When I was 26, I broke up with a long-term partner, got an ill-advised facial piercing and changed careers – all in the space of a month. What I learned during those four weeks is that life is like a cake: you can’t unbake it if you don’t like the flavour; sometimes, you need to chuck the entire thing in the bin and start again from scratch. It is harder that way, but who wants to spend the rest of their life eating cupcakes when really they wanted lamingtons? Change is hard. Change is scary. Change is a tedious administrative nightmare. Unfortunately, change is also critical to our continued happiness as humans. Even if we can’t bring ourselves to embrace change, we should try not to avoid it at all costs.
But what about life-changing changes? How do you make the leap into unknown waters – whether it is swapping jobs, moving to the other side of the world or even leaving your marriage? We spoke to experts and people who have made major life changes to get the lowdown.
Listen to your gut
Claudia, a 30-year-old teacher from London, was wedding-dress shopping with her mother in April 2018 when she broke down. “My mum looked at me in the shop and said: ‘You seem so unhappy.’” Claudia confessed she had been having doubts. “I had been having panic attacks, and at that moment I decided it was best not to go ahead with it,” she remembers. She went home that evening and told her fiance the wedding was off.
What Claudia hadn’t expected was for so many people to tell her she was making a mistake. “Everyone around me thought I was mad,” she says. But Claudia stands by her decision. “I just had that feeling in my gut. It’s been really hard, and there have definitely been points this year where I’ve thought: what have I done? But, overall, it’s better for me to be out of it. I feel so much more free.”
Think things through ...
If you are unhappy with your life and are thinking about making a major change, hammer out exactly what you hope to achieve by ripping things up and starting afresh. “Ask yourself: am I running away from something or walking towards something?” says Dr Carole Pemberton, a career coach and personal-resilience expert. “Be clear about why you’re doing this and why it matters to you. That has to be your anchor. When things are challenging and you’re experiencing doubt, you need your anchor to hold on to, to remind you why you’re doing this.”
... but don’t overthink
“Sometimes, communication is good,” says Colin, a 37-year-old marketer from London. He separated from his wife last summer, after 10 years of marriage. “But sometimes talking doesn’t sort stuff out. You just talk about the same things over and over again.”
When it comes to a big life change, at some point you will have to move from thinking into action – and dragging your feet on necessary change can create pointless pain. Colin advises anyone in a loveless marriage to end the relationship, rather than hoping things will improve on their own. “Counselling can’t make you love someone again ... Life is too short, and there’s potentially someone else out there who’s a better fit for you. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and feelings to stay.”
Make the leap
“Just before the decision was the hardest bit,” says 30-year-old Catherine Offord. She quit her PhD to go to work as a teacher in Micronesia in 2016. “Afterwards, it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t regret it once.”
One thing that had been holding Offord back was a feeling of failure for not completing her PhD, even though she wasn’t enjoying the course. But, over time, she realised that her happiness was more important than seeing something through for the sake of it. “Sometimes, you have to cut your losses.”
It helped to break down the decision into manageable steps. “It felt really overwhelming to make a decision that would potentially affect the rest of my life. It paralysed me. But when I decided that I was only going to make a decision for the next year, that was really helpful.”
Conquer your fears
The first time 38-year-old Victoria Bryan got into a cockpit, she freaked out. Formerly a journalist from the UK, she is training in New Zealand to be a pilot. “I was absolutely petrified. I thought: Oh my god, what have I done?” Obviously, moving to the other side of the world to retrain as a pilot is a dramatic change – and surely anyone would panic the first time they were asked to fly a plane. But more prosaic changes can be similarly terrifying.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out to family and friends. “Talking to people is one of the best things you can do,” says Bryan. “Don’t bottle everything up. When you’re overwhelmed, it’s tempting to hide yourself away and have a good cry. But it’s better in the long run to get out there and socialise with people.”
Build up your support system
After Claudia broke off her engagement, many of the friends she had shared with her fiance turned frosty. “Find the people who will stick by you,” she says. “My mum said: ‘I don’t agree with what you’re doing, but I respect you and will support you through it.’”
“You need to have supporters,” says Pemberton. “People who will give you emotional support, but can also give you a shake and a loving boost if you’re having wobbles.”
You may lose friends in the process of your change, particularly if it involves a relationship that is coming to an end, but that is par for the course. Try not to let it bother you too much. “If there’s someone who’s completely unsupportive of your decision, you have to question whether that person has your best interests at heart,” Claudia says.
That strange feeling will pass
When Colin moved out of the family home he had shared with his wife, the sensation of living on his own again after a decade of married life felt deeply odd. “The moment I opened the front door and found myself in a new house was a shock,” he remembers. The strangeness is still there now, but he is used to it.
One way to get over the weirdness is to focus on your new life. “Throw yourself into whatever you’re doing that’s new,” says Bryan. If you have moved somewhere completely new, try to befriend as many people as possible. “You have to give your new life your all. You can’t just be longing for your old life and not committed to your new environment.”
Accept the doubt
“Self-doubt is a necessary component of any major life change,” says Gurpreet Singh, a therapist at the counselling charity Relate. “Use your strength to overcome those feelings.” Some life changes may well feel like failures: divorce, having to downsize, or retraining after a business folded, for example. Try to keep things in perspective. “A lot of good can come out of making mistakes,” says Singh. “We fall 100 times before we learn to walk.”
A good way to conquer doubt is to work on your emotional resilience. “A big thing that undermines emotional resilience is overthinking,” says Pemberton. “If something goes wrong, or you have a vision of how you want your life to be and it hasn’t worked out, try not to go over the things that have unsettled you. Catch your inner voice when it is saying: this is a disaster, I’ve ruined my life and I’ll never have another relationship. A more useful thought to have is: this feeling will pass.”
It is easy to be nostalgic for your old life. When Colin visits his daughter at his ex-wife’s house, he sometimes misses the easy intimacy of family life: “Just sitting on the sofa, the three of you, watching TV.” In those moments, he reminds himself that he misses the feeling of being in a family, not his marriage. “Sometimes, I think: I could just stay here. But then I remember that I don’t miss my ex-wife.”
Pemberton says that, after change, we often hark back to a faulty narrative about how things were better before. “Remind yourself of all the reasons it wasn’t a better life,” she says. “And remember that you can only lead the life you want if you are willing to take a risk.”
Focus on your future happiness
Big changes are not without pain. When the going gets tough, focus on your long-term happiness. Claudia knew that calling off her wedding was the right thing to do, because she didn’t want to find herself a decade down the line in an unhappy marriage. “I didn’t want to wake up one day and look at someone I care about and realise that we spent years making each other miserable,” she explains. “Life is too short, and it’s important to be happy.”
“It’s been really good for me,” says Bryan of her life change. “It’s done me the power of good to do something totally different with my life.” Mostly, she has learned that, if you are unhappy with your life, you have to take a leap of faith. “You can’t just sit there and think things will improve. You’re the only one who can make positive changes in your life. You have to go out and do it.”
Above all, be optimistic. You are much stronger than you think. “As humans, we are innately resilient,” says Pemberton. “A big change is bound to stretch our resilience at times. But, most of the time, we can cope with the demands upon us and recover quickly.” Embrace change. You’ve got this.
Some names have been changed