• How we respond to change can relate to our early experiences and to how resilient we are in the face of uncertainty

  • Therapist and coach Caroline Ingram explores how coaching can help you navigate times of change

  • If you are going through a period of upheaval and want support with the transition, find a coach here

For most of us stability is preferable to uncertainty and we do what we can to avoid disruption. We feel safer with routine and, rather than changing the status quo; we like to keep our worlds predictable and safe. Change can feel uncomfortable and even when planned, takes time and effort to adapt. Often, we underestimate the emotional impact of big life changes and expect to feel in a particular way: happy with the birth of a child, sad at the loss of a loved one but our reactions are rarely that straight forward.  

An alternative view was put forward by Lao Tzu who believed that “life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

Society has conditioned us to think of life as a linear journey, moving through each stage and age with certain expectations and hopes. As individuals, we like to feel that we are in control of this. The pandemic has taught us otherwise. It may be that we only have an illusion of control and when external forces take over, we may have no choice but to change course which can feel both challenging and difficult.

Since the spring of 2020 we have had the chance to reflect on our lives and what we want for the future, often with no idea of how to achieve it. As a result some have been desperate to get back to how we used to be whilst others have accepted that, for them, change is inevitable. Dr Spencer Johnson has identified four ways people react when their world changes unexpectedly:

  • some of us anticipate change and thrive on it;
  • some embrace change and adapt quickly;
  • some have to be convinced but slowly accept new ways of living; and
  • others refuse to accept change, instead holding on to their old ways of living or working.

How do you respond to change?

Think about how you respond to change and consider this in the context of your frame of reference. The frame of reference is your perception of the world based on your upbringing and experience. Each of us has an unique view of what is good, bad, wrong, right, difficult, easy, just, unjust and so on.

These definitions are passed down to us by our caregivers, reinforced by life events and our experiences in society. Your frame of reference will affect how and why you respond to change in particular ways.  

One factor that may have a particular impact is If you have experienced bereavement in the past. In this case the prospect of any significant change, and therefore loss, can trigger previously felt negative emotions and a resulting desire to maintain stability and control to avoid feeling pain. If, throughout life, you have felt well supported and loved, then the expectation of change may appear more manageable and less daunting; you may seek it out and embrace it.

Whatever your reaction, support can be provided through counselling or coaching. A counsellor will work with you and explore your frame of reference to help you recognise and understand your emotions, a coach can guide you in making successful change for the future.

Coaching for successful change

Research suggests that you are most likely to make a successful change, and stick to it, if you are clear about what you want to achieve (your goal) and understand what it will look and feel like when you have achieved it. A coach will work with you to understand what you value in life and then clarify, through questioning and challenge, what it is you are trying to achieve. In formulating a plan for achieving your goal, they will support you in considering all the options before narrowing it down to what you feel is the most realistic, and attainable plan for you.

The process of change

Once you have identified your goal and are clear about how you will get there, the task of working towards it begins. Again, a coach will support you through this process. The first stage of change might involve a feeling of discomfort. During your first review these feelings will be explored, and you may be provided with some tools to work through any delaying or resistant behaviours that you are unconsciously putting in place. Reviewing your action plan will allow you to become increasingly able and then through practice and repetition step by step confidence is increased and new habits are formed. At each stage of this process, a coach will be working alongside you, providing support, guidance and challenge.

Change is not easy and whilst it can be easy to describe the event that has brought about the need for change, it can be much harder to articulate how the change makes you feel.

Through counselling you will become more aware of your reactions and feelings, learning to recognise them and exploring why you respond in a particular way. This will give you the opportunity of challenging your thought processes and, if appropriate, altering your behaviour.

Further work with a coach will provide a framework for moving through the change process and dealing with setbacks in a supportive and empathetic environment as you move toward a new goal. Whether you choose to work with a counsellor or a coach, or a professional who is qualified in both areas, successful change is possible with time, patience, reflection and commitment.

Caroline Ingram is a verified welldoing.org therapist and coach in Bedford and online

Further reading

What coaching can offer you

Mental flexibility and resilience to change

How coaching can help you beat imposter syndrome

What to expect in a first coaching session

The secret to long-lasting change