How to Embrace Change When Your World Turns Upside Down

Leslie Santos
Sep 13, 2017 · 7 min read

A framework for understanding how the death and rebirth of one’s identity is the necessary ingredient for personal growth.

This morning, three catastrophic text messages pinged my phone in unison: one friend grieved her fourth failed attempt at in vitro fertilization; another friend mourned her mother’s shocking cancer diagnosis; and a third friend lamented her 14yo old daughter, a rising freshman, leaving the family unit to live with her grandparents (two hours away) to attend high school for unexpected and uncontrollable reasons.

My heart joined theirs virtually; I understood the shock of their lived experience.While each friend experienced a different form of pain and trauma, they all shared one commonality — a shocking catalytic event which set change in motion. Life as they knew it was gone in an instant. Because change happens to each of us, Martha Beck, author and path finder, developed a rubric for the change process she calls The Change Cycle.

Her rubric provides an explanation, purpose, and function for the loss, shock, and opportunities that trigger unexpected change. Bottomline, our lives change continuously. We do not live in a vacuum. And these changes impact us and our ecosystem profoundly, even if we’re unconscious of the impact. Understanding this cycle can ease our suffering and give us a framework to lean on.

The Change Cycle Framework

1) A catalytic event brings change

2) We are thrown back to square one

3) We begin to see a pattern — order, disorder, then reorder.

4) We learn to navigate the Change Cycle

A catalytic event brings change

Change is a catalyst for growth. Change is a natural and necessary part of the human experience. Here’s how change usually happens. We’re going along in our life, everything’s fine, and we encounter something called a catalytic event or an event that catalyzes change. There are three types of catalytic events. 1) Shock. 2) Growth. 3) Opportunity.

Shock is when something terrible happens — our mother gets cancer, we lose our job, we lose our health, our hopes of having a baby are swept away. Basically, something unpredictable happens, and this is shocking to our routine, our nervous system, and our way of viewing and operating in life. This shock is a type of trauma. Sometimes the shock represents a big T trauma — when we lose a loved one. Other times, repetitive shocks become a series of little T traumas — each time we pass by our daughter’s room and remember she now lives with her grandparents.

Growth is marked by a feeling that we’ve outgrown something in our life — we’ve outgrown our profession; we’ve outgrown a relationship with our partner; we’ve outgrown a relationship with a family member; we’ve outgrown our ways of thinking; or we’ve outgrown our social circle. With growth, even if we try to go back to the way we were, or the way life was, it’s like attempting to dress in our adolescent clothes — they are never going to fit again. Eventually we must leave behind the job, or relationship, or our old ways of thinking to progress. The longer we cling to or grasp at our old life, the longer we suffer.

Opportunity is marked by an offer –the opportunity to travel arises; we’re offered our dream job; our beloved proposes, or we have an idea for a business. There’s an opportunity, but to take advantage of it, we’ll need to change, accommodate a new mindset, skillset or location.

We are thrown back to square one

The catalytic event sends us back to square one in the Change Cycle. While this may sound like regression, a return to square one is actually auspicious. Even though this time is filled with uncertainty (and is at times incredibly scary) and we feel overwhelmed, lonely, disconsolate or confused, square one is exactly where we need to be to emerge with a new identity. It is from this square that we can discover our true nature, and from this wholeness take the necessary steps toward our right life.

Said clearly, to discover our true nature, we must boldly step into square one the death of the self. But it’s not easy. Because we’re not taught how to accept and heal through change, we find ways to avoid it: control, problem solving, denial, blame, disassociation, addictions, binging, aggression, escape.

Unfortunately, Western cultures believe that going back to square one is regression. Fueled by our scarcity and competition-hungry culture, we value linear growth — start as a child and grow in skill and perfection all the way through life. Hear this, a regression mindset breeds proving grounds and battlegrounds. If we value linear growth, we will also fear failure, loss, and setbacks, and this fear becomes the motivator that drives change avoidance.

Thus, should we ever feel like we’re shedding our old skin for a new skin, we fear we’ve done something horribly wrong, or that we don’t measure up, or that our peers are ahead, or that we’re horribly flawed, or that we will never be whole again. And all of this inner conflict makes it incredibly difficult to surrender: let go of our old ways of thinking, let go of our old life, let go of old relationships, let go of maladaptations, let go of our stories, and let go of old identities no longer serving us.

Thankfully, change doesn’t need to be this painful or difficult. Imagine how liberating it would be if we embraced the change cycle as a natural and necessary part of our journey. Cross-reference our linear belief with other cultures and we’ll see a sacred respect for a circular growth cycle — a person circles again and again through the disillusionment of their identity. This anticipated and celebrated egoic death and rebirth is the spiritual path to expansion and growth. The death of the self is seen as a right of passage that ushers in the rebirth of a higher self.

We begin to see a pattern — order, disorder, then reorder.

Because the change cycle follows a pattern — order, disorder, then reorder — our entry into disorder signals the potential for reorder. This loss and renewal process provides rich soil in which to bloom. Said differently, the death and rebirth of our identity is the necessary ingredient for our growth. The way up is discovered on the way down. The way in is to give up control and allow disorder to emerge. The only way out is to go through.

Seeing the dissolution of the ego-self as a benevolent gift, helps us embrace and celebrate the process of renewal. With no reason to be ashamed of change, we allow ourselves to be a child in square one. Like a child, we embrace the unknowns, we become curious, we delight in the small unexpected things, we don’t pretend to have all the answers, we don’t problem solve to assuage uncertainty, we don’t try to fix what we deem broken, we don’t deny, ignore or fake it. And like a child, we give ourselves plenty of time to nap, rest, recover, and play. We practice self-care like our life depends on it, because it does.

In square one our belief system, our stories, our sense of self is crumbling before our eyes. Therefore, when we embrace circular growth cycles, we allow things to fall apart around us and we get curious. Specifically, square one is the place where we allow our old self to fall apart. We begin to question our stories about how life is supposed to be. We begin to question our stories about how our life is supposed to work. And we begin to question our stories about what we’re supposed to do. And through this unraveling, we begin to intuit that the more we resist change and cling to old ways of thinking, the more we will suffer horribly in square one.

Thankfully, life provides us with a profoundly benevolent, continuous and circular growth cycle. Each time we experience a loss of the self, we can choose to grow, expand, celebrate, befriend, stretch and discover what fits with the new and emerging person we’re meant to become. This process is known in positive psychology as post traumatic growth.

Six Ways You Can Navigate the Change Cycle

1) Learn the four phases of Marth Beck’s Change Cycle.

2) Find your support system and lean on your inner circle.

3) Create your self-care rituals.

4) Gently allow yourself an inner space to move through square one. This is an inner work. This is a gentle work. And this work is necessary for personal growth and renewal.

5) Remember that you’re supposed to fall apart, and square one can become an act of surrender, gratitude and awe.

6) Write a reminder to yourself: as things start to fall apart I’ll see more clearly.

Fall apart, then find the mysteries

Just as a child must fall countless times before she learns to walk, so too must an adult grow into their wisest self by falling apart. With every catalytic event anticipate change, and look forward to the discovery of a new self. After each new mystery, 1000 more will surface. Embrace and explore your mysteries. Mary Oliver, Nobel poet, writes in her poem Mysteries, Four of the Simple Ones:

“And what else can we do when the mysteries present themselves

but hope to pluck from the basket the brisk words

that will applaud them.”

Which brisk words might you use to applaud the mysteries of your rebirth?

Originally published at lesliesantos.com.