settling in (happiness project, part 6)

Remember all those posts I made over the last few months about my upcoming move, and all the related feelings and freakouts and meltdowns?

Well, it happened!

In the past few weeks, Husband and I have completed the first leg of our move from the boonies of Western Massachusetts to the suburbs of New York City. Needless to say, it’s been a pretty big adjustment–we’ve gone from a single-family house on a quiet dead-end street to a small apartment in a large complex on a busy road. My commute has gone from a five-minute drive to a forty-minute train followed by a twenty-five minute walk, which, for obvious reasons, means I’ve had to make some drastic changes to my morning and evening routines to accommodate a much longer journey to and from work. That means, to my sadness, less time for writing and internet-ing in both the morning and evening, and, since I’m now held to a train schedule, much less flexibility in that routine from day to day. The last few weeks have been a pretty constant jumble of adjusting to new routines, unpacking, organizing, hanging, decorating, and rearranging. It’s been an adventure.

And the best part? In just over two months, we’re going to do it all again when we move into the housing that Husband’s job provides for us starting in June. Woo!

A few people–okay, a lot of people–have asked us why we’ve bothered to put as much time and energy into settling into our current apartment, given that we’ll only be there about three months. And honestly, it’s a fair question. Unpacking clothes and kitchenware is one thing; hanging artwork and arranging books feels like creating a much more “permanent” space.

For me, though, creating something that feels like a permanent home is what makes this process doable. Husband and I have moved approximately a bajillion times since we’ve been living together (okay, so maybe it’s more like seven, but still!), and one of the things that I’ve realized in the process of all these moves is that I need to feel like I’m home, not in a temporary or uncertain space. The extent to which I’ve been able to do that over our different moves has varied, from having only a few of our books and pictures to being able fully furnish and settle into a home for over a year, and I’m fully aware that it’s been a privilege to be able to make each place we’ve lived feel at least slightly like ours for the time that we’ve been there.

As nice as it is to stay in a hotel for a few nights, most of us wouldn’t want to live in one if we can avoid it, and the reason why is the same reason that college students decorate rooms they’ll only inhabit for four months at a time and kids at overnight summer camps set up their bunks with pictures of home and bring along a favorite pillow or stuffed animal. There’s just something about being surrounded by familiar things that brings a sense of peace and serenity that we just don’t have in temporary spaces, and those feelings of serenity are crucial to our brains’ ability to adjust after a major transition. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on studying transitional and resettlement traumas–a number I suspect will go up over the next few years, as millions of refugees are resettled across the globe–as sociologists and psychologists and other social scientists examine the ways in which people create homes in new places and work to find familiarity in the unfamiliarity. From a less academic and extreme perspective, online outlets from Buzzfeed to Reader’s Digest have put together articles (listicles, whatever) about adjusting to a new place and making a new location feel like “home.” Clearly, this is a pretty common phenomenon, which shouldn’t be surprising: the average American can expect to move 11.4 times in their adult lifetime. No wonder we’re looking for as many ways as possible to make the process smoother.

I’m a confident enough person to be able to admit that I don’t, and will probably never, have the temperament needed to enjoy moving. And I’m okay with that. This happiness project has never been about changing my core personality, but rather understanding the ways I can change my perspectives and needs to increase the amount of happiness I feel on a day to day basis. I’ve made my peace with the fact that my moves will require more work because I’m determined to make my space–however temporary–feel like home as quickly as possible. This particular time, this has worked out in our favor: Husband and I went from “no unpacked boxes” to “everything unpacked, art on the walls, internet installed, fresh-baked bread cooling on the counter” in a week and a half. It helps that by this point we’re pretty much a relocation dream team, but in all honesty? Knowing that we’re getting damn good at this makes the fact that we’ve got yet another move coming up in June feel a little less scary.

But for now, at least, I have an unpacked apartment that feels like home.

And at the end of the day, even if we didn’t set everything up right away, I know that sometimes, happiness isn’t the stuff you have in your home, but who you share it with.

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!