When Life Hands You Lemons: Tools for Managing Unexpected Change
We have all heard it before, the statement to offer support when we are facing unexpected change or loss. Maybe you lost your job, ended a relationship, or missed out on a promotion and someone in your life to be supportive says, “look on the bright side” or encourages you to find the “silver lining.” Perhaps it is your own inner dialogue encouraging yourself to “make lemonade out of lemons” to be positive and move forward. Or if you are like my husband, you live in the “it could be worse” mindset and you do not allow yourself to sit in the negative. But what if before simply moving forward and finding the positive in a negative situation, you first allow yourself to grieve?
In the midst of the global pandemic of 2020, the term ‘Toxic Positivity’ began to circulate blogs and psychology driven social media accounts, highlighting why always looking on the bright side and avoiding uncomfortable emotions was potentially damaging to mental health. To summarize the theme of these posts, when we choose the positive perspective in all situations, it can invalidate and dismiss the authentic emotional experience. The problem with this is that when it comes to emotions, the ones we try and avoid become the strongest. If I tell you to think of anything except for a green giraffe, I imagine the very first image that will pop into your mind is that of a green giraffe. Likewise, if someone tells you to avoid the uncomfortable emotions, those same emotions are likely all you are going to feel.
I want to clarify as we jump further into this idea, that I am not advocating for stewing in negative emotions, but rather encouraging an alternative way to deal with unexpected change, that does not begin with looking on the bright side. This alternative way to deal begins with research completed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross on grief and death, from which the concept of the stages of grief was born. While her notion discussed a linear grief process and we know that grief is anything but linear, the stages can be applied to the many forms of loss. Whether you are grieving the loss of life, or the loss of a relationship or a job, or facing fertility challenges, it is helpful to begin by naming the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each person will experience these in their own unique way, with differing intensity and duration, but the awareness and ability to name each stage as you experience them is helpful. Below I will break down the first four stages as they apply to the loss and change.
Denial: Denial is a great defense mechanism when we deal with loss, as it can help avoid facing the intensity of the situation and allow time to process. The challenge with denial, is that hiding from emotions does not make them go away, and they continue to remain under the surface. When going through a breakup, denial looks like saying, “He just needs some time to cool down, he doesn’t really mean it”. The longer we remain in denial, the more we prolong our ability to process the loss, and as we move through this phase, we are often faced with the pain we were intentionally avoiding.
Anger: Most humans are uncomfortable feeling sadness, hurt, and fear. Anger is an emotion that allows us to mask those much more painful feelings. Most often, anger does not arise from the rational part of your brain. When your feelings become too intense, anger is often directed at another person or object to help manage those feelings and may look like, “My boss is a terrible person, I hope the whole company goes bankrupt!” if you have recently lost your job. Once you move through anger, you can begin to cope with your feelings in a more rational manner.
Bargaining: When the brain starts to create “what if” and “if only” statements when facing loss or unexpected change, it is a natural way to find control when emotions feel uncontrollable. Bargaining is another way to attempt to delay the sadness and pain associated with change, and might show up as, “If only I hadn’t focused on my career, we would have a baby by now.” Moving through this phase allows you to begin to face the emotions associated with loss.
Depression: While denial, anger, and bargaining are attempts to avoid emotions, individuals are often bogged down and overwhelmed in their emotions when facing the depression stage of grief. Depression can show up as isolation or avoidance of making positive change and can look like giving up. When you stay in your pajamas, give up on finding a job, swear off dating, or make statements of feeling hopeless, you are in the depression stage. When you find yourself stuck in the depression stage, getting some extra help, and seeing a therapist can be a necessary part of your healing.
Now that we have gone through the stages, here are some ways to navigate your grief to move towards the goal of finding acceptance.
Be Compassionate (With Yourself)
One of the most important things we can do for ourselves when facing challenging situations is to be kind to ourselves. Think of the support you would give a friend or a family member in a similar situation and reflect on how that can look with yourself. Can you validate your feelings by saying, “of course I am sad, I just lost my dream job” and allowing that sadness to be ok? Instead of blaming yourself and being critical, try to offer patience and understanding in your time of loss. When we deal with unexpected change, it is important to acknowledge the bigger sense of loss, that is tied to the future expectations or plans associated with that change. When you can say, “It is okay to be upset” you can begin to avoid engaging in defense mechanisms that prolong the grief process.
Feel Your Feelings
It is through offering compassion and embracing your hurt, sadness, and fear that you can begin to heal and move forward. Denying those feelings will only make you feel stuck, which is why allowing yourself to feel your feelings is so important. This is where mindfulness is introduced as a necessary healing tool. Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of the present moment without imparting judgement. If you can begin to identify and name your feelings, you are one step closer to healing.
All cultures have a ritual of closure when death is involved, which is a purposeful and necessary tool to assist in the process of grief. So why not allow yourself to have a ritual as part of the mourning process when you are grieving the loss of a job, a relationship, or other life event or plan? If you find yourself stuck and unable to move forward, engaging in an activity that can mark the end of your grief and the beginning of the next stage can be an imperative part of your mourning process.
To demonstrate the notion of acceptance, I want you to think about those finger traps in which you put your index fingers in. When you pull your fingers apart, the trap gets tighter, and your fingers remain stuck. But when you push your fingers together, the trap loosens, and you can free your fingers. Now to apply this to life, have you ever had to do something that you really did not want to do? If you focus on how terrible and horrible it is and you resist, it gets more challenging. But if you tell yourself something like, “I don’t want to do this, but it is important, and I’ll get through it,” it gets easier. This is what acceptance looks like. Now when we apply it to grief, acceptance allows you to tolerate your emotions surrounding the loss and can help you move forward in a healthy and positive manner.
If you find yourself struggling to manage loss of any capacity, it is okay to need support. The stages of grief can be challenging to navigate, and getting help is a sign of strength. Before you try and make lemonade, come see us at Good Therapy San Diego.
Hopefully this article has provided some insight into dealing with change. For more questions or to get started with one of our therapists, please visit us at Good Therapy San Diego or give one of our Patient Care Coordinators a call at (619) 330-9500. We would be happy to help make the process easy and exciting!