Towards emotionally intelligent change


When the infrastructure of my life went up in smoke – literally – over seven years ago, my trajectory altered abruptly. It was a sudden, unexpected and traumatic change.

I learnt that when change is that abrupt, almost the only choice left to me was how I chose to think and feel about what had just happened, as almost everything else was out of my control. As it turns out, it was a very powerful lesson and one which allowed me to embrace that particular change as a new way forward and a pathway to different opportunities and choices.

But there is something very final and emphatic about the aftermath of a devastating bushfire. There is no denial, no bargaining to be done. What was once there –  a home, belongings and a whole way of life – is gone in minutes. And while you can theoretically re-build and go back, in truth, things will never really be the same again. Your old life lies in ashes and there is little choice but to move forward into a changed future.

The impact of sudden unexpected change can be debilitating as well as liberating. I lived through and documented the emotional rollercoaster of the year that followed the bushfire in my book The Flipside of Misfortune. So I don’t for one moment play down the difficulty of handling such an enormous upheaval. However, sitting here at my desk on a late winters day, I’m wondering if it’s easier to deal with a change which is thrust upon you unexpectedly or to initiate difficult changes yourself?

Acknowledging what needs to change in our lives is the first step on the journey of transformation. When we begin to feel deeply uncomfortable about some aspect of our lives, it’s usually a sign that something about the way we are being or living has reached its use by date.

But getting unstuck from a situation means making an end to something so that there is space for new ideas, thoughts, beliefs, directions, situations and relationships to come in. And making an end to something inevitably means change which is where it can get hard for those of us who find the accompanying feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability to be almost overwhelming.

I’m in the middle of a deliberate change right now. A couple of months ago I finished up my safe and comfortable job with a client I had been working with for almost 4 years. I did this so that I could concentrate fully on my own business – something which had been receiving only a small part of my attention for far too long. Since I was working on contract, there was no payout, no holiday leave to cash in, nothing due from either side to conclude the arrangement. I walked away and left good colleagues and friends, a safe and friendly environment and the security of regular paid work. It was a mutually grateful parting with good wishes on either side and although it was only two months ago, it already seems like a lifetime in the past.

There a very old, calm part of me that just knows I have to do this – whatever the outcome – because it’s a part of who I am and why I’m here. But that deep knowing is regularly ambushed by feelings of fear and vulnerability and occasionally by quite agonising self-doubt which was not so much a part of my initial journey after the bushfire.

So I’m discovering that the first act of any deliberate change – getting unstuck and making an end to what was – is a process, not an event. Making a conscious end to something doesn’t means that things are automatically changed – while you might be able to make a physical break with a situation, it doesn’t always follow that you’ve let it go. I find myself searching for symbolic ways to tell both myself and the universe that Things Are Different Now. That I don’t intend to put things back the way they were and so I’m going to be fully invested in this new pathway. And yet my old patterns of thinking intrude and try to take over in precisely those moments which would best lend themselves to a new way of being.

As I search for balance in this uncertain transition, my mind urges me to pack my day with activity, to lose myself in doing so that I can insulate myself against the discomfort. Intuitively I know that the turbulent swirl of uncertainty in my head is mostly noise and that my priority is to stay balanced and let things unfold. But my ego feels threatened and crowds my thoughts with all the old doubts that still seem to exert a surprising amount of power. What if you try, it asks, and it still doesn’t work out? What if you fail? What then?

Actually it’s (un)helpfully pointing out the main difference this time around – the fact that I’m driving this deliberate act of change. I’m choosing this change of direction. I’m the one making an end to one pathway and actively choosing to live parts of my as yet unlived life. I’m ending something when I don’t technically have to, and which for many years has represented safety, security and familiarity in my life. I’m doing this to follow my inspiration and to open myself up to the potential of a new choice. This time there’s no bushfire driving me out – it’s my judgement, my self-belief and my ability to deliver on my dreams that is on the line.

And herein lies the rub. While it took courage and resilience to manage the aftermath of a bushfire, there were few real expectations of me around that change. There was no recipe to follow, no real tried and trusted way, no test at the end. People were happy just to see me recovering and getting back on my feet. And so I just felt my way forward, applying common sense and at times, downright stubbornness to get me through. I had help and support, I made mistakes but no one was really keeping score.

But this new deliberate change is less about my physical survival and much more about the survival of my sense of who I am. And if I’m putting Who I Am on the line – if I’m risking my hopes and dreams – no wonder I’m feeling anxious and no wonder I’ve stayed safe and stuck for so long.

I look out of the window and the sun is still high in the sky, unperturbed and shining. A small breeze moves the branches of nearby gums and I wonder how to deal with the emotional reality of this choice I’ve made. How do I calm my worried ego? How do I reassure the vital, inner me that wants to emerge and shine in the warmth of this sun and share her positivity with others? How do I trust that this will all work out when I have no idea if it will or what it will look like? How do I sift through the fears and vulnerabilities and frustrations to determine how to think and feel about the future so that I can start to create one?

I have a renewed sense of awe and respect for all those innovators, creators and entrepreneurs who have gone before me. All those who have put themselves on the line to try something new, say something to others or create something from their sense of self. All of that required spadesful of risk, courage and belief. It also required trust – in oneself and in a universe that might just be persuaded to cooperate on this grand new adventure. I wonder how many of them found this process of making an end to their old lives, easy? How many of them stopped their old day jobs or changed the direction of their lives and instantly felt comfortable and at peace with all that followed? Not many I’m guessing.

The physical change may in fact be the easiest part of this whole process but making the associated mental and emotional changes is more fluid and much harder to navigate. I have to find ways to make peace with my worries so that I create enough space and time to allow the bones of my change to properly form. By finding ways to acknowledge those doubts and fears, I can stay true to myself – stay congruent – and allow them to become a part of the process, rather than something I suppress and which trips me up later.

Much of the challenge of deliberate change would seem to lie in how we manage ourselves – and specifically our emotions – as part of the process. It’s much less about what we are doing and far more about who we are being from moment to moment. For example, I could choose to suppress my feelings of fear and vulnerability and pack my day with tasks and activities but if I carry on this way, the chances are that my unacknowledged feelings will simply escalate until emotions ambush me again, eroding my confidence and sense of stability by stealth. Ignoring how I feel won’t ultimately help me – it will just make it more likely that I will eventually listen to the voices of self-doubt and give up on this change. And I suspect that this is what happens to many of us as we try to make long overdue changes in our lives. We begin with optimism and positivity which slowly drains away from us as we increasingly listen to our doubts and fears. Eventually, tired, sad and frustrated we often return to the familiarity of our old ways just to get some peace and to feel less vulnerable.

But there is another way – I could choose the pathway of emotionally intelligent change. I could choose to acknowledge and examine those emotions a bit more clearly, understanding and acting on them as information rather than allowing them to unnerve me to the point that they send me scurrying back to the familiarity of what was, before I have really given my dreams a chance.

Picking up a pen and grabbing a pad, I start to work through the foremost of my worries:

As far as I can see, I’m not being chased by a tiger or about to be run over by a bus. So while I may feel anxious about the future, I’m not in any immediate danger. I’m not frightened for my safety so I don’t need to run away.

So if I’m not out scared for my safety, then I’m probably just feeling very vulnerable and that’s normal given the circumstances. I can forgive myself for feeling vulnerable and I can also use this emotion to help me consider that this change might feel difficult right now but also has the potential to open up new possibilities, opportunities and pleasures. Perhaps it’s even something of a signpost? An indication of a challenge I need to take for my own growth and benefit? Perhaps I just need to sit in with this uncomfortable feeling because it just might have something to show me over time. Plus, as I know from my experience with the bushfire, I can always ask for help.

If I gave up now and ran back to my day job, how would I feel? How would I feel if I looked at this great golden opportunity and let my self-doubt and fear of failure chase me off? Defeated I think. Plus, I would probably never forgive myself for not grabbing this moment and giving it a go.

And what is failure anyway? Who gets to judge it? If I’m setting my own goals, then the only person who determines success or failure is me. I will probably make mistakes and you know what, I’ll going to use them as just more information rather than as a way to beat myself up.

And finally (for now), as I’m on a roll, what might happen if I managed to drop all my resistance to this change? If I asked all my concerns and doubts and worries to wait peacefully to one side so that I can really get on with this new path? I can always go consult them if I need to but it’s not like I really need their advice regularly as I know most of it off by heart already. Can we all shake hands and agree to take a break from each other for the time being? I’m eager to breathe the clear air and the feel the flow of energy that comes from shaking off the past.

Feeling deeply, uncomfortably vulnerable can be a big part of any transformation. It can derail both personal and professional changes so easily and yet it’s such a useful emotion which is packed with information – it tells us to pay attention to what’s on the horizon, to consider just how life could evolve to benefit us, if we could just allow it to unfold without panicking. Developing a tolerance for vulnerability allows us to bring more of ourselves forward and by admitting that we can be frail at times, we enable others to connect with and form trusting relationships more easily.

Becoming emotionally adept at deliberate change could just make the difference between getting properly unstuck or dwelling in the murky twilight zone of never properly letting go of the past. Besides, suppressing our thoughts and emotions around change just doesn’t seem smart since it increases our stress levels and reduces our ability to think clearly and creatively.

While many us of are now aware of the concept and importance of emotional intelligence, actively accessing and learning to work with emotions on a daily basis is not taught routinely either at school or work. In fact, the opposite is often true as we are encouraged not to ‘become emotional’ or not to ‘take something too personally’. We are encouraged to intellectually understand emotions as something that ‘happens’ to us and others when we go through change, but there’s very limited practical advice about how to work with them as a normal and useful part of the transition. Sometimes it seems as if we can talk about emotions neutrally but allowing ourselves to actually feel them, understand their message and act on that information can be infinitely more challenging

Getting properly unstuck and making long overdue changes is going to be emotional at times. And it’s time that we did more than just acknowledge it or try to suppress it – it’s time that we welcomed it in and worked with its many useful and practical messages as signposts on the pathway to our changed lives.

Much later, walking down the laneway towards my stables in the late afternoon, my gaze is drawn as always to my horses grazing lazily in the sunshine. They are peaceful and sleepy, waiting for their dinner and for the quiet of the evening. Horses are inherently emotional creatures, able to read body language, emotion and intent quite accurately at a distance. In fact, their ability to read and act on emotions and intent has kept them safe as a species from predators for thousands of years. These emotionally intelligent masters are able to feel, understand and act on emotions quickly and simply before returning to grazing once danger has passed. They have acquired an ability to access and act on emotion that many humans struggle with daily and I am blessed to have these partners in change to help me on my journey forward.

As I approach, Walker lifts his head and stares at me curiously. He is the leader of this herd and was with me on the day that deadly bushfires turned both our lives upside down. Somehow he survived and has thrived through all the changes since. And as he looks at me now, I realise how far we have both come since that day in February 2009. The old part of me sighs inwardly and I finally begin to look forward to this new – and this time deliberate – change.


For more information on using emotions as information, please see Linda Kohanov’s emotional message chart, from her book The Power of the Herd (New World Library, 2013). It can be downloaded from