preparing for change (or: the anxious girl’s guide to major life transitions)

It may seem odd coming from someone who helps people navigate life transitions for a living, but I actually really hate change. I’m a person who loves routine and predictability–there’s a reason why I love my planner so much and why I’d rather grit my teeth and deal with the devil I know rather than letting myself contemplate the anxiety of the devil I don’t. I’d like to play it cool and pretend that this anxiety only comes up about major transitions, but unfortunately I’d be lying–I once spent a half-hour in tears because the husband wanted to rearrange the living room.

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Yeah. That was a fun conversation.

As I’ve been working to improve my ability to embrace vulnerability, it’s ben a difficult journey for me to step back from my automatic reflex of recoiling away from transitions themselves and to instead let myself experience and process that discomfort. And allowing myself to feel anxiety and worry and stress as I approach a series of pretty huge transitions that will be happening all at once just got a lot more important: in just a little over a month, I’ll be starting a new job, and husband and I will be relocating. That means finding a new home and everything that comes with it: new friends, new favorite coffee spots, new doctors, new commuting tricks, all that jazz. For someone who tends to react to “hey, what if we changed our furniture around?” with vague, high-pitched shrieking sounds, this is a huge amount of change all at once. As excited as I am for the new opportunities in the job I’ll be starting in New York, it’s hard not to find myself totally overwhelmed by the amount of decisions, moves, and communications that will have to be made over the next few weeks.

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Embracing vulnerability or not, even a self-described martyr to the cause of anxiety like me can acknowledge that it’s not healthy to spend a month and a half in a constant state of stress and worry. Fortunately, I’ve spent the weeks and months leading up to this process figuring out what I need to make it bearable, and now that we’re heading into the crunch time period, I feel…Well, not great, not even all the way to okay, but not immediately on the verge of a panic attack 24/7. So that’s progress.

The collection of tips I’m sharing tonight have helped me a lot with managing my own stress and anxiety about the moving and job-search process. They’re not meant to be a one-size-fits-all approach, and your mileage may vary in terms of whether or not they work for you. Also (standard disclaimer here), this isn’t meant to be taken as clinical advice. While following steps to reduce anxiety and stress and overwhelming feelings can be very wonderful, this list is in no way a substitute for actual therapeutic interventions. If anxiety and stress are serious problems in your life, please consider contacting a mental health professional in your area. ❤

That said, here you are:

An Anxious Lady’s Guide to Managing Life Change

1. Make a visual.

I’m a hugely visual learner, and whenever I set out to do a big project, I need to have a visual map of the steps that project is going to involve. Being able to see everything I’ll need to do put right in front of me allows me to get a “big picture” view of the process while still seeing the smaller tasks that keep it from getting overwhelmed.

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Shoddy pictures courtesy of my four-year-old phone. Sorry, kids.

I like to do this using the game-changer maps in my passion planner, but there are plenty of other ways to do it, too: flowcharts, goal maps, goal snowflakes, etc.

I think the reason this process calms my anxiety is because it takes away some of the unknowns. When we think about moving or job searching, it can feel like there are a billion moving parts, too many things to keep track of. When everything is laid out in front of me, it feels easier to relax and not panic that I’m going to forget to do something.

2. Break it down.

Once the main goal is mapped out, I break it down into smaller steps. I tend to do this by making more goal maps, partially because they’re pretty and I like doing arts and crafts, and partially because it’s a good representation of how my brain works. These breakdowns tend to have more specific, objective goals: sending two job applications a week, responding to emails, sorting through books, etc.

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If you’re a less map-y person, having just a straight-up to-do list can be just as helpful. The goal is to break it up into sections. Rather than having a giant list with tons of tasks all mixed together, separating it by type of task (buying, organizing, donating, contacting, etc) or area of task (rooms in a house, networking groups, etc) can make a huge difference in how daunting something feels.

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One of the sticky notes that hangs out on my MacBook desktop.

3. Figure out where you’re dragging your feet (and why).

Whenever a huge task comes up with a ton of different moving parts, there will always be aspects of that project that make even the most motivated person start dragging their feet. For a novel, it might be writing That Super Emotional Scene, with a job search, it might be sending resumes or doing interviews, with moving, it might be the actual packing of your existing stuff.

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That said, when there’s a major project that needs to happen and you’re resisting tackling a big part of it, it’s important to identify that part and then figure out what it is about that part that’s making you pause. Sometimes it’s not a big deal (I’ve been holding off on bringing our donation books to our library for the sole reason that I’m lazy and I don’t like carrying big heavy books and parking in the crappy library parking lot), but other times it can speak to a bigger problem. I spent a lot of time struggling to send cover letters and completed applications because I kept reading and re-reading them. A conversation with my therapist eventually led me to realize that the reason for my hesitance was that I was convinced that as soon as I sent them, I’d find some huge error that I’d be unable to correct, and that error would cost me the job.

Letting go of that worry is hard, and was honestly one of the hardest part of this process. But as I explored in embracing vulnerability, without sending those applications and exposing myself to that vulnerability, I wouldn’t have opened myself to the giddy job of receiving a job offer, of sharing that offer with my family, of feeling my excitement mount as I prepared to call back to accept it.

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4. Ask for help.

This connects back to #3. If you’re dragging your feet on a tough task, ask someone to help with it. For me, that meant having friends proof-read my cover letters, delegating the bulk of the house search to my husband (who is a champ for taking point on that despite doing his own job search). And in a big way, it meant long, really uncomfortable conversations with my therapist about learning to be okay with not controlling every aspect of this process.

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One of the weird, tricky things that I’ve learned in my time both as a person with anxiety and as a therapist is that anxiety, perfectionism, and independence are fiercely co-dependent with each other. Anxious people are often determined to accomplish things perfectly on their own, because we worry that if we don’t do things perfectly, or we admit we need help, all of the people who love us will realize that we’re not perfect and will therefore immediately abandon us.

But a strange thing I’ve discovered in this process is that asking people for help–again, exposing ourselves to the vulnerability of doing so–allows us to share the joy of triumph and change with those same people. Talking to my friends and family about my struggles with this process makes their celebration feel that much more touching, because I know they understand how difficult it’s been for me. And let me tell you, when the congratulatory emails started flooding in, my wicked, jaded little heart shed a few tears.

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5. Celebrate small steps.

It’s been great to get emails expressing excitement from my friends and family now that I’ve gotten a new job. But those don’t feel nearly as great as the ones I’ve gotten along the way. Around the third or fourth job application I sent, I started texting a few close friends to let them know I’d submitted it, and the “YAY!” and “<3” and “YOU GO GIRL” messages, even if they were off-hand (not that I believe they were) made me feel like I’d actually accomplished something.

Coming full circle, being able to check off small tasks from my initial goal maps (if you scroll up, you can probably see a number of things that are checked off and crossed out) and seeing the ongoing to-do list get smaller and smaller. Maybe this isn’t as much of a celebration to people who aren’t as hugely obsessed with their planners and to-do lists (don’t judge, y’all), but it makes me feel all warm n’ fuzzy.

If you’re not a checklist person, celebrate in other ways. Accomplished your goal of applying to three jobs this week? Take a bubble bath! Finalized your needs/wants/hopes list for your next apartment? Have a glass of wine or a nice cup of tea! Acknowledging a success with a positive activity or reward, especially for difficult tasks, helps our minds connect those tough tasks with those rewards and makes us less reluctant to do them again. It’s classical conditioning 101, and there’s a reason it’s super effective.

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The process of getting this new job was long, complicated, emotionally and mentally taxing, and hugely exhausting. I’m totally and completely drained by it, and super hugely glad that it’s over. That said, accomplishing that task and seeing that I was able to do it without having multiple major breakdowns (note: I said multiple, not none, and I would like to reiterate my earlier statement about therapists being super hugely useful) is a huge change from the way I handled this process the last time I had to do it. (Poorly. I handled it poorly.)

I don’t think I’ll ever be the kind of person who can be excited about a major change without having to seriously balance excitement with anxiety and panic, no matter how much I teach myself to lean into vulnerability. But it helps me feel a little bit better to know that there are, at the very least, ways to make the process a little more manageable. And maybe, someday, I’ll even be able to do it without color-coding my flowcharts.

But I’ll probably color-code them anyway. It just makes it more fun.

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my happy place.

Have you found any tried and true methods for handling the anxiety of major transitions? Got some tips to share? Feel free to share them in the comments!

 

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4 thoughts on “preparing for change (or: the anxious girl’s guide to major life transitions)

  1. That last picture is amazing! Definitely a happy place for me too. I think simply writing and drawing helps me. It gives me the time I need to reflect and find out what’s going on inside of me.

  2. Pingback: the one who does the leaving | Human Living Human[e]ly

  3. Pingback: the light at the end of the tunnel | Human Living Human[e]ly

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