How to Deal With Major Life Changes

What goes on in the cocoon of change isn’t always pretty, but the results can be beautiful. Martha Beck talks you through the four phases of human metamorphosis. Get ready to fly!

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Photo: Thinkstock

I used to think I knew how some caterpillars become butterflies. I assumed they weave cocoons, then sit inside growing six long legs, four wings, and so on. I figured if I were to cut open a cocoon, I’d find a butterfly-ish caterpillar, or a caterpillar-ish butterfly, depending on how far things had progressed. I was wrong. In fact, the first thing caterpillars do in their cocoons is shed their skin, leaving a soft, rubbery chrysalis. If you were to look inside the cocoon early on, you’d find nothing but a puddle of glop. But in that glop are certain cells, called imago cells, that contain the DNA-coded instructions for turning bug soup into a delicate, winged creature—the angel of the dead caterpillar.

If you’ve ever been through a major life transition, this may sound familiar. Humans do it, too—not physically but psychologically. All of us will experience metamorphosis several times during our lives, exchanging one identity for another. You’ve probably already changed from baby to child to adolescent to adult—these are obvious, well-recognized stages in the life cycle. But even after you’re all grown up, your identity isn’t fixed. You may change marital status, become a parent, switch careers, get sick, win the lottery.

Any transition serious enough to alter your definition of self will require not just small adjustments in your way of living and thinking but a full-on metamorphosis. I don’t know if this is emotionally stressful for caterpillars, but for humans it can be hell on wheels. The best way to minimize trauma is to understand the process.

The Phases of Human Metamorphosis

Psychological metamorphosis has four phases. You’ll go through these phases, more or less in order, after any major change catalyst (falling in love or breaking up, getting or losing a job, having children or emptying the nest, etc.). The strategies for dealing with change depend on the phase you’re experiencing.

Phase 1: Dissolving

Here’s the Deal
The first phase of change is the scariest, especially because we aren’t taught to expect it. It’s the time when we lose our identity and are left temporarily formless: person soup. Most people fight like crazy to keep their identities from dissolving. “This is just a blip,” we tell ourselves when circumstances rock our world. “I’m the same person, and my life will go back to being the way it was.”

Sometimes this is true. But in other cases, when real metamorphosis has begun, we run into a welter of “dissolving” experiences. We may feel that everything is falling apart, that we’re losing everyone and everything. Dissolving feels like death, because it is—it’s the demise of the person you’ve been.

What to Do
When we’re dissolving we may get hysterical, fight our feelings, try to recapture our former lives, or jump immediately toward some new status quo (“rebound romance” is a classic example). All these measures actually slow down Phase One and make it more painful. The following strategies work better:

In Phase 1, Live One Day (or 10 minutes) at a Time
Instead of dwelling on hopes and fears about an unknowable future, focus your attention on whatever is happening right now.

“Cocoon” by Caring For Yourself in Physical, Immediate Ways
Wrap yourself in a blanket, make yourself a cup of hot tea, attend an exercise class, whatever feels comforting.

Talk to Others Who Have Gone Through a Metamorphosis
If you don’t have a wise relative or friend, a therapist can be a source of reassurance.

Let Yourself Grieve
Even if you are leaving an unpleasant situation (a bad marriage, a job you didn’t like), you’ll probably go through the normal human response to any loss: the emotional roller coaster called the grieving process. You’ll cycle through denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance many times. Just experiencing these feelings will help them pass more quickly.

If you think this sounds frustratingly passive, you’re right. Dissolving isn’t something you do; it’s something that happens to you. The closest you’ll come to controlling it is relaxing and trusting the process.

Phase 2: Imagining

Here’s the Deal
For those of us who have just a few tiny control issues, Phase 2 is as welcome as rain after drought. This is when the part of you that knows your destiny, the imago in your psyche, will begin giving you instructions about how to reorganize the remnants of your old identity into something altogether different.

The word imago is the root of the word image. You’ll know you’re beginning Phase 2 when your mind’s eye starts seeing images of the life you are about to create. These can’t be forced—like dissolving, they happen to you—and they are never what you expected. You’re becoming a new person, and you’ll develop traits and interests your old self didn’t have. You may feel compelled to change your hairstyle or wardrobe, or redecorate your living space. The old order simply seems wrong, and you’ll begin reordering your outer situation to reflect your inner rebirth.

What to Do
Here are some ways you may want to respond when you begin spontaneously imagining the future:

Cut Out Magazine Pictures You Find Appealing or Interesting
Glue them onto a piece of butcher paper. The resulting collage will be an illustration of the life you’re trying to create.

Let Yourself Daydream
Your job is to try out imaginary scenarios until you have a clear picture of your goals and desires. You’ll save a lot of time, effort, and grief by giving yourself time to do this in your head before you attempt it in the real world.

Phase 2 is all about images: making them up, making them clear, making them possible. Moving through this stage, you’ll start to feel an impulse to go from dreaming (imagining possibilities) to scheming (planning to bring your vision to fruition). Write down both dreams and schemes, then gather information about how you might create them.

Phase 3: Re-forming

Here’s the Deal
As your dreams become schemes, you’ll begin itching to make them come true. This signals Phase 3, the implementation stage of the change process. Phase 3is when you stop fantasizing about selling your art and start submitting work to galleries, or go beyond ogling a friend’s brother to having her set you up on a date. You’ll feel motivated to do real, physical things to build a new life. And then…(drum roll, please)…you’ll fail. Repeatedly.

I’ve gone through Phase 3many times and watched hundreds of clients do the same. I’ve never seen a significant scheme succeed on the first try. Re-forming your life, like anything new, complex, and important, inevitably brings up problems you didn’t expect. That’s why, in contrast to the starry eyes that are so useful in Phase 2, Phase 3demands the ingenuity of Thomas Edison and the tenacity of a pit bull.

What to Do
Expect Things To Go Wrong
Many of my clients have an early failure and consider this a sign that “it just wasn’t meant to be.” This is a useful philosophy if you want to spend your life as person soup. To become all that you can be, you must keep working toward your dreams even when your initial efforts are unsuccessful.

Be Willing to Start Over
Every time your plans fail, you’ll briefly return to Phase 1, feeling lost and confused. This is an opportunity to release some of the illusions that created hitches in your plan.

Revisit Phase 2
Adjusting your dreams and schemes to include the truths you’ve learned from your experimentation.

Persist
Keep debugging and reimplementing your new-and-improved plans until they work. If you’ve followed all the steps above, they eventually will.

Phase 2: Imagining

Here’s the Deal
For those of us who have just a few tiny control issues, Phase 2 is as welcome as rain after drought. This is when the part of you that knows your destiny, the imago in your psyche, will begin giving you instructions about how to reorganize the remnants of your old identity into something altogether different.

The word imago is the root of the word image. You’ll know you’re beginning Phase 2 when your mind’s eye starts seeing images of the life you are about to create. These can’t be forced—like dissolving, they happen to you—and they are never what you expected. You’re becoming a new person, and you’ll develop traits and interests your old self didn’t have. You may feel compelled to change your hairstyle or wardrobe, or redecorate your living space. The old order simply seems wrong, and you’ll begin reordering your outer situation to reflect your inner rebirth.

What to Do
Here are some ways you may want to respond when you begin spontaneously imagining the future:

Cut Out Magazine Pictures You Find Appealing or Interesting
Glue them onto a piece of butcher paper. The resulting collage will be an illustration of the life you’re trying to create.

Let Yourself Daydream
Your job is to try out imaginary scenarios until you have a clear picture of your goals and desires. You’ll save a lot of time, effort, and grief by giving yourself time to do this in your head before you attempt it in the real world.

Phase 2 is all about images: making them up, making them clear, making them possible. Moving through this stage, you’ll start to feel an impulse to go from dreaming (imagining possibilities) to scheming (planning to bring your vision to fruition). Write down both dreams and schemes, then gather information about how you might create them.

Phase 3: Re-forming

Here’s the Deal
As your dreams become schemes, you’ll begin itching to make them come true. This signals Phase 3, the implementation stage of the change process. Phase 3is when you stop fantasizing about selling your art and start submitting work to galleries, or go beyond ogling a friend’s brother to having her set you up on a date. You’ll feel motivated to do real, physical things to build a new life. And then…(drum roll, please)…you’ll fail. Repeatedly.

I’ve gone through Phase 3many times and watched hundreds of clients do the same. I’ve never seen a significant scheme succeed on the first try. Re-forming your life, like anything new, complex, and important, inevitably brings up problems you didn’t expect. That’s why, in contrast to the starry eyes that are so useful in Phase 2, Phase 3demands the ingenuity of Thomas Edison and the tenacity of a pit bull.

What to Do
Expect Things To Go Wrong
Many of my clients have an early failure and consider this a sign that “it just wasn’t meant to be.” This is a useful philosophy if you want to spend your life as person soup. To become all that you can be, you must keep working toward your dreams even when your initial efforts are unsuccessful.

Be Willing to Start Over
Every time your plans fail, you’ll briefly return to Phase 1, feeling lost and confused. This is an opportunity to release some of the illusions that created hitches in your plan.

Revisit Phase 2
Adjusting your dreams and schemes to include the truths you’ve learned from your experimentation.

Persist
Keep debugging and reimplementing your new-and-improved plans until they work. If you’ve followed all the steps above, they eventually will.

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31 Days to Waking Up Happy for Life

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Illustration: Jun Cen

1. Catch Some Zzz’s—the Right Way

Turkish researchers found that people who tend to sleep on their right side have mellower dreams, with themes of relief, joy, peace and love. They also report feeling better rested and less dysfunctional during waking hours.

2. Don’t Dream in Half-Light

Four weeks of sleeping in a 5-lux glow—the equivalent of nightlights, streetlights, a TV or computer screen—suppressed levels of the feel-good hormone melatonin and shrank parts of the hippocampus, leading to moodiness and despondency. (Note: Depressive symptoms vanished after two weeks of pitch-dark slumber.)

3. Rethink Your Shower

Researchers theorize that ending your shower with a decrease in water temperature (to about 68°F), and staying under the spray for two to three minutes, may trigger neurotransmitters in the brain that produce a sense of well-being.

4. Have a Little Tulip with Your Coffee

In a study led by Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff, PhD, women who saw flowers when they woke up reported feeling happier (and less anxious) at home, as well as more energetic at work.

5. Soak Up Antidepressant Rays

Step outside for a half hour, or so, if you can. The morning light—especially from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.—may be more effective in curing the winter blues than late-afternoon or evening light.

6. …Just Don’t Forget One Thing

On the sunniest days, we squint; and squinting can make us angry, explains Daniele Marzoli, PhD, a psychologist at Italy’s University of Chieti-Pescara. Since mood and facial muscles are linked, your face signals to your brain that you’re irritated (even if you weren’t…initially). To make matters worse, the tetchiness flares up almost instantly, explains Dr. Marzoli. Luckily, this one has a simple, fast-acting and potentially elegant remedy: sunglasses.

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7. Remember to #JustSayHello

It’s a simple greeting, but science reveals that social interaction can help us live healthier, happier and longer lives. Join the campaign that demonstrates how a small gesture can make a big difference.

8. Get Your Heart Racing…and His, Too

Schedule an a.m. tryst, and you’ll not only feel more vital and alive but also more bonded to your partner for the rest of the day. Testosterone levels are highest in the morning. Having sex then also boosts your levels of the love hormone, oxytocin.

9. Decorate Your Workspace with Help from Picasso

Stoke creativity by introducing hints of blue into your workspace. Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s business school found that people who used computers with a blue background came up with more imaginative ideas, possibly because the color is associated with openness and serenity.

10. Snack on These Seeds

A study found that post-grad students whose diets regularly met or exceeded their RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for magnesium (320 milligrams for woman, or roughly half a cup of pumpkin seeds) were less likely to be depressed than students whose diets contained the least amount of magnesium. Plus, the seeds pack in tryptophan, an amino acid that aids the production of serotonin, a mood-regulating neurotransmitter.

11. …But Definitely Not These Foods

No matter what’s irking you—your partner’s tap-tap-tapping foot, a snarky comment, a printer jam—the wrong type of popcorn may play a role in turning annoyance into full-blown rage. Other culprits can include: frozen pizza, crackers, canned frosting, coffee creamer…or anything else that contains high levels of trans-fatty acids (partially hydrogenated oils—see this list).

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12. Learn How to Forgive

Studies have shown that forgiveness can lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduce depression, anxiety and anger. Oprah always remembers the person who told her the secret to releasing grudges saying, “Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed.”

13. Don’t Stoop Around

Depression is a slump—literally and figuratively. Erik Peper, PhD, a professor at San Francisco State University, found that bad posture may only strengthen a vicious cycle of sadness and depression. It’s another artifact of the brain-body link: We act how we feel…and we feel how we act.

14. Stay in Countdown Mode

The best part about vacation may be…the anticipation. Research finds that the weeks leading up to a break yield even more bliss than the afterglow of one. This may explain why your happiest colleagues plan miniholidays every three to four months (instead of, say, one long vacation in August), giving themselves more escapes to look forward to throughout the year.

15. Remember This Quote

“The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.” — Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

16. Put One Foot in Front of the Other—in a Brand New Way

Researchers found that people who strode down the street (long steps, arms bouncing) for three minutes felt “significantly happier” than those who shuffled (small steps, slumped shoulders, looking down).

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17. Be a Work Altruist

If a junior associate asks for help with her report, what should you say? “Sure.” Because—conscious of it or not—offering to lend a hand to others at work actually makes us happier, found a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (as long as you’re not giving so much time away that you can’t complete your own work).

18. Take a Note from Aretha

R-E-S-P-E-C-T may just be your key to living a happy life. In a study at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers found that overall happiness is rooted in how much respect and admiration you have from the your closest friends, co-workers and family.

19. Pack These Foods into Your Diet

One of these edible antidepressants might be all you need to go from hungry and cranky to full and content.

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20. Rock Out to Vintage Madonna Records

Note, we said records—not albums, not tracks, not MP3s. In one study at Harvard University, people who were placed in an environment that resembled their youth—with movies, music and memorabilia from the past—experienced marked improvements in their memory, vision, happiness level and overall health.

21. Appreciate a Fuller In-Box

Isn’t more work a formula for more stress? Nope—to the contrary, found a Harvard Business School leadership study. More responsibilities meant lower stress-hormone levels—and less anxiety and burnout. Crucially, the additional work must give you a morale boost, not drown you in drudgery.

22. Don’t Take Your Drink Lite

Aspartame, the artificial sweetener, may kill “friendly” gut flora associated with better moods. It also blocks the mood-moderating chemical serotonin (although effects were not noticed in people who had not had a history of a mood disorder). Together, these findings might help explain the results of a National Institutes of Health study: People who drank four or more cups daily of diet soda/diet iced tea had a 30 percent increased risk of depression compared to nondrinkers (more aspartame, higher risk).

23. Get Down and Give Me 20

You’ll likely find that your fitter self is more resilient to slights, pressures and disappointments. Aerobic exercise increases the “fight-or-flight threshold,” says John Ratey, MD, in his exercise science book, Spark—by relaxing muscles, boosting mood-moderating neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) and reducing the body’s stress response to the hormone cortisol.

24. During Rush Hour: Pop One of These

What helps a frustrated, worn-out driver (besides vanishing traffic, of course)? Researchers at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia found that pumping peppermint-scented air into the cars of ticked-off commuters helped decrease anxiety and fatigue. Stash a bag of peppermint candies in your glove compartment to help you keep your cool during a hectic commute.

25. Give Your Mind a Short Leash

“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” wrote Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert in their study on mental presence. They found that people are happiest when their minds are in the present moment (yet another reason to meditate)—but that our minds are only in that state about half of each day. The three times we’re most likely to be “here” and happy: when exercising, in conversation and (especially) when having sex.

26. Buy Mom Some Cashmere Socks

Researchers at the Harvard Business School, the University of British Columbia and the University of Liège found that purchasing anything for someone else—as long as it’s within the very affordable price range of $5 to $20—makes you happier than buying the same item for yourself.

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27. Add a Happiness Helper into Your Dinner

Consuming edamame might aid in beating the blues, thanks to the B vitamin folate. (One cup delivers more than 100 percent of your Recommended Dietary Allowances.) In one study, women with the highest folate levels were 63 percent less likely to report significant symptoms of depression than those with the lowest.

28. Find Your Flow

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, reminds us of the reason to keep knitting scarves or writing short stories. His research has shown that immersing yourself in an activity (especially one you find pleasurable) can trigger a state called flow. “The more flow you bring into your life,” Csikszentmihalyi says, “the happier you’ll be.”

29. Open One of These Before Bedtime

What do happy people do? Read! But really, really happy people read these books that open their minds—and lives.

30. Don’t Go to Sleep After Watching Orphan Black

People shown disturbing images at bedtime had strong reactions both before and after sleeping, found a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Staying awake after an upsetting experience neutralizes some of the emotion, the scientists concluded, while going to sleep helps “preserve” the emotional response.

31. Dangle a Week-Carrot

Look, the world of happy moments doesn’t have to end just because the workweek must be spent wearing real clothes. Happiness doyenne Gretchen Rubin, creator of the Happiness Project and author of bestsellers Happier at Home and The Happiness Project, says, “Give yourself a reason to anticipate the coming week: Plan lunch with a friend, or a movie outing, or a trip to an office-supply store—or am I the only one who loves to go to office-supply stores?—and when the Sunday blues hit, remind yourself of everything fun that will happen.”

What Oprah Knows for Sure About Asking The Right Questions

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Photo: Debbie Yazbek

What I know for sure, sitting high atop the perch of broader perspective at 60: Whether you’re trying to create a great conversation or a great life, it’s the questions that count.

Ask the right questions, and the answers will always reveal themselves.

I’m supporting hundreds of girls through college right now, most of them in South Africa, 19 in schools across the United States. Understandably, their top two questions are, “What do I want to do?” and “What should my major be?” At this stage, connecting your interests and passions to work that will let you earn a living is the key to career success. But as I often tell my girls from atop my “Mom O” perch, a career is not a life. What you want to do should emerge from who you want to be. Who do you want to be? That, to me, is the essential question.

Years ago I was in a disagreement with Stedman about something I no longer recall (and, even if I did, probably wouldn’t put in print). He had done something that hurt my feelings or was somehow very upsetting to me. And I’ll never forget his response. He said, “I’m sorry. This isn’t the man I want to be. I can be better.”

Whoa, that registered big-time on my respect meter. And caused me to do some personal soul-searching. I thought about those words for weeks afterward.

What kind of woman do I want to be? One who willingly gives and receives love. One who is compassionate. Understanding. Positive. Forgiving. A woman who makes responsible choices. I want to live with a heart open to life.

Everything I do—my work on TV, my engagement with my school, my interactions with business partners and personal friends—arises from who I choose to be.

And daily, we each get to choose.

Who are you when fear shows up in one of its many masks (anxiety and jealousy are two of the most common), making you question whether you’re good enough, thin enough, young enough, smart enough, enough? Can you hold on to the center of yourself when the rest of your world is in chaos?

Who are you when success brings you prosperity, when you get to see and do things that some people can only dream of? Can you remain humble, clear, and mindful of others?

What kind of person do you want to be?

The answer for me is that I want to be in the space that stems from the Source of all things. No matter what highs or lows come my way. No matter the question, this is the answer that brings blessed assurance always.

My mantra, inspired by Acts 17:28: “In God I move and breathe and have my Being.”

The Surprising Skill Successful People Have in Common (and How to Cultivate It)

Most of us believe that leadership is the key to success. But, says Martha Beck, there’s a lot to be said for taking a backseat.
By Martha Beck

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While I was finishing my education back in the Pleistocene era, I got a job teaching at an international management school. I was happy, but also terrified: My 90-plus students were about ten minutes younger than I was and much more experienced in real-world business. There was simply no way I could lead these people to better managerial skills. So I chose another option: I decided to follow them. I found a shoe box, cut a slit in the top, and wrote FEEDBACK AND RECOMMENDATIONS on the side. Then I took the box to class.

“Your tuition pays my salary,” I told my students. “I work for you. As your subordinate, I’ll do the best I can, but as my leaders, you can help me do better.” I asked them to write down any negative feedback they might have and slip their comments into the box anonymously (to avoid fear of being penalized). All I asked was that with every negative comment they also include a suggestion about how I could improve.

My colleagues were horrified by this approach. “You’ll lose control of the classroom!” one of them said. “They’ll destroy you!” I handled his advice just as I did my feedback-box suggestions: by presenting it to my students and asking what they thought. They pointed out that for a teacher—as for a manager or any other kind of leader—suppressing negative feedback alienates people and prohibits communication of the very information necessary to improve. We had a memorable discussion about the benefits to be found in following, and it went a little something like this.

Why Following Is Good for You

“All streams flow to the sea because it lies below them,” wrote the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. If you want to lead people, he goes on to say, you must be willing to follow them. This flies in the face of our society’s general consensus, which holds that the world is a landscape of pyramids. Whether your pyramid is a family, a school, a company, or any other social structure, the goal is to get to the top and enjoy the power and privilege of leadership. Followership is often seen as the default role of losers, wimps, and also-rans.

If you love clawing your way up social pyramids, by all means, hang on to this view of reality. But if you’re into things like, oh, I don’t know, happy relationships and enjoyable work, you might want to note that many highly functional human systems are less like pyramids than like calm seas: Roles are as fluid as water, and the hierarchy of personal worth is flat, with every person valued equally. In systems like these, each person leads in situations where he or she is most capable, but just as willingly follows in others.

For example, you may be the legal head of your household, but when you’re baffled by a social networking app, it’s your teenager who leads you to clarity. You’re technically in charge of your plumber and your accountant, but you probably follow their advice. Your circle of friends may look to one person to lead when they’re choosing a restaurant and to another when they want fashion pointers. Being willing to follow, as well as to lead, is how we maximize our collective strengths.

When Not to Follow

All this talk of fluid leadership and humble following sounds just lovely—if you’ve never had a horrible boss, a domineering parent, or an abusive partner. These are the folks who love power pyramids, who never, ever follow anyone below them. They enjoy categorizing people as superiors (who get to lead, no matter what) and inferiors (who must follow, no matter what). They are willing to do anything they can to claim dominance. These are not people you should follow.

Economist Albert Hirschman wrote that when followers feel dissatisfied, they have two options: communicate discontent in the hope of creating change, or refuse to participate. Expressing our discontent and suggesting a better way—the option I gave my students with my feedback-box system—is definitely worth a try. If that doesn’t work, we may have to disobey—in other words, leave that tyrant behind.