Navigating the Terror of Major Life Change


How do you rebuild from nothing?

Far from the question families in Houston or NorCal are having to ask themselves now, this question is more metaphorical and less of the natural disaster variety… although in some ways, no less transformational, even without fire and flood. When you find yourself at a point of major change (new job, new career, new city, end of a relationship, etc.), how do you mindfully, bravely make changes — that are often really scary — to build a “new you?” What is your bottom line in life?

This dismantling of big parts of our lives has been on my mind a great deal this past year. Faithful readers will know I have made a lot of changes (end of a relationship, leaving a job, leaving a city, embarking on new career paths), and lord knows I’m still in the thick of it. But here’s what I’m really focused on as I make my way through the woods: what is my bottom line? What’s most important to me? What does my ideal life look like? Rather than thinking small, how can I think big — and even weird? What limitations (in living, or thinking) do I want to try and throw off as I create a whole new existence?

That feeling of “incompetence,” of not knowing what I’m doing, is terrifying. (Amazing thoughts on that from Seth Godin in my Kindred Nuggets this week — if you’re not getting these, check it out over to the right on this page! Three short but sweet nuggets of beautiful, growth-inspiring stuff every weekend, not found on the blog.) But the silver lining to that feeling of terrifying uncertainty in life is this: you’re back to zero, so to speak, and from there you can choose what to build. There is a liberating freedom in that, if you can learn to sit with the terror for a bit. Because from the unknown, you can create a field of new possibility.

So, to my question: what is my bottom line? What I have come to realize for myself over the last year is that, for me, it is quality of life. And that encompasses a lot of things. You may well define quality of life differently than I do, and that is totally OK. Here are my own musings on quality of life for me:

1. Time. I definitely subscribe to the Tim Ferriss school of thought that time is the one non-renewable resource. Here is possibly the worst kind of poverty — having all the resources in the world of money, intelligence, connections, influence, impact, or wisdom… and not having the time to appreciate them, to relax into the joy of them.

In my previous life, I always felt like I was running a marathon, and was behind. I didn’t have time to do the things most precious to me, the things that I knew made the biggest impact on my health and happiness (meditation, dance, rest, eating well). Not only did I feel time-poor, but I had little control of my time at my job. (Those of you who are or know teachers will recognize the refrain: often no time to eat or go to the bathroom!) And so I decided: that needed to change. I want a life where I have control of my time, and time for the things that are most important.

2. Health. A no-brainer, really. Most of us, of course, don’t think about it until we don’t have it. But when you feel run-down, ill, or in pain much of the time, your quality of life can’t flourish. I struggle with digestive issues and fatigue. When stress is high and time is low (for healthy eating, rest, exercise, etc), I suffer. Thankfully, I’m not battling a serious illness or something life-threatening. But changing and arranging my life so as to care for these elements is a priority.

3. Prosperity. This is something that feels either embarrassingly vulnerable, or brazenly greedy, to admit. For years I have never felt like I’ve made enough money to really thrive and feel comfortable. My relationship with money was something along the lines of, “I hate dealing with money.” I remember distinctly being asked by an ex-boyfriend (who was genuinely trying to support and be helpful) how much I really wanted to make, in my ideal scenario. I faltered. “Um….More than what I make now?” That was about as much as I could answer. Which was a problem. I have really been trying to look at my relationship with money — how I think about what I’m capable of, what I deserve, changing from a scarcity mindset to one where I can stand my ground and go after what I want with a positive vision of prosperity. For me, I have come to admit that being a teacher — and this is hard, because I feel so, so proud of what I did as a teacher, and what teachers do every day — will not earn me the financial health that I want. The uncomfortable truth is that being single and being a teacher is very hard, and it is the spouses of many teachers making more money that in many ways subsidize that profession. On the flip side, many people put money as their bottom line above many other things in life. I am not here to lecture that one is right or wrong. But I will say that, although it is a topic that is still squirmily uncomfortable for me sometimes, I have decided that I choose to prioritize prosperity in my life, not at the expense of time or health or meaningful work, but with the belief that both are possible, and the belief that I deserve and can achieve that.

4. Creativity. Wherever my work (and leisure) may take me, this remains a priority for me. I have always identified as having the heart of an artist (which has sometimes made for unhappy bedfellows with the above). I am continuing to explore for myself what creativity means for me, and expanding the definition. At the core for me, I think, sit the urges to create beautiful things, to build something from nothing, to help people be well, and to probe deeply and ask bigger, harder questions.

5. Environment. My father likes to say you can be happy anywhere, that it’s inside you. I straddle the truth of that spiritual belief (that nothing outside you “makes you” that or the other), with the other truth for me, which is that I am very affected in many ways by my environment. Being near water, being in a temperate climate neither extremely cold nor hot, having a beautiful space around me that feels like a sanctuary or oasis, sunlight…. these things have meaningful impact on my quality of life. And I love to move and dance and hike and be outside, so being in a place where these opportunities are in abundance for a good portion of the year (with accompanying weather) is a priority. I have long been drawn to the west coast. So much so that my career coach apparently underlined the word “California” several times in his notes from our work, based on my emphatic response when asked about where I most loved to be. And so, come January, I will be trying California on for size. (And asking this all-important question on IG!)

6. People. Have you heard of the Five Chimps Theory? This says that we essentially become the combination of the five people we’re around most. (It’s based on the scientific observations of the influence of other nearby chimps on chimpanzee health and behavior.) So often we end up with these five influencers by default: we marry the college boyfriend or girlfriend who happened to be there when it seemed time to couple up, we keep the friends we got thrown together with in school, we socialize with whomever is nearby at the office. But here in the Zone of Terrifying Change as an adult is also the opportunity to choose mindfully some of those influencer chimps. I have some amazing people in my life, for sure. I in no way want to replace my dearest chimps… But truth be told, I could stand to fill out that tribe with a few more amazing souls who really embody the lifestyle and values I want more of in my life. It is as Esther Perel says: “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” Starting out in a new city knowing almost no one is terrifying. But another silver lining of starting afresh? The chance to develop new relationships and mindfully build the positive tribe of people in your life.

I will admit it: I am frequently mildly terrified of what I am doing, moving to California, embarking on a new career path, new schooling, home, and job. But my rational brain has talked through these decisions with wise people in my life, and I have more or less determined that at least I am not a complete idiot in my choices. And more importantly, I am learning to sit with the crazy dichotomies that I have come to believe are an inherent part of life, the messy feelings of being both terrified and excited, of feeling incredibly uncomfortable but also learning to lean into that discomfort. I recognize that the goal is in fact not an absence of discomfort, but rather practicing how to feel that feeling and keep going. A friend shared with me the practice of the “AND” statements: “I feel scared of new changes AND I embrace the excitement of new possibilities” … “I am afraid of feeling lonely, incompetent, like a failure blah blah blah (the list goes on), AND I am also strong and brave and capable.” The way we talk to ourselves matters. I’m learning to craft that conversation.

Image: me working while basking in the California sunshine. :)