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THE Seasons of Change
Using Nature's Wisdom to Grow Through Life's Inevitable Ups and Downs
By Carol L. McClelland
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1998 Carol L. McClelland, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
When Changes Get Personal: From Denial to Awakening
June sat in my office, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. She told me that just as she'd decided to sell her business of fifteen years she'd been blindsided by her brother's death and, two weeks later, by the news of an unexpected though welcome pregnancy.
As tears spilled down her cheeks, she whispered, "I'm so confused, I can't seem to make sense of anything right now. What I really want to do is spend some time alone, but no one will let me. They all want me to cheer up and get my mind off my worries."
You might be experiencing something similar as you deal with whatever change has brought you to read this book. "Your desire to go within is perfectly natural," I gently said to June, "and probably one of the best things you can do for yourself right now."
She took a full, deep breath, let out a huge sigh, and said, "You mean ... I'm not going crazy?!?"
I've heard this sigh many times from clients as they discovered, for the first time, that there really is some rhyme and reason to how they feel as they face life's inevitable changes. I want to offer you the same comfort. Knowing my work brings people hope gives meaning to all the dark, scary nights I spent wondering if I myself was going crazy.
Will I Ever Feel Okay Again?
For the first twenty-five years of my life, I took great pride in the fact that my life seemed to unfold like clockwork. I grew up in a comfortable, suburban area of California, part of a happy family of four. We had two cars, a dog, and took family vacations every summer. The only big changes I experienced were the anticipated moves as I climbed the academic ladder.
Then one muggy summer day, the stability of my life was irrevocably shattered during a phone conversation with my parents. Although they were only informing me that my father's biopsy looked a bit questionable, I knew in a heartbeat that he was going to die as a result. And soon. All my life, I'd never known anything that completely. As I stared at the shiny eggshell-colored enamel on the doorjamb next to the phone, I tried to make sense of what my parents were saying. Somehow, I managed to hold myself together while we talked, but as soon as we hung up, I started crying hysterically.
I had next to no experience dealing with emotions of such magnitude, with death, or with how to continue my life when everything I'd ever known was crumbling. To make matters worse, I was halfway across the country in the midst of a summer internship. All of my friends were hundreds or thousands of miles away. I'd never felt so alone in my life. In the months that followed, I often wondered if I'd ever feel okay again.
By the time my father died, eighteen months later, I'd finished graduate school, gotten a corporate job, and had begun to reestablish my life in California. Talk about a time of transition! At least now I was only an hour away from home when the phone call came, so I was able to be there to support my mother and to receive the comfort of family and friends. Given my father's deteriorating condition, the biggest shock was not his death but the strong feeling of rightness that settled, within twelve hours, over my mother and me. We both sensed that his passing would be an important catalyst for each of us—a feeling that was haunting and reassuring at the same time. For about a month, I was "fine," but numb. Then, the waves of grief started to hit. Although the quality and intensity of the waves changed over time, they continued for several years.
Ironically, a few years before he died, Dad loaned me his copy of Transitions: Making Sense of Life Changes by William Bridges, the first book on the market to define the stages underlying all transitions. My familiarity with that book allowed me to realize that what I was experiencing was normal and that I could use my process as a catalyst for personal growth. Although those years of grief were the toughest I've ever experienced, some of my most poignant and meaningful memories come from that period.
Then, just as I was beginning to make sense of my father's death, life handed me a number of other intense issues to work through: my mother's bout with cancer, the deaths of three grandparents, my own physical and mental burnout. Each of those experiences woke me up to the reality of life's changes.
Somehow, in the depths of my despair, I realized that by experiencing my own grief process, I would learn how to help others move through the often treacherous journey associated with life changes. That knowing became the light at the end of a very long tunnel for me. I immediately became very conscious of my own process, paying particular attention to how I felt, what I was going through, and what helped ease my pain and anguish. I gleaned information from any source I could find—books, workshops, talks, conversations.
Then as the space between the waves of grief lengthened, my interest in navigating life's transitions moved beyond the purely personal. My role in a large corporation put me in an ideal position to observe a wide variety of changes at both the organizational and individual levels. Everywhere I went, inside and outside of the company, I heard people talking about the changes they were struggling with: downsizing, relocating, a child leaving home, aging, divorcing. As I listened to them talk, I took note of the kinds of support they were or were not receiving and began to get a feel for what might assist them in moving through their transitions more gracefully.
Through my observations, I became more and more fascinated with the process of change. I began to see that when people understand and go through a natural progression of feelings and behaviors in dealing with life changes, they can arrive, more easily, at a new, happier, and healthier place. The process certainly isn't free of pain—I could attest to that—but the potential for growth that comes with change is phenomenal. Learning to tap this potential is vital to the health and well-being of everyone alive, because no matter who you are, there is no escaping change.
The Ubiquitous Nature of Change
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that change is everywhere these days. Indeed, paradoxically perhaps, change is the only constant in life. As Alvin Toffler stated in Future Shock, "Change is avalanching upon our heads." One might think he wrote that sentence today, for it certainly feels true, but he actually published it in 1970. Just think of all the shifts, expansions, and inventions that have occurred since then!
It's definitely no secret that computers have had a tremendous impact on our society. The creation of microchip technology has had a profound impact on even our most basic appliances and vehicles. The rate at which this kind of technology changes means that by the time you get your computer set up it's already practically obsolete. When it breaks down, it's often cheaper to replace it than to invest in fixing it.
With computer and other technological advances has come the information explosion. In the opening paragraph of his book Escape Velocity, cultural critic Mark Dery quotes Marshall McLuhan's 1967 pronouncement that "electronic media have spun us into a blurred, breathless 'world of allatonceness' where information 'pours upon us, instantaneously and continuously,' sometimes overwhelming us." Looking back from where we are now, the volume of information has increased so much that the '70s and '80s look like a lazy day in the park.
In 1990, in their book Megatrends 2000, futurists John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene noted the startling expansion in the sources of media we must contend with on a daily basis—television networks, news shows, magazines. Since that statement, the availability of satellite dishes and access to the Internet have increased the options yet again a thousandfold. Unfortunately, Naisbitt's statement in his 1982 book Megatrends that "we are drowning in information and starved for knowledge" is more true now than ever before. If people in the '60s, '70s, and '80s felt overloaded with information, how can we possibly assimilate all that comes our way each day in the '90s?
This information overload has everything to do with our feeling overwhelmed by change. It used to be that you were primarily impacted by the changes that happened within a day's horse ride from your homestead. It might have taken weeks, months, or even years to discover a loved one had died, a revolution had taken place, or the steam engine had been invented. Now everything that happens all over the world also happens in your living room, your car, your office—instantaneously. As transition consultant William Bridges notes in JobShift, "time and distance no longer buffer us against the effects of change." While in the past we may have been affected by four or five of the changes happening worldwide, now we experience hundreds of them. It's no wonder everyone's talking about change these days.
Technology has also changed the way we communicate. We can now "talk" with friends and colleagues around the world via phone, fax, email, beeper, or video conferencing, essentially instantaneously and sometimes for no more than the cost of a local phone call. Although these new forms of communication make it possible for us to telecommute, connect with people when we're stuck in traffic, and stay in touch with loved ones at the touch of a key, they also blur the boundaries between our professional and personal lives and between night and day. Now, thanks to whizzy technological inventions, our bosses can page us in our bedrooms, call us by cell-phone on the ski slopes, and e-mail us on our laptops at the lake.
Work can literally happen anytime, anywhere, these days and our bosses, our customers, and our gotta-get-it-done selves all try their best to convince us that it should. In fact, in the book Thriving in Transition, career consultant Marcia Perkins-Reed notes that "we are working more than ever before." She cited statistics from Juliet Schor's The Overworked American to demonstrate that in 1989 the average American worked 158 hours (approximately one month) more than in 1969, while the amount of time the average woman worked increased by 287 hours over the same period.
Another area of great change is how and where we work. Not only has the emphasis of the economy shifted from smokestack industries and manufacturing to information and services, the actual number of jobs available through traditional sources is decreasing due to automation, closures, downsizing, consolidations, and reengineering. In fact, white-collar jobs are decreasing even faster than blue-collar jobs. Another significant trend is the ever-increasing reliance on temporary, contract, part-time, freelance, and leased employees. Toffler spotted this trend in 1970 when he noted there were 500 temporary agencies placing 750,000 short-term employees in jobs ranging from secretaries to engineers. In 1994, Bridges reported that there had been a 60 percent increase in the use of temporary employees since 1980. Quite a significant jump! It's also interesting to realize that temporary jobs aren't just for technical and clerical work anymore. Now executives and project managers are also among the ranks of the temporarily employed.
On top of all these changes in the workplace, and maybe because of them, those of us who are currently employed can expect, according to the United States Department of Labor, to have three to six careers in our lifetime, and the next generation can expect to have between six and ten careers in theirs. And we question why we're reeling from change and having a hard time dealing with it?
All these technological and work changes have a definite impact on the family in terms of the time we have at home, how we play, how we learn, where we live, and how often we move. The trend toward dual career couples also changes the landscape of the family, bringing childcare issues and concern for family time to the fore. Furthermore, the divorce rate, now over 50 percent in the United States, takes its toll on all of us as family units are dissolved and reformed on a regular basis. We have yet to see the full ramifications all these changes have on the family and on our lives.
There are also major political shifts happening worldwide (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Hong Kong reverting back to Chinese rule) and environmental changes occurring as a result of our consumption-based, technology-hungry culture (clearcutting of the old-growth forests and rainforests, disposal of toxic waste, increasingly resistant strains of bacteria, viruses, and insects to medications and pesticides). Most of us try to ignore these changes because the ramifications are so huge and overwhelming that we can't predict their impact, let alone find ways we as individuals can address them. But they affect us nonetheless, whether we're consciously aware of them or not.
Even in 1970, Alvin Toffler was commenting on the impact such changes have on individuals—decision stress, information overload, the assault on our senses, an accelerated pace of life, an awareness of the temporariness of it all. He felt that all these changes would lead to "future shock"—"the shattering stress and disorientation" of being "subjected to too much change in too short a time." His thought at that time was that "unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change ... we are doomed to the massive adaptational breakdown." From where we sit today, it's clear that we can't control the rate or range of the changes we experience. Nor can we just ignore the reality of change. We must find a way to accept that change is a part of our lives and learn to relate to it differently.
This can be very difficult because we lack adequate language to have meaningful discussions about change. I think Jungian analyst Robert Johnson said it best, in The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, when he claimed, "Where there is no terminology, there is no consciousness. A poverty-stricken vocabulary for any subject is an immediate admission that the subject is inferior or depreciated in that society."
Let's take a quick look at how individuals are affected when a culture doesn't have an adequate word for an important concept. Take a moment to imagine what would happen if we didn't have a word for the act of thinking. "Thinking" is something that can't be seen, touched, smelled, heard, tasted, or sensed. And, in this scenario, it can't be discussed either. What would happen if you started thinking one day? Would you be able to describe your experience to others? Would they have any way to understand you? How would you feel if you knew what you were experiencing was not only real, but very important, and yet you had no way to get others to believe you? My guess is you'd feel discounted and possibly even crazy. You might even talk yourself into believing that "thinking" doesn't exist, even though you know you've just experienced it.
This is the situation many of us face when we go through big transitions. We know we're in the midst of powerful shifts, but we don't have the words to validate, for ourselves or others, what we're going through. As a result, we question ourselves and our sanity. This is tragic, for we desperately need to make peace with the process of change.
How We Handle Change
In Future Shock, Toffler noted with despair that "most people are grotesquely unprepared to cope" with change. In fact, for most of us our first line of defense is to avoid change whenever and wherever we can. We see it as a threat to our carefully choreographed lives, something to be staved off at all costs: "This isn't really happening so I won't worry" or "It's not going to happen because I've got everything under control."
I'll never forget the conversation I had with a man at a networking fair not long after I started my consulting business helping people through life transitions. As soon as I introduced myself, he stated emphatically that he had no need for my services and never would, because his life wasn't ever going to change. He claimed to know that for a fact. I sometimes wonder how long his life cooperated with his vision.
Excerpted from THE Seasons of Change by Carol L. McClelland. Copyright © 1998 Carol L. McClelland, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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