This article is taken from the December 2012 edition BCT’s Small Talk magazine.
Waterloo based member Ulrike Légé has experienced several moves around the world with her husband and three children. Originally from Germany, she has spent time in the US and Switzerland before arriving in Belgium in 2011. Here she shares her strategies for coping with the emotional changes that a move, a new baby or a new job can bring to our lives
As my husband Romain and I welcomed three babies into our family, moved four times and saw Romain once again change positions, my family’s life had a history of being a whirlwind of change. I was overjoyed at each birth, curious about moves, and grateful for Romain’s career – but at times, I also felt confused and overwhelmed by all those transitions … And I wonder if I am learning how to cope better with change?
Animals like lobsters or crabs, which have hard shells around their body, cannot simply grow. They have to shed their old rigid shell in order to accommodate their growing limbs. For a while, they find themselves unprotected and have difficulties moving until their new, larger shell has grown back.
I had learned about this process called ‘moulting’ in my marine biology studies, but never thought it was applicable to my own life. Strangely, though, I found myself feeling just as unprotected and impaired as a growing crustacean each time we went through a major life change. Small setbacks could suddenly reduce me to tears and everyday tasks sometimes turned into impossible challenges. However, with each transition, I have learned a little more about myself and found ways to cope better:
1. Reflect on what is ahead and be kind to myself
As soon as I know a major change is about to happen, I start planning and making endless to-do-lists. However, by doing so, I often forget that the biggest challenge I will face is not ticking off the to-dos. It will be my feelings of doubt, confusion or sadness, of being lost, overwhelmed, or frustrated – even for transitions that I actually look forward to! I now expect these feelings to surface, to think of myself ‘moulting’, and to be prepared to treat myself with kindness and compassion. I have learned to keep in mind that these are not good times to try to outperform myself or to take on more responsibilities. At least for a while, I try to respond, “let me think about it and get back to you” to demands on my time so that I can cut myself some slack and have enough emotional energy left to cope with change.
2. Identify what helps me to keep my balance
I love keeping personal diaries and often note down activities that give me a sense of happiness and inner peace. Whether it is having a hot bath, treating myself to a special cup of tea, taking the family out for a walk or doing some gardening – these things are small, affordable steps that I can easily implement in my everyday life. Once the storm of a major life change hits me, it helps me to go back to these lists and make sure that I actually carve out time and do what is good for me. With our children, we have noted ‘happy activities’ on small cards, put them in a family box and now pull them out randomly when we all need to lift our spirits. Research has shown that human beings can withstand extraordinary amounts of stress – but in order to keep going, we need to create space for moments of relaxation and fun.
3. Create time together and rituals for our family
Romain and I are often surprised by how quickly our children pick up on the stress that we go through, like little seismographs. We find that we all stay more grounded and attuned to each other in times of change if we make time for our family to simply be together. Sometimes we have to clear our busy agendas and say “no” to some wonderful opportunities so that we can have a relaxed Saturday morning brunch in our PJs – but this is time well spent for us! We also have our little family rituals that we all look forward to, like asking each child for their ‘high’ and ‘low’ of the day at bedtime, baking cookies together every Friday afternoon, or putting up seasonal decorations. This makes us feel that even amidst the chaos, we have continuity and can take the good things with us.
4. Build and nourish my support network
For millions of years, human beings could only survive in groups – and even today, scientists argue that isolation is one of the biggest stress factors for us. I found that having a new baby or moving to a new house often cut me off from a part of my old support network and made it harder to build new ones. Holding a newborn, I was sometimes too tired to get up and dress – newly arrived in town, I felt too insecure or frazzled to be much of an attractive new friend. However, I am learning to push myself and to seize every opportunity to reach out to others. A lot of weight drops from my shoulders once I no longer feel I have to do it all on my own – and many new friends seemed to like, rather than reject, that ‘moulting’ me when I am open about the challenges I face.
4. Beware of my weaknesses
When change overwhelms me, I sometimes fall for less than ideal ways of coping such as retail therapy or spending too much time on Facebook. My husband Romain might bury himself in work or get all absorbed in solving some computer problem – but thankfully, by now we are both aware of our little ‘vices’. We have learned to ask ourselves how happy and healthy some coping mechanisms make us feel over the long run, not just the immediate moment. After many years of marriage, we try to gently remind each other when we are getting off track. It was painful, but a real eye-opener when Romain once asked me if I did not spend too much time emailing old friends that I could spent building real friendships here and now – and his remark helped me to refocus!
5. Know when and how to seek help
Some years ago, I felt entirely burned out by sleep deprivation and the constant demands from my young children as well as deeply saddened about yet another move that had uprooted our family. I was far away from friends and family and felt there was nobody to whom I could pour out my heart. Even though I clearly was miserable, I had to overcome quite an internal barrier before I had the courage to go and see a counselor. I personally realized that when just getting through my everyday life seemed an enormous challenge, when I had lost my balance and bearings, I hugely benefitted from talking to a professional. I felt that I was actively doing something to bring happiness and inner peace back into my life, rather than just suffering, and that sparked enormous energy and optimism.
Like the ‘moulting’ crustaceans, I have felt very vulnerable when trying to cope with change – and I know there will be more upheavals ahead in the future. After all, this is life! However, I realize that these are indeed the times when I grow the most, when I discover unknown inner strengths, new abilities and fresh friendships. After a birth or a move, it has often taken me a year before I fully felt that I had arrived in my new life. Eventually, though each transition has been a long and slow journey, my sense of stability, my happiness and energy to tackle the life’s challenges have always come back, just as reliably as that lobster shell grows again.
My favourite books about change:
- HH Dalai Lama The Art of Happiness, Hodder Paperbacks (1999)
- Daniel N. Stern The Birth of a Mother, Basic Books (1998)
- Robin Pascoe A Moveable Marriage, Expatriate Press (2003)
Where to seek help in Brussels:
- Community Help Service asbl
- Boulevard de la Cambre 33-39, B-1000 Brussels, Tel: 02-647 67 80 (10:00 – 16:00), Fax: 02-646 72 73, www.chsbelgium.org
by Ulrike Légé