writer.
No longer can I meet up with friends in a cosy bar a mere ten minutes walk from my apartment for some tapas and tinto de verano. But while I drive on the freeway for twenty minutes to visit old school friends I can blast some of my favourite songs and let the music wash away any impatience that might crop up.
In Spain I have on occasion woken up to the joyous sound of a marching band going past my window because some wonderful and exciting festival is going on. When I wake up these days it’s quiet and tranquil, and I feel thankful that I have family close by and not on the other side of the world.
Life is different now, but who’s to say it’s not better? I’ve found a new version of myself, a new version of my life, and frankly, it feels very much like an upgrade.
So here’s to life 2.0 (or 3.0, or 4.0…). May we continue to grow, to upgrade, to find the strength to allow ourselves and our lives to change as they will, as they must.