How often do we hear the phrase “You’ve changed!”? Perhaps it’s just part of passing conversation when we bump into a old friend, or said with kindness and maybe even appreciation as someone reflects on a change in the form of achievement, but it can also be said with a kind of, well, accusation.

“You’ve changed since…” following a change in our lives that someone, or we ourselves feel has created a negative change in us. Maybe after the beginning of a new relationship, a promotion, a new job, or when children come along – any sounding familiar?

Perhaps you’ve heard another you could add to the list. Or perhaps you’ve thought it about yourself. Sure, sometimes we pass it off with a dismissive “no I haven’t”, and don’t give it so much as a second thought, but what about when we do?

What do we do when that phrase makes us sit up, take notice and ask ourselves, have I? And what if we, or others, don’t like that change?

How do you see change – good, bad or just different?

We almost always think of change as being either good, or bad.

“You’ve changed since you got that promotion….you think you’re better than us” (that doesn’t sound so great does it?) or “Wow, since you lost weight you’re so different, you’re so much happier!” (I think most would agree this sounds like a good change).

But what is change really? And is it so simple as being good or bad? What if I told you that change is neither, it’s just…different? And that it makes sense, and it’s ok.

You’re probably scoffing at the screen, having already come up with at least 5 examples of good or bad change you can throw my way, but hear me out.

I think we can all agree that when we talk about change, we are talking about something being different.

In the context I’m talking about here, change can be in behaviour (how someone acts), or in how someone thinks or feels.

This is important to clarify because we humans pay an awful lot of attention to behaviour, thoughts and feelings, even if we don’t realise it. We observe our thoughts and feelings, and we observe others’ behaviour, just as we observe our own.

Do you tend to predict or form expectations? How accurate are your predictions?

Why do our thoughts, feelings and behaviours change? And why do we label it as good, or bad?

Well, we humans don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather in a system that has us connected, reacting, and responding to all of the things, people, and events around us.

This constant interaction allows us to feel as though we know these things well enough to predict how these interactions will go and we behave, think, and feeling accordingly.

At a more intimate level, when we get to know a person, know ourselves, or a scenario well enough we predict the outcome, and sometimes without even realising it, form an expectation.

A great example of this occurs in very common-place scenario…Have you ever responded “I’m fine thanks” to a shop assistant, who hasn’t actually asked you yet if you need assistance? (Guilty as charged).

If you have, you predicted their behaviour based on the countless times it has happened before – you have expected they would ask, and behaved accordingly.

But what happens when something in your world changes and your prediction fails?

What happens when something is different? Well, put simply, we often don’t like it!

Despite my simple example just now, prediction and change obviously goes beyond leaving a sales assistant slightly miffed.

It occurs in our everyday lives, with our colleagues, friends, loved ones and with ourselves, and sometimes it occurs around big things.

I so often hear the phrase “I thought I’d feel….” immediately preceding some level of surprise or distress as that person did not, in fact, feel the way they expected at all.

Now add that prediction to a significant life change, let’s say, the arrival of a new baby. Our new mum might say “I thought I’d feel so happy”, but instead she notices she’s feeling tired and un-enthusiastic, and this is not what she had predicted.

Generally speaking, tired and unenthused are not feelings we want to have, or ones that we enjoy our loved ones having, and so our brain wants to understand it and it labels it as “bad”.

In this same scenario, our new mum’s partner may turn to her and tell her “she’s changed…she’s just not the same person she was”.

My question here is, how on earth could her behaviour, thoughts or feelings possibly be the same?! A significant change has occurred in her life (in her ‘system’), and she has shifted her thoughts, feelings and behaviours in her attempts to make room for it.

Everyone’s predictions (based on our new mum’s ‘pre-baby’ way of being) are missing the mark, and everyone’s uncomfortable with it!

This is how change can causes us distress – we predict something (consciously or not) that does not occur, and it feels uncomfortable, in fact, it can feel downright awful!

How can we respond effectively to change when discomfort arises?
  1. Well, take a step back. Give yourself a little space and room to look at this change and ‘check’ your perspective.

Think of it as the mental version of stepping back from a painting and giving yourself the space to see the whole picture, and not just the what you see with your nose right up to the canvas!

Step back and look at the change in the context of the whole system, that is, in the context of all aspects of your life.

  1. Try to see change as part of a bigger picture – this allows us to realise how much sense change actually makes!

Think of it like this, if we change one part of a system (of our lives and world), how can we expect that no other changes will occur?

It’s like turning the stove on and expecting it won’t get hot! If all parts of a system are interconnected and are interacting and reacting with each other, then a change in one area must create a change in another…and that’s ok.

  1. Remind yourself that change itself is not good or bad, it’s just different, and how we think about and understand that change determines how we feel about it. If we focus on change as ‘negative’ and worry about what this means for us it’s pretty unlikely we’re going to be accepting of it, but if we recognise that a change was rather inevitable, we can make space for it in our lives as a normal part of life’s process.

So next time there’s a change in your life, take the opportunity to just step back for a moment and have a look at that change as part of the bigger picture. Ask yourself, is it really good or bad? Is it an inevitable? Finally, remind yourself, it’s ok…you’re ok.

If you feel that you need more help with managing some of the discomfort that comes with change, our team of experienced psychologists are here to help.

Cara Crothers

Clinical Psychologist