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Simone's OncOpinion: Change: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Simone, Joseph V. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000391439.80992.42

My wife and I have just moved (again); I hope it is the last before my trip to the nursing home.

Moving is a pain, as most of you know all too well. It is a more dramatic and stressful change than the day-to-day changes which most of us hardly notice. You know all the clichés: change is inevitable; change is good; change for the sake of change is a bad idea. But this latest moving experience, more stressful than most of ours because of the bad housing market, has given me time to think about the wide spectrum of change experiences and their complexities.

In April I wrote about change in organizations. In this column, with a nod to Clint Eastwood and the famous “spaghetti western,” I focus on personal change, how it affects us and how we cope...or not.



In many ways, relocation of a household has many features in common with changes in careers, personal relationships, economic status, health, and other human experiences. Oftentimes, two or more distinct changes occur simultaneously, such as, moving to a new job in a different city. The process has some features, though not nearly as severe or lasting, of the death of a loved one or a divorce. I address mainly changes of job, profession, household, and relationships.

  • Relief (Phase1) is often the first emotion. A period of indecision can be protracted while one gathers information for considering a new job, a household move, and new responsibilities. These major decisions have a broad effect on others, such as family members, colleagues, and even institutions, which must be considered.
  • Once a decision has been made there is a period of relief that the stress of deciding is over; a decision for change has been made. This period of relief is brief, however, because a new emotion takes its place.
  • Anxiety (Phase 1) replaces relief for many reasons. There are always questions about the wisdom of the choice that tend to recur for an extended period of time (“I had a nice job, why did I bring this on myself?”).
  • The full impact of the move on family, friends, and colleagues now becomes more apparent and seemingly irreversible. And as the anxiety declines or stabilizes regarding one issue, a new overlapping anxiety pops up. For example, the anxiety about whether the new job was a wise choice is soon overcome by the search for a new place to live and selling the current home. The latter has become a suffocating anxiety in the current housing market. Many of my colleagues have had to move before selling their home, leaving them with two mortgages and worry without end. This sometimes moves to an even more difficult emotional stage:
  • “Fear and trembling” (with a nod to St. Paul and the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard) is often the next stage. The cumulative stress grows as the house fails to sell; the homes to purchase are too expensive for one's budget unless the current house sells; your teenage kids are angry and talk about wanting to stay put to finish high school; the new boss and new colleagues are on the phone to you about matters to decide or problems to consider before you are even there; you find your devoted and supportive spouse crying or mumbling about “nothing.” You start wondering if you will screw up your family or get into a tough financial hole or hate the new job. Sleepless nights are common. Then the moving day is set.
  • Anxiety (Phase 2) is a complex mixture of confusion, stress, and deadlines. My change of address notifications went to 40 distinct entities not counting family, friends, and colleagues: bank, social security, utilities, professional societies, phone, and credit card companies, etc. The moving process itself, packing, trying to anticipate how things will fit in the new house, disruption of daily routines, and for surprisingly long periods being frozen with nothing to do because of timing or the inaccessibility of tools for doing something.
  • Relief (Phase 2) comes after the family is moved into the new home. Boxes are everywhere, but at least you are there and together and will have time to get settled. Everything is new, so finding places to shop, schools, and Starbucks is a recurring, sometimes frustrating and sometimes rewarding exercise.
  • The children are texting old friends 24/7 but they are also slowly making new friends. The job is more challenging than you thought, but the new environment and colleagues invigorate you. But this period also ends when the practical aspects of the change take charge of your time and energy.
  • Acceptance, adaptation, and hard work become the dominant factors in your day. We are here and have a thousand things to put away and to organize and we must establish new routines. And we must adapt. The latter can be very difficult in both the job and household. The job exists in an established culture that you are unlikely to change, so you must find a way to adapt while maintaining your productivity. The household must be rearranged to fit the new physical and neighborhood dimensions that are always different from the old ones.
  • Settling in is the usual last phase. The family adapts and makes new friends. The job is interesting and the challenges become opportunities. In short, a new home is created in a new environment.

Occasionally, things do not work out. There are two major reasons why this happens: mama isn't happy, and if mama isn't happy, no one is happy. This can be caused by fear and loneliness (leaving parents or siblings, husband is working 14 hours a day) or a general unease with the environment. The other main reason is that the job didn't work out: promised resources were not delivered or the guy who hired you left soon after and your new chief is the south end of a horse.

On the whole, however, when change is made for the right reasons, e.g. professional and family opportunity, things eventually work out, though it takes 18 months or more for that to be realized.

In my personal experience, every career and household move has led to more positive than negative experiences, even my one “unsuccessful” move; the latter taught me much more per unit time about organizations and people than the “successful” moves.

Thus, with qualifications, the clichés are correct: change is good, when made with the right motives and expectations; change is inevitable, even if one does not leave one's home or institution—it is just less noticeable and can sneak up on you; change for the sake of change is a bad idea, and this is the ugliest form of change because it more often than not leads to unhappiness.

© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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