Making & Accepting Change in our Lives

Jan Egan

"It seems a truism that for each of us at some stage in our life, we 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."

Jan explores why some people embrace change and others don't.



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.

It involves:

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