|Making & Accepting Change in our Life
Jan Egan e Kennedy LLB
Jan is a consultant psychologist - registered in NSW - and a contemporary analytic psychotherapist.
She runs her private practice from Sydney CBD and has over 25 years experience in providing psychological services to individuals and couples. Jan also offers telephone counselling by appointment.
Jan has a background in teaching and counselling with children and adolescents. She is now involved in teaching and supervising psychotherapy trainees at tertiary level.
She has a strong interest in the process of making effective emotional change particularly in its positive impact on changing behaviour, managing stress and assisting decision making for better choices in life.
"It seems a truism that for each of us at some stage, our life will go through a major experience or experiences of loss or betrayal that will challenge us to change or at least examine the way we are living our life.
I am talking mainly about a real depth of psychological change. This is the kind of change that we don’t just one day decide to make.
Suddenly or more often very slowly, we realize that all bets are off on our life as we were living it and we are required to sink or swim in ways that we never could have imagined.
It usually has a catalyst in necessity. The trigger may seem sudden, but the growth of the need for change usually develops over time."
Jan explores why some people embrace change and others can't.
Q. Jan could you explain what is the difference between a psychologist and a psychotherapist please?
Psychologists study for 4 to 6 years at tertiary level and concentrate on the scientific study of human behaviour. They emphasise validity of measures and seek reliable evidence of effective treatments. They typically work with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which emphasizes changing thinking to change behaviour. There are many specialities such as counseling, industrial, sport, educational experimental psychology etc.
A psychotherapist may come from a variety of backgrounds, most commonly psychology, psychiatry or social work. It requires an extra 3-4 years training and primarily concentrates on healing the self when a person is not functioning as well as they would like to be. It is a particular kind of conversation using empathic attunement to feeling states where early development and experiences are taken into account. It may take months to years depending on the kind of change a client is seeking and the level of emotional stress, loss or trauma the client has experienced.
Q. Jan having had to transverse a major life change, I am fascinated by the topic of Making Change. When my marriage failed I was in shock and had no idea what to do. I craved information to try to give me some guidance or idea of where to go or what to do next.
I think the concept of how we make change and the processes involved are very important in that, it can take some people more time that others and that can be scary. Often thoughts like “Why can’t I move on?” “What is wrong with me?” play havoc with our psychic and cause even more distress.
Yes, information certainly helps to provide a context for our individual thoughts, feelings and experience in the midst of an emotional upheaval.
The end of a marriage for whatever reason is an enormous event in one’s life and the point of separation can be a real crisis. It’s very helpful to have some understanding of what happens to us in a crisis because it helps to manage emotions and anxiety.
An increase in anxiety levels and heightened stress is the body’s signal that the person we know ourselves to be, is under threat. This may be very brief and temporary or recurring and insistent. A certain amount of anxiety can be very useful because it helps to motivate us.
Q. What are the physical symptoms of high anxiety?
Symptoms such as :
- a general increase in levels of agitation making it difficult to think and make decisions
- disturbances in breathing from breathlessness to overbreathing to hyperventilating
- can be accompanied by light headedness, feeling faint, vision problems, nausea or constant butterflies in the tummy.
There are many variations here.
- Tightness or soreness in the chest is very common, or a pounding heart, muscle tension or trembling are other possibilities.
- Fluctuating moods from depressed flatness with little energy to periods of more activity.
At the very least, these sorts of symptoms can be uncomfortable and disturbing but temporary. If they persist, they can be very frightening and can even feel life threatening.
It’s important to check your health status with a doctor when going through major change.
If symptoms of anxiety or depression persist, it is wise to seek help because if we also experience prolonged periods of fear, our bodies can become so sensitised that symptoms persist even when the reasons for the agitation has passed.
Q. How can we manage these symptoms?
In a more general sense, when we perceive danger to our personal selves, the body’s automatic survival mechanisms come into action.
We "fight", we "flee" or we might "freeze" in fear…often it’s a combination of all three responses in a revolving sequence.
To experience shock and to feel numb in a temporary way can be a kind of self protective response like a time out where everything seems a bit unreal. But we can also freeze as a response to fear, even terror and it is important not to underestimate this signal. This can sometimes be happening on the inside while the outside still seems to function.
It can serve as an important signal that something is not right in the marriage long before a breakup.
We may need to “fight” at times, to find strength and clarity to make important decisions about house and family, money, work etc. Anger and determination can be useful emotions here to mobilize action. But when anger persists for long periods, it may be covering real distress and grief.
Having an outlet for all those feelings about those things you didn’t or couldn’t say at the time can be useful.
There will naturally be periods of distress, sadness, depressed mood, regret, just wanting to disappear, to make it all go away or even to have it all back. This is a normal part of working through.
Q. How long might this last?
The thing about a crisis is that it passes. Many people move through this period once the initial threat of everything breaking up has passed. The need to work through the emotions is still there but it doesn’t interfere with everyday life so much.
The figure of two to three years is often quoted to find your feet. Certainly by then, the legal proceedings and resettling has hopefully occurred and life has moved on. It’s a very individual thing and re-evaluation of the way you want to live your life can take some years to evolve.
Often, the day to day ongoing matters must take precedence over how we are feeling and our emotions have to go on hold, sometimes to that numbing degree for quite a long time. Anxiety and heightened stress levels are often indicators of the mismatch between how we act on the outside and how we feel inside. Ongoing stress takes a toll on our physical wellbeing, our appetites, our energy levels, our sleeping patterns, concentration, our decision making ability, and our interest levels.
It’s not surprising that it can take some years after the dust settles to unlock, to get in touch with ourselves again in a positive way, including finding new ways to understand and express who we are, given that so much has changed.
Q. Jan, why change?
We have no choice really. Change is inevitable. It will happen anyway whether we actively seek it or not. It’s a truism that nothing stays the same.
Marriage breakdown besides the stress and distress, provides us with a real opportunity to reassess ourselves and how we relate, what kind of relationships we want to have with the life experience we have gained. Marriage breakdown is a big loss even where you might say its for the best. There is a grieving process which varies in length for everyone. We can get stuck at points along the way here for considerable time.
The end of a marriage even a relatively short marriage or one where there are no children to consider, is very confronting because it forces us to face the incongruity between our imagined, ideal life, based on our early assumptions of what life should be like and the realities of what happened. Early experience of personal and family life influences these expectations and beliefs and can be somewhat automatic, hardly even conscious until something goes wrong.
Part of our emotional development is to become more conscious of what motivates us and what impedes us. A divorce can force us to face these things about ourselves.
Through a breakdown in relationship we discover that we may do and say a lot of things without noticing their impact on others and we may be slow to address the impact from others on ourselves. We also discover, to our great disappointment that our partners are not who we imagined them to be. That this happens is inevitable and part of the maturing process. How we respond then, affects how we change and adapt over time.
By the time marriage becomes irreconcilable, ways of addressing these differences and the means of growing together through these differences, has broken down. Both parties can feel bruised, misused, even abused by the other.
There are of course some cases of extreme physical or emotional abuse where it is the absolute best step to remove yourself from the marriage. The solution with actual physical violence is rather obvious yet this can still be a very difficult step to take for the person involved.
Say we have someone who is more used to being the helper, the giver. They can have real trouble learning to receive help for themselves. Their self esteem relies upon being in charge, being ‘good’ and being busy. Such a person may deny or simply not recognise the signals coming from others, that all is not well until a crisis occurs.
Someone else may believe that it is up to others to provide for them and may be very unwilling to face the challenges of mutual participation in the partnership. They may risk the marriage rather than face the responsibilities of creating real partnership with another person.
Say someone comes to see me after their marriage has just broken up or is in danger of breaking up, they may be in distress carrying high levels of anxiety, perplexed, angry and/or depressed mood, just managing to keep everything afloat but feeling like they could fall apart. This is understandably a very frightening experience.
The first step is to assess the severity of symptoms and whether or not some other treatment may be necessary or useful, as well as talking with a therapist.
More usually - for many - the experience of talking out loud and feeling heard, where your symptoms are understood in the context of your circumstances, begins to have a calming effect. At first, what you say may seem all over the place. There is usually such a backlog of events and feelings to talk about. As you begin to hear yourself talk, you begin to make more sense to yourself and therapist input is validating, informative and enquiring.
Others may manage their anxiety well and achieve highly, but know that despite time passing, they have underlying sadness or recurring depressed mood, or old issues that they cannot leave unaddressed if they want to make a deeper kind of sense to their emotional life, to change the ways they are currently living and responding to life. Thus begins a uniquely individual conversation to develop more satisfying personal meaning and to re evaluate what a successful life might mean.
That’s the kind of change that really interests me in the work I do.
Q. How long might that take?
It is very individual and it depends on what else is underlined for that person. People can begin to feel better quite quickly but this fluctuates from day to day, especially when divorce proceedings are lengthy and difficult. As the pressure of divorce begins to lift, you might expect to feel better for longer periods of time. This is often the point where you expect yourself to get on with new vigour and can be quite self critical when that doesn’t readily happen.
Its important to understand how fatiguing on a physical and mental level, relationship change is. A review of how well we care for ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally is timely and we may or may not need help with that.
Q. Jan how do we go about making change and what does recovery involve?
It seems to be often the case that when one card falls, there is that domino effect where we question how well we are living our life and how we want to address our future.
There is so much hype about “changing your life” as if you just turn things around and never look back.
Real and lasting change doesn’t happen like that. It is a slow, step by step, even plodding experience. Sometimes you can’t feel it happening until you become aware that this year feels quite different to last year.
1. Looking at what happened
2. Working through the feelings and gradually linking them to the experience
3. Managing stress, fears doubts, anxieties, even hate/blame toward the other
4. Gradually explaining what happened in a satisfactory although perhaps never complete way
5. Accepting the to and fro movement of positive change on oneself. i.e. not blaming self, not blaming the other
6. A gradual strengthening of how you feel. A coming together that stays for longer and longer periods of time
7. An interest in new projects
8. A reclaiming or re discovery of existing strengths /values/ interests which may have become lost or undervalued
Q. What do you mean by point 4 “Gradually explaining what happened in a satisfactory although perhaps never complete way”
I mean coming to an acceptance that we can never completely understand another person and that there is always more than one perspective, more than one reality and that is actually a desirable thing.
Learning how to create a lasting relationship is probably a lifetime pursuit. It may sound strange but including another in our singular version of what we expect of our relationship, is a real process of change and maturation over time.
Most of us have a pretty idealized view of relationships in the beginning, where we tend to place ourselves at the emotional centre of what happens. We inevitably see through our own lens.
As that ideal changes in relationship - and it must either suddenly or eroded over time - then the process of working through includes
- coming to terms with understanding that you can’t restore it to the way it was.
The ideal is in fact the ideal. We may do well to come to terms with accepting
- our own limitations
- our own dynamics
- our contribution
- the intersection of ourselves and our partner.
So what I mean by “never completely” is that we may actually become very interested in our journey rather than our previously expected destination.
Q. What about point 5 “accepting the to and fro movement of positive change on oneself. i.e. not blaming oneself, not blaming the other.”
That is what takes the time. It is unique to each person depending on
- previous relationship history
- psychological history
- experience of relationships in early life, childhood, adolescence
- emotional personality ie sensitivity to fearfulness and anxiety, levels of shame, depression etc.
Q. And they could be relationships even from childhood?
- What kind of role models we have had as children influences us.
- If we have a good sense of who we are as young people and our development has been well validated and supported and guided, then that solid underpinning teaches us a lot about sameness and difference in relationships.
- If our early attachments are painful and compromised, then it will affect our attachments in adult relationships
Q. Would these factors influence how long it would take someone to recover from a divorce?
Well, there is always a working through to do and always a grieving process for coming to terms with loss. Where a divorce triggers early experiences of losses or absence of optimal experience, then a deeper look at oneself is very important and will take time.
I don’t think anyone gets over divorce in a few months or even a year. I think it often takes 2 to 3 years and if there are certain points of vulnerability and you have to go back, revisit and work through, then it can take longer, even 5 or 6 years to find a renewed or even a new confidence.
Q. Jan this actually happened to me. It has been 7&1/2 years and it is only now that I am starting to feel better - like the person I was years ago - and yet I’m not that person either – too much has changed.
At the time, my x-husband and I were seeing a counsellor to sort out children’s issues and I asked “how long will it take until I feel better?’ She said maybe 2&1/2 years. I felt terrible at the thought of having to wait for all that time to pass.
Yes, The time it takes to work through the grief and to let go varies a lot and 21/2 years is not a long time, but after 2.5 years you would have felt a lot better?
Yes I was, but still not the way I wanted to feel.
I like what you said before “like the person I was years ago - and yet I’m not that person either – too much has changed.”
That’s it in a nutshell.
How we get back to feeling our old selves whilst also incorporating the ways we have changed so that in many ways we become more truly ourselves perhaps for the first time.
We hold on to old ways for many reasons. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the longer it takes the worse case you are. There may be so many priorities at stake, so many other balls in the air for a few years, especially with children to raise, that we can forget to pay attention to our own needs, particularly our emotional needs which may subside but they don’t go away until addressed. The grieving process will wait until you are ready but it doesn’t disappear.
Q. In point 6 you say “A gradual strengthening of how you feel. A coming together that stays for longer and longer periods of time”. Is that similar to what we just talked about?
Yes. You are not necessarily the same as before this happened and yet you may feel more yourself than ever.
There has been enormous cost and yet we know as in all areas of life - costs often have opportunity as a flip side.
You know you are getting stronger when you can begin to discover what you know about yourself - that you didn’t know before - and yet it feels like it has always been there. Only now it is conscious and you can use this information and solid feeling to make decisions and choices to move forward.
We come into the world with natural strengths. Our earliest relationships influence how we actually develop eg.
- our personality structure
- our sensitivity to certain emotions
- our goals & ambitions
- our relationships
As you go through this examination you can reclaim the good parts and strengthen them. Even change the way you utilize your strengths and let go of the thoughts and patterns that no longer serve you, or at least become more conscious of the way they influence you.
Q. Statistically, the majority of men and women tend to get divorced when in their late thirties or early forties. Could it be that this is the time when people do start to question their choices?
Maybe when they have got children of primary school age and life is not as exciting but is hard work and may be even boring at times with kid’s routines taking over everyone’s life.
If there is a sense of
- communication and
- joint responsibility
and both parents know that they are involved in the same process of
- helping their kids grow up
- getting them through school
- participating in their activities
then it might feel a bit boring at times but it is also enriching because there is a family home life that can be quite solid and neither partner is going to swap it even though it might get
The way a couple talk to each other, interest each other, respond and negotiate with each other is critical to the progress of a marriage.
Q. When we are younger many of us seem to know what we want and then when we get older we question it, even if there are no issues in the marriage. It’s like “is that all there is?” When and why do we question our lives?
Your question reminds me of a poet I like, David Whyte who likes to quote Dante:
“in the middle of the road of my life I awoke
to find my self in a dark wood
where the true way was wholly lost”
Good definition of a midlife crisis!
I think we all get countless opportunities to reflect on the way we are living our life but it sometimes takes a crisis to force us to question who we are and how we are living our life.
The process of change involves developing a capacity to reflect - not only on the events of our life - but also to heighten our awareness of our part to play, in the way our life has unfolded.
Q. So how secure we were in our early life then depends on how secure we feel now?
Its usually not so straightforward as that. It depends on the people we meet along the way and the many opportunities we get to make change. If our relationships and our attachments in the past were ones of vulnerability and insecurity then we may have difficulty recognising - and allowing into our lives- the people who may be good for us. Our own emotional makeup, together with our experience of relationships and the things that happen to us in our families, or in the world community, contributes to:
- our ambitions
- fears, doubts and actions or reluctance to act
- self esteem issues
- our resilience
- our success
- our optimism
- our natural ability and temperament
By temperament, I mean what we most naturally are..eg fiery, placid, stoic, curious. We have differing capacities and our personalities are shaped by these and by the ways we repond to others and are responded to by others.
Perceived abilities. Well that can be as much the way we are perceived by others as by ourselves.
Q. Whether we did a good job of things and whether we were encouraged in our younger years?
Yes. Encouragement, our natural curiosity, how well that is understood and fostered or whether it was shut down or forced in another less natural direction.
David Whyte talks about how we sometimes have to examine how was it that we began to make our lives too small for us or how we made ourselves too small for life.
Q. Does this impact on how we will survive a crisis like a divorce? How we attach to other people and how we trust?
Yes, in that divorce challenges us to question issues of trust ie
- the trust we have placed in others
- the trust we have in ourselves
Again the inner conversation we have with ourselves is deeply affected by how well we understand trust. There are many ways of exploring this through
- meditating or
- through a therapy process
Q. Regarding change, does our experience of success mean how we let ourselves change? If it has never been great does that mean making change in our life is harder?
Firstly, what is the benchmark for success? Is it money or values or a successful relationship?
Well it certainly can raise a lot of fears and lot of conflict about what we perceive we are allowed to have in life. If you only have a certain narrow range of what you believe your life is allowed to be and then are forced into a situation where you have to address that.
You may need to work on this side of yourself in order to address the questions:
“What do I believe about success?”
“Do I limit my actions to keep myself safe?”
“Do I think I am entitled to whatever I want?”
“Why should I believe that I can have more?”
“Who am I to believe I can’t have more?”
“What might I need to lose if in order to change this?”
“What keeps me going around on the same treadmill vs. choosing a bigger one?” or a smaller one as the case may be.
Q. So that would hold people back from change as well, compared to the people who do feel that they are allowed - or have been taught that they are allowed - to be successful.
Sometimes the hardest work in therapy is not the getting over what happened but the questions that follow like:
“OK I understand that and I feel better but how do I go forward and what happens next and what am I allowed to create for myself?”
Q. What you let yourself do?
Yes, the question of “if I had no barriers who or what might I be?”
That’s very frightening and most of us sit with it for a long time whilst we lay
- the groundwork,
- the foundations
- the brick by brick pieces of understanding
- of action and seeing
- accepting the consequences
- taking responsibility for ourselves with this new capacity
Having said that, successful progress in making change is going on all the time in all of us to a greater or lesser extent. The small things really do count. It can be one step forward two steps backward sometimes until eventually the equation changes to be headed mostly forward.
Q. Not everyone can afford to go to a counsellor, what can they do?
For some people it might be:
- the church
- joining a group or support group
- reading books or just talking to someone who will listen
- getting out into the community
- taking up dance or singing or boxing if you have never done these things
I believe that we still need to have some forum to articulate in words what we are discovering about ourselves and to share it with at least another.
Who would I be if I didn’t do the things I used to do? Again this is about success. If I could be who I truly want or was free to be myself - who would I be?
Would I still be me? Much fear, stalling and inability to act occurs here in a more conscious way and it can be the most troubling but ultimately most rewarding part of maturing.
I’m referring to:
- the procrastination
- the sitting still thinking of what you could do but not putting it into action
- being aware of you fears and more consciously aware of the way you delay or
- not acting on the intuitive ideas you might have
- stubbornly persisting with old habits
It is a step by step building of a platform of - who you are again.
It involves letting go of the past or past ways of doing things. Gradually replacing them -step by step - with a new way of doing things e.g.
- making phone calls which you might not have made before
- speaking out in a way that you might not have done once
- writing something that you might not have done
- taking care of your health in a way that you might never have
- seeking out a new relationship more actively rather that waiting, hoping it might happen
There is always loss as well as gain with change.
Giving up the ideal is the biggest loss. Accepting that we are not going to be looked after and actually having to learn how to look after ourselves. To seek out the people who can support us in being ourselves.
Q. We have talked a lot about making change from the perspective of a divorce, what about when we need to make change due to something good happening?
Yes how we respond to very positive opportunities requires just as great an examination of ourselves - if not greater - because we are challenged to make conscious choices and to be responsible for those choices.
Repartnering, for example, can be as troubling and scary a process as much as the ending of a relationship. We have to put ourselves into practice.
New growth, new steps can feel like stepping off a cliff. We sit on the edge looking over and often have to wait until we grow enough to find or create some solid new ground to step on, a little bit at a time.
This process can occur within a marriage as much as through divorce. All of us seek what we need in order to grow, to find personal meaning.
Part of that rebuilding growth and success experience we discussed before is:
- working out what you actually want
- knowing who you are
- working out what you value
- trust in your partner , trust in yourself
- do you value commitment
- do you value your privacy, simple life
- do you value a sexual relationship or is affection more important
- trusting your own judgement, your own ‘gut instincts’
Working out some sense of what those things mean to you.
Q. Jan how quickly do you find clients repartner after a relationship break up?
Depends how active they are about it.
Q. Do they come and talk to you about a prospective person or what they should I do?
Yes. I would not encourage someone to repartner too quickly as a kneejerk or rebound reaction. I feel its better to have found some solid ground inside oneself to stand on. To learn to have the conversations with yourself as well as with another.
Jan thank you for your time.
Jan can be contacted at her practice:
Suite 1301, 66 King St. Sydney
Telephone 02 - 9279 1393
Jan is also happy to do telephone counselling - by appointment - for clients outside of Sydney.