Change is an Emotional Business

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Making major changes can be a time when we experience intense emotion. It is a thoroughly emotional business, from the desire we feel for change to what we feel when making the change.

Making a significant change in our lives is an emotional business in two senses. Firstly, in the sense of desire; and secondly in the sense of the experience of change.

Sometimes what we want is quite clear. In this case we will experience frustration (the difference between here and there). In this case advice or guidance that gets us where we want to go is usually welcomed and acted upon. An artist may want to know about techniques to create a particular effect, a person may want to know how to be rid of a phobia, a salesperson may want to know how to respond to a buyer’s objection, or a scientist may want a way to address a particular problem. In these situations the frustration may be very intense, and will usually be resolved when the solution is offered.

Sometimes we are not clear what we want — in the sense of the desired future, or the remedy to our current situation. We just want things different! We want to stop having the same stupid argument over and over again or we want a different job (but aren’t sure what other job would suit us). In this situation we may find that we don’t welcome advice and guidance. We may even find ourselves resenting it.

In this situation, listening is usually a good first step. Listening can mean getting a better sense of what we are feeling — what our discontent is and perhaps a sense of what we might desire as an alternative. Having a clear sense of what we don’t like, we can at least see if we find the opposite attractive. If we hate all the rules at work perhaps we would like a job where we are responsible for a project, or some part of projects. If we don’t like that our partner doesn’t make up their mind readily we may see if together we can find ways to make decisions (providing more time for thinking and discussion perhaps).

Without listening to our feelings we are likely to feel that any advice doesn’t meet us where we are. This will be whether the advice comes from ourselves (remembering other solutions we have tried, or seeking out advice from books perhaps) or from others.

The process of making a major change can also be emotional. (Although it isn’t always. A friend of mine who is an alternative health practitioner had smoked all his adult life. He then stopped around fifty. I asked if that was a big thing and he said, “No”, it was more a case of, “About time, idiot.”)

As we make changes we can feel fearful or nervous. Trying out new things can feel uncertain and we may make up stories about catastrophes that could happen to us, or that we are just deluded that it is possible to change. These times are especially difficult if we are doing it all on our own; in my experience of these times, the more support I have the better. This support may include information on the process (from books or therapists or whoever) as well as people who will listen to us talk about our feelings and just be with us as we go through the ups and downs.

We can also feel sad about not doing things the old way — even though the old way made us miserable. It seems strange, but it is true: leaving the familiar is a wrench even if the new is far preferable. Old habits are hard to break — even if they are ruining our health, and we don’t particularly enjoy them anyway. In my experience being told (by myself or others) that I am being silly/stupid/ridiculous etc. doesn’t help. What helps is feeling the feelings and usually expressing them. Sometimes for me, just writing in my journal is enough (but I’m an introvert), while other times it helps hugely to talk to another about them.

I’m not trying to dismiss the importance of thinking and planning in change. If we start doing things differently there can be all kinds of details to manage — from our timetables to how we intend to respond to people’s surprise. Having a sense of what these details may be and ideas on how we wish to do them may be very valuable.

What I do wish to say is that, during times of major change, the rational tends to sit within the emotional — and in service to it.

How do you experience change? What are the emotions that you have often felt and what have you found to be helpful ways of responding? If you have tips, hints and wisdom about making a time of change easier, please pass them on in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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