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"Between stimulus and response there is a space.In that space, is our power to choose our response.In our response lies our growth and our freedom."-Viktor E. Frankl

Article: Coping with Change and Loss

S. Eve Aceves, MFT

Change . . . it can be elusive, excruciatingly slow, and tearfully welcomed at last, with open arms and a sigh of relief. Or it can be dreaded, overwhelming, and negotiated with held breath and restless nights.

Sometimes, it saunters in of its own accord, without warning or invitation. Disoriented and unprepared, we rally to respond--or we rail against it--and quite likely, we do both. In some cases, this visitor might as well go by its other name, "Loss." Its presence reminds us that we're more collaborators, than creators, of our destiny.

We humans are a resourceful bunch; we use marvelous systems and technologies to channel the alchemy of change--to accelerate or postpone it's unfolding--to evoke it on our schedule. In a culture where many of us get caught up in striving to be, do, and have more, it can seem almost irresponsible to do less, to gently court inspiration, and allow natural processes to unfold.

However, patiently cultivating a state of receptivity that allows us to sense what needs to happen next, is not the same as passivity or laziness. There is something mysterious about the change process, and we need to forgive ourselves if can't always make something happen--or not happen--in a particular way or in our preferred time frame.

It might be a relief to consider that change is not always about making something specific happen. Sometimes, it's more a matter of finding a workable balance between trusting and exercising agency; we can trust ourselves a bit more and allow our natural impulse for growth to unfold.  We can also take one manageable step that sets a small thing in motion. Perhaps you've experienced this balance before, where a situation resolved more fortuitously than you could have imagined--but only after  you threw up your hands and stopped trying so hard.

On the other hand, there are some situations that challenge us to mobilize and do something radically different, to take ownership of something that isn't working in our lives and create something altogether new. A part of us wants what that change could offer us--whether it's financial stability, a sense of accomplishment, or a deepening commitment to someone or something we love. But, ambivalence, helplessness and fear can make it hard to step forward.

Giving into these forces can leave us feeling anxious, frustrated, stuck and immobilized. Fear of change can show up in subtle and persuasive ways, like an internal voice that tells us to wait for just the "right" moment to start something. Or we pressure ourselves to pursue an ideal or measure ourselves against impossible standards. In avoidance, perfectionism and procrastination, we forfeit an opportunity to show up in the world simply as we are--and discover what it feels like to be enough.  

Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." When we feel intimidated, but need to do something anyway, we can engage in the centuries-old practice of mindfulness. What would it look like to "surf" your own waves of discomfort in this way?

First, try doing just one thing that you need to do, while noticing what comes up for you. Then stop doing. Practice sitting with the feelings and thoughts, without judgment or distraction. Celebrate that you did that one thing and tolerated the discomfort. If you need to, take a relaxing breath, hear what you're saying to yourself, and find a loving phrase that soothes your nervous system.

Angeles Arrien offers additional guidance: "Whenever you want to learn something new or want change to occur, you must consciously and consistently engage in a practice." (See below for reference and longer excerpt) By "practice," she means intentionally engaging in any contemplative and focused activity that helps us cultivate the "values, skills, and character qualities" that naturally support the changes we hope for.

You can also share your stuck places with an ally who can make room for all the reactions inside you. Brainstorm with this person on what you could comfortably do next. Try, as best you as you're able, to remember that empathy and playfulness win hands-down over harshness, in helping to overcome resistance.

As we take steps to create a more satisfying life, we can notice whether the strategies we've chosen nudge us to stretch and grow in a natural direction--or lead us away from our authenticity. It may be time to review our motivations if we're noticing that we are:

--habitually striving for self-improvement
--suppressing our feelings to maintain a shiny image to others
--overextending ourselves, while neglecting self-care and other important aspects of our lives
--trying to get the people around us to reform

As Carl Rogers (a founder of Humanistic psychology) said, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. " We develop and grow best when we begin with a warm, wholehearted respect for the person we are now. That kind of generosity toward one self and others is as powerful as anything on the planet.

The changes we choose, as much as the ones that choose us, are bound to evoke mixed feelings. Welcome milestones, like marriage, starting a family and retirement, can bring up panic, doubt and sadness. Anatole France captured this ambivalence when he wrote, "All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another."

On the other hand, our most humbling and painful losses can bring us in touch with surprising inner resources, like courage, vulnerability, compassion and a deepened appreciation for life.

We've all been doing the best we can, mourning and reckoning with the changes that challenge our sense of who we are in this world. We started out hanging out in a watery womb, and that was cozy. But after a while, we had to vacate without a lot of notice. Squeezing through an unbelievably narrow space, spasms forced us into a shock of air, noise, bright light, colors and strange sensations. Our first inhalations must have been a rude, albeit necessary, awakening. But then, all that had to happen before we could be cradled in someone's arms for the first time.

This is all to say that we have been generously equipped to feel and respond to dynamic forces inside us and around us. And yet, there's nothing wrong with you if you feel disoriented, overwhelmed, unsettled, and totally out of sorts, in the midst of change. Let yourself feel it all, and get support when that feels like too much to bear. Find companionship, encouragement, kindness and understanding. And as Rainer Maria Rilke suggests, try to "have patience with everything unresolved in your heart."