By Doris Dahdouh, MSW, INHC
November 15, 2023
It’s been a long day, and you’re feeling drained. You drop your bag and jacket by the door as you enter your home, barely making it to the couch with your phone and keys. You have had long days before. But today feels different. You were not yourself, almost disconnected during an impromptu staff meeting. “Why am I feeling this way?” you ask yourself. So, you start to play all the conversations from the day as you go about your evening routine. It’s all coming back to you. Things are changing. You were not expecting it, and if you are honest, nor do you welcome it.
How many of us have been there? A significant layoff has occurred, causing roles to shift, implementation of new software, new management replacing a boss you have grown accustomed to, a recent merger, a new product, etc. Something new is on the horizon. All arrows point to change. But why does this matter? It is normal. Right?
It matters because change constitutes grief. And grief is connected to loss. In cases of change in the work environment, you are experiencing unconventional grief. Situations transform within the workplace; no matter what that may look like, you are no longer experiencing what you have become acclimated. “The absence of something has drawn your attention,” the author, Mary-Frances O’Connor, Ph.D., states in her book, The Grieving Brain. But does a changing work environment give leeway to go through the five stages of grief, known as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance? It depends.
A shift happens in your life when something changes, especially in the workplace. You begin to feel uncomfortable, and you even start to experience feelings of fear, and a heightened sense of stress begins to bubble underneath the surface. According to the publication, “Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress,” Bruce S. McEwen states that “Stress can cause an imbalance of neural circuitry subserving cognition, decision making, anxiety and mood that can increase or decrease expression of those behaviors and behavioral states.” This action moves the brain into immediate soothing by counterfactual thinking.
Counterfactual thinking, as reported by Dr. O’Connor, is the tendency to think about what could have happened. It involves thinking about the “what ifs” or what could have happened. But does one go through the “what-ifs?” when a considerable layoff or a new merger occurs at a company? The simple answer is yes. Some will start to question the department, decisions made at the managerial level, and discussions with colleagues, even loved ones, on how things could be different had scenarios A, B, or C taken place.
But is counterfactual thinking helpful? Sometimes, it is necessary to go through the motions. But Dr. O’Connor believes that “this type of thinking, creating the myriad situations that could have happened, is both illogical and unhelpful in adapting to what has actually happened.” So why does our brain do this if it is not ultimately helpful? Dr. O’Connor would say that “our brain may still be doing it for a reason, however.” People often comfort themselves by feeling a sense of control or a perceived purpose of control over a current or previous state.
Individuals also use counterfactual thinking as a distraction from the discomfort that the change brings. “Our brain, by focusing constantly on the limitless number of alternatives to reality, is numbed or distracted from the actual, painful reality…” as stated by Dr. O’Connor. The brain seems to actualize that things will never be the same again and is trying to avoid distress by distraction and/or recreating the narrative.
So, what does one do when the brain cannot rewrite history? It is time for the individual to decide. Change in the workforce is inevitable, and grief is an outcome. And since change causes feelings of disconnection and discomfort and can lead to discouragement, here are three tips to help you.
Find a person or format to “let it out”. Talk about it to someone you trust, whether a friend, coach, counselor, or mentor. Freely write about it. Try “morning pages,” as Julia Cameron recommends in her book, The Artist’s Way. Tailor your morning pages to concentrate on the changes and everything that surrounds that change. Give as much consideration as you need in those pages. However, set a time limit for expression to avoid getting stuck in this stage. Leave everything on those pages or within the constraints of the conversations. Then face your day the best way you know how.
Recognize your feelings and what is happening inside and around you. You are a human, first and foremost, with all its complications. Your work role, educational background, status, or how you wish to see yourself do not surpass your humanity. Reminisce about what you had, what you were used to, and enjoyed. It is ok to look back. And sometimes, it is very needed. But do not stay there!
Take a step back and see things for how they are now. What is reality? Try not to get stuck in the past. Find freedom, and let it go. Nothing lasts forever. Remember that change is inevitable and necessary for things to move forward, grow, and move into the next phase of life. If you are finding yourself unable to move on or experiencing uncontrollable feelings of anger and/or depression, please reach out for professional help from a career coach or mental health professional.
Doris Dahdouh is passionate about helping people connect to their personal and professional goals. Doris has over 20 years of work experience in various industries such as sales, social work, and health coaching, and a master’s degree in social work and a certificate in health coaching. As a business development manager at International Institute for Learning (IIL), Doris leverages her skills and expertise in sales, counseling, and coaching to build long-term relationships with new and existing clients, and to assess their ongoing learning and consulting needs. Doris is motivated by being an integral part in serving and supporting others to reach their “next”, whatever that may look like to them.
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Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.