Handling Change When Plans Derail

Handling Change When Plans Derail

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked down the phone line from across the world.

As I braced myself, he delivered the news. His company needed/wanted/voluntold him to take up a role in Singapore.

This was not our plan. Not even close. However, because my husband loves his work, and because I love my husband, we decided to pack up our home, children and lives and set up residence in Asia.

(Side note: this was not my first “relo-rodeo.” There have been numerous moves over our 25-year marriage. However given the ages of our four children (14-19), it was one of the harder ones.)

I’d love to tell you I did it all with the grace and humor of a highly-evolved human being. But alas, I’d prefer not to lie.

What I can tell you is that I learned – and relearned – valuable lessons on handling change over the last year. Of course, given my line of work, I know plenty about change already. However, there’s knowing what you should do, and then there’s actually having to do it. As with many things in life, the “knowing-doing” gap often dwarves the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, there was no irony lost on me as I fumbled through the process of walking my own talk.

If you are facing change yourself right now, I hope that the advice to follow will help you fumble less yourself. Or short of that, just give you some solace knowing that you are not alone.

1. Go easy on yourself.

As I shared in this live video message I recorded in the midst of packing up last year, change is hard, even change for the better! If it were easy, there’d be a far fewer people slogging it out in jobs they loathe, in relationships that leave them lonely and, to borrow from Thoreau, living lives of “quiet desperation.”


If you’ve suddenly found yourself in a situation you weren’t planning on, cut yourself a little slack as your new reality sinks in. When your world gets knocked off its axis, it can take a little time to regain your footing to step into a future you hadn’t reckoned on.

2. Acknowledge your “lizard brain’s” fear of the unfamiliar.

There’s a little part of our brain that’s often called the lizard brain because it’s changed very little from our cave dwelling days. It exists for one sole purpose: survival. Because of this, it’s on constant alert to potential threats to our sense of safety – psychological as much as physical. Such threats include all and any disruptions to the status quo. (International relocations with four teenage children fall into that category.) Needless to say, the red alert button in our lizard brain goes into over-drive when it senses our future plans could be turned on their head.

Fear not. Your lizard brain may be sweating it out, irrationally interpreting the situation as “life over,” but it’s really not. Sure, life as you have known it may be over, but you actually have a lot of life still ahead. It’s just going to be different. Not worse, and, very possibly, even better.

3. Take a moment to breath. Deeply. Often.  

So, if you can feel your chest tightening or stomach churning, take a minute to observe how that primitive fear response is manifesting in your body. Ah, there’s goes my stomach or chest tightening again. Take a few deep breaths and breath into the feeling. Often just a few long inhalations can do the trick to release the anxiety you’re feeling in any particular moment. And if you’re feeling it a lot, then pause a lot to get that oxygen up into your brain. It needs it!

We humans are wired for certainty and like to think we have it, even when we don’t. By sitting with the physical manifestations that anxiety that change can trigger, you dilute the power it holds over you, freeing yourself to channel your energy and attention to whatever will help set you up for succeed in the brave new world ahead.

4. Find reasons celebrate change.

Bill Marriott, chairman of Marriott Hotels, shared with me that he finds change fun because without it, “you’ll never have an opportunity to celebrate.”

While we may sometimes prefer the sameness and continuity of no-change, there’s no doubt that when we embrace change in our careers and lives – both the kind we’ve actively sought and the kind thrust upon us – it not only provides an opportunity to learn and grow, but reasons to celebrate.

August 7 will mark one year since moving to Singapore. With all four of my kids here that day –before my oldest two return to the U.S. for college – we are going to find a way to celebrate. Not because there haven’t been a few hurdles, but because we’ve risen above them, we have grown and, while many miles often separate our family, our bonds are closer as ever. On top of that, I’ve had some invaluable opportunities to experience the rich diversity of Asian cultures, support leaders in this region, visit interesting places and grow in ways I have yet to appreciate fully, much less articulate.

5. Choose faith over fear.

At the core of our struggle with change is fear that we won’t be able to handle whatever is coming; that our resources will be insufficient to cope. We fear that we won’t be able to adapt to the new environs, learn new skills, build new relationships, secure a new job. Left unchecked, fear can set up residence in our psyche, paralyzing us from taking the very actions that would help us seize the opportunities that change always holds. Which is why it’s so vital to lean into your faith – in yourself, in God, in whatever form is meaningful to you – that whatever happens, you can handle it and grow from the challenges along the way.

Operating from faith, rather than fear, profoundly shifts our experience of change. For me personally, I had very much wanted to be based back in the U.S., given my work as a speaker and the two (and soon to be three) children we’d sent back there to boarding school. Leaning on my faith meant trusting that living in Asia for a few years was not depriving me of opportunities to grow my impact in the world, it was expanding them. Did I know exactly how that would happen as I was packing up boxes and getting my home ready for sale? Nope. Do I know now? The last twelve months have provided an inkling. However leaning into my faith that the universe is always conspiring for us has helped ease my concern and fuel my curiosity. It still does.

6. Reframe your “loss” into a “win.”

While we are pre-programmed with a “loss aversion bias,” if we only focus on what we could lose from change, we miss opportunities to optimize what we can gain from it. Turning an unexpected change you didn’t ask for into a win requires changing your mindset; consciously deciding to shift your focus from what could be lost to what could be gained. When you look at your situation with the intention of finding ways to turn it into a win, you will eventually find them.

Just be patient and persistent. As Napoleon Hill once said, “Within every adversity lays the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” Some seeds just take a little longer to grow than we’d ideally like.

7. Mind your language.

Soon after learning of the move I wrote a blog post. In it I described this unplanned change as a “plot twist” in the story book of my life. Because our words create our reality, the language we use to describe change can impact our experience of it. By describing it as a “plot twist,” and “unplanned adventure” in the story of life, it helped to lighten my emotions and reframe my perspective. Just last week my 16-year-old son, Ben, described his first year of school in Singapore as “an interesting chapter” in his life so far. I wondered if he’d heard me using that same phrase and had unconsciously adopted it. Either way, there’s a lesson here for parents and leaders alike – how you approach change will impact how the people around you approach it. Emotions are contagious; be positive and upbeat and you’ll encourage those around you to feel similarly.

8. Proactively pursue change.

My intention for this article was to help people who are dealing with a change they did not choose. But I’d like to think it will help anyone who has been holding back from making a change, afraid of the unknown.

If that’s you, then look at this way: change is going to happen whether you like it or not. Instead of sitting around trying to preserve the status quo, fretting about what may lay ahead, get out ahead of the game and pursue change. If you’re not sure where to start, consider which aspects of your life right now aren’t firing on all cylinders. Your job. Your home life. Your social life. Your finances. relationships. Your health and energy. What changes could you make to get them moving in a better direction? Just as resisting change creates unnecessary suffering, trying to avoid change when it’s needed exacts an increasing tax on your health and happiness.

Change is one of life’s few constants. Embrace it. Play with it. Learn from it. Most of all, trust that every change holds a silent invitation to grow in your own humanity and to forge more meaningful connections with that of other people.

To quote Helen Keller, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Embrace change as an adventure, and you’ll emerge out the other side of it with a deeper experience of life and a expanded capacity to enjoy it.

My last bit of advice – you can handle far more than you think. Just remember… breathe in… breathe out. You’ve got this!

PS: If you need a little help making a change, please don’t miss the last chance to access my Life Compass Course for 50% off the full price. The offer is for July only but in case you are slow to get to this post, we are going to extend it to Sunday night, August 5. Just enter LC50 to access at www.SetYourLifeCompass.com