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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Psychology of Change


"None of us knows what the next change is going to be, what unexpected opportunity is just around the corner, waiting to change all the tenor of our lives." --Kathleen Norris

Life is unpredictable. Change is always just around the corner, and, in truth, change is often responsible for our personal growth. For some people, change is a desirable aspect of life. It is sought after and embraced. For others, change is not welcome. It is uncomfortable and should be avoided at all costs. For most of us, change is a little of both of these. It may be sad because we need to leave behind something we enjoy or love. It may be fearful, because we need to face the unknown, and it is also exciting because it opens up new possibilities, adventures and relationships.

Stage one: Recognition and Reaction
Recognizing that change will be occurring and noticing our reaction to it initiates the transition process. Some people recognize the need for change earlier than others. We may see the signs and notice the handwriting on the wall well ahead of others. Others of us may not recognize or react until the change is imminent. In either case, when change is apparent or sometimes obvious, we all form a reaction to the pending change. Then, we have three options. We can embrace the change, accept it somewhat passively, or reject it. The first two reactions will lead to the planning stage. However, if we reject or disagree with the change, we can become temporarily stalled. We might question the need for the change, become angry about it, feel highly stressed by the thought of it, or in some cases, experience feelings of depression. Changes like losing a job or getting a divorce can be so intimidating that short term counseling may be needed to help with acceptance of change and to facilitate the planning process.

Stage two: Planning
Before we can continue the journey to the next adventure or change we will need to formulate a goal and an action plan. If the change is about entering a new relationship, we often discuss with our partner the goals we have for the relationships, describe our expectations, or try to be clear in our own minds what it is we are looking for. If we are looking for a new relationship we may generate alternatives about how to meet new people. When anticipating a major move, we need to think about where we will live, what we need to take with us, and what needs to be done before we can leave.

The planning stage can help to minimize and diminish fears and concerns about the unknown by identifying the concrete steps that will help us with the transition. Setting short term goals and envisioning the perfect scenario that could occur as a result of the change may help us to feel better about it.

Stage Three: Leaving the old and the familiar
This is often the most difficult part of the transition process. It can be both stressful and sad to leave the familiar environments and routines or to let go of cherished keepsakes, pets, or a way of life especially when the experiences have been positive. For many, the most difficult is to say goodbye to the people whom we have come to know, love, respect, and depend on. There are things we can do to reduce the effect of the separation. We may need to be sure that we have time to visit with each of those special people and to set up ways to keep in touch. Setting a date for a reunion or a phone call in the near future may reduce feelings of finality. Creating photograph collages with special memories that may be given as parting gifts can help to keep memories in the forefront to reduce anxiety. Remembering that we are all only a phone call or e-mail away may even help to reduce the initial stress of leaving others behind.

Stage Four: Initial excitement
Whenever we start a new journey there are moments of anticipation or exhilaration. We may even experience an adrenalin rush, where we can feel the physical effects of the body's anticipation of the change. Whether we've moved to a new place, or we just start a new relationship, or we start a new job, the initial entry, while stressful, can also be positively exciting. This stage is helpful in putting the past behind and embracing the excitement and newness of what is to come. Taking it all in, meeting new people, and looking at possibilities may seem exciting and sometimes even almost overwhelming. Sometimes this new period has been called the "honeymoon" period where the newness the change gives us a false sense of reality. True or false this period of initial excitement is an important bridge from the past to the future. This security and eager anticipation helps to energize us to cross over into our new situation.

Stage Five: The Shock of Reality
However wonderful the initial excitement, when the dust settles and reality sets in we can often feel a let down. We realize that we are in a new and different place. We are not sure of the culture, the expectations, or how we will fit in. During this stage we begin to fill in the blanks. We familiarize ourselves with the routines, the environment and the people who potentially will enrich our lives if we allow it. As Spenser Johnson (1998) says in his book about dealing with change, "Who Moved My Cheese"? during the search for new endings (or cheese) we must free ourselves of the fear, envision the goal, and leave the past behind. We may need to find mentors or guides who can provide information and advice about the culture or context. We will need to explore untraveled paths and leave ourselves open to new experiences, although some days may be difficult especially at the onset or in the beginning of the change. Taking a one day at a time philosophy, we should allow ourselves to set a specific goal for the day, focus on one positive event that occurred that day, and let go of the past. "Movement in a new direction helps you find new cheese." During this time we try to make the strange familiar by seeking out others who have our similar interests, goals, or talents. We should seek out opportunities that pique our interests. But it is most important that we DO NOT EVALUATE THE NEW SITUATION FOR AT LEAST SIX MONTHS until the final stage sets in.

Stage Six: Settling In
When we reach this stage we are now living the change as a normal part of life. We feel as though we have become an accepted and valued member of the community or relationship. We can now focus on how we can contribute to the environment and to make a difference in self-actualization and elevate ourselves on Maslow's hierarchy of needs scale. We may even realize that what we may have been holding onto about a former life was an exaggerated illusion and not the reality of that life at all. Finally we realize that while in this situation we should take advantage of what this new change offers as the next change is just around the corner, and it all begins again!

Seven Stages of Change
1. Recognition & Reaction 
2. Planning
3. Leaving the old
4. Initial excitement
5. The shock of reality
6. Settling in
7. Recognition & Reaction

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