NEW FEATURE: Yes To Success – This Week – What Has Death To Do With A Change Process?

Being a keen observer of life and human nature, I need to agree with Heraclitus that everything changes and nothing stands still. Sometimes we work in the same job for years where nothing seems to change or we get stuck in a relationship where every day is so predictable that it hardly feels like a new day. Majority of people like predictability and security, they know what to expect, they feel certain about things and they like it, they avoid changes. I am on the other end of the spectrum, for the last three years I have been going through many changes, it feels like one never ending giant change. However, let me tell you that change is an essence of life. When you look back at your life, notice how much you have changed, how you have transformed from a baby toddler to this fully fledged and glorious human being, well done you. There were days when you were crawling and now you are flying…ok, walking is great too. Do you remember the days when you left your primary school to go to a high school and then to university? Or your very first job? A first love, marriage, divorce, or maybe a second marriage?

Each change is like a different level of life, it reminds me of Super Mario, a computer game I used to play (and the only one) when I was a kid, but who doesn’t know Super Mario? You had to go through different levels and each next level was more difficult and had more obstacles. At each level, you as Mario, had a few lives and once you lost all of them you would have to start all over again. In reality we have only one life but quite a few beginnings. Each beginning of something in our life is like a new level, it’s a state where you lose something to gain something else. The process of change is the process of loss as well as gain.

There is an interesting book ‘On Death and Dying’ written by a  Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She has researched and studied the grieving process in extremis. You might be thinking hold on, we were reading about change not death. So how does death and grieving relate to change? or resistance to change? The answer is loss. As I mentioned before all change involves loss, even positive change. When we are dealing with change we have to give up (lose) something, for example, home, office, our way of working or thinking, relationships and so on. Each change triggers our internal reminders of earlier losses. This is what makes it so difficult.

“Each change is like a different level of life, it reminds me of Super Mario, a computer game I used to play…” – Emilia 

Loss is one of the most difficult of human experiences but some of us deal with it better than others. We learn how to deal with it or not in our earliest relationships. This goes back to our infancy stage where one of the most important developmental step as infants is the separation process and how we become independent from our primary carer. This separation and loss associated with growing and developing can be quite difficult; you may remember it from your own childhood or see it in your own children. These first experiences of separation, such as weaning, being left by mum (carer) for the first time, going to nursery or pre-school, along with additional factors involved in the process; all these events contribute to form internal blueprint of an infant for all future losses and separation. This is a complex process and even if it goes well it is gets painful. All subsequent experience of loss evokes this early experience. If it doesn’t go well it makes later experiences even more difficult.

However, we have also discovered from psychoanalysis if people can mourn and come to terms with loss it is this that can transform the loss into a positive developmental process. And if people are helped with the process of loss it will help them to move forward.

“…it is perfectly normal and natural for us to go through different emotional stages during a change process even if the change wasn’t a choice and we want the change to happen…” – Emilia 

If we agree with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross that change is difficult as it always involves loss and that loss sits in a context of loss which reminds us of earlier losses, we might say that there is a level on which all change feels potentially catastrophic, evoking very primitive feelings. In her book On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross observed a cycle of emotional states that is often referred to the Grief Cycle. It became noticeable  that this emotional cycle was not exclusive just to the terminally ill, but also other people who were negatively affected by change. The important factor is not that the change is good or bad, but that some people perceive it as a significantly negative event. Kübler-Ross has identified five stages in the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though not necessarily in that order. Before the denial stage there could be shock or relief response.

Denial is a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept things, it could be facts, information, or reality relating to the situation concerned. It’s a human’s natural defence mechanism. Some people can become locked in this stage when dealing with a traumatic change that can be ignored.

Anger can manifest in different ways. People dealing with emotional upset can be angry with themselves, others or both, especially people close to them. Anger can go from annoyed to enraged. A person doesn’t want to lose things which will be lost by even a good change, for example friends or colleagues.

Bargaining. The bargaining stage for people facing death can involve attempts to bargain with whichever god the person believes in. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it’s a matter of life or death.

Depression, a state where you have little energy, few ideas and poor focus, anxiety attacks can precede that stage. In a way it’s the practice run for the ‘aftermath’, although this stage means different things depending on whom it involves. It’s a sort of acceptance with emotional attachment. It’s natural to feel sadness and regret, fear and uncertainty. It shows that the person has at least begun to accept the reality.

Acceptance, this stage varies according to the person’s situation, although broadly it is an indication that there is some emotional detachment and objectivity. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must necessarily pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief.

The idea is that it is perfectly normal and natural for us to go through different emotional stages during a change process even if the change wasn’t a choice and we want the change to happen. Sometimes people get stuck in one phase. Thus a person may become stuck in denial, not being able to move on from the position of not accepting a specific event or change. Therefore it’s very important to have a supportive people and environment around you when going through tough changes. Knowing the cycle process helps us to think about individual responses, about the feelings you are likely to have when going through a change even a change which might feel positive. By being aware of the cycle you are less likely to be derailed by negative emotions and are able to manage change more effectively.

There is a great book on a change process, I will write about it soon! Stay tuned.

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