Maybe it begins as a wordless sensation, like a gnawing in your belly. It could be a recurring thought in your mind. Or is it a feeling: unease, fear, dissatisfaction, boredom, irritation, anger. It may feel like a wanting, a yearning, for more from life.

At first, you ignore it. You turn away when it presents itself, distract yourself from it, or numb it.

It’s whatever. Not going there today. I don’t have time for this. (Pours glass of wine and scrolls Instagram.)

It may disappear for the moment, but after a while you recognize that the feeling returns and ignoring it is just a Band-Aid. You find yourself looking for explanations (or maybe excuses?) for what you are feeling.

I’m just stressed.
It’s this never-ending *#$% pandemic.
Things will slow down at work soon.
He/she/they will get it together eventually.
I just need to be more grateful for what I have.

This works…for a while. But sooner or later, you find yourself facing the thoughts and feelings because they simply are not effectively held at bay by your efforts. No longer to be ignored or shushed by your explanations, they insist that maybe, just maybe, something has to give.

Change is scary. However, as my wise father says, change is the one constant we can count on in life.

Admitting we need to shift course takes courage, the willingness to consider and act from our own agency, and often feels overwhelming. Leaving what we know, even if it is no longer working for us, means departing from the safe harbor of the familiar for parts unknown…usually feeling like we’re on our own, without a map or ample provisions.

So where do we start?

Face the facts and feelings

We have to delve into the reality of what is and admit to ourselves that something needs to change. Maybe it’s your job, a relationship, or a pattern in your life. Write it down, in all its wild messiness. If words don’t come but images do, great. Google Image (Is “Google Image” a verb? Is now!) “great dark pit of despair” until you find something that fits. Maybe it’s the song that you skip every time on Spotify because you just haven’t been able to sit with what it brings up. Hit play with a box of markers, a pad of paper, and a box of tissues nearby.

Does this sound horrible? It might, and that’s 100% normal. But before we know where we need to go next, we need to take a minute to get our bearings on where we are now. Identifying what needs to change is the first step towards figuring out how to make a change happen and what that change looks like. This is how we create that map and figure out what we need to do to make the journey happen.

But it’s also okay to have an exit portal and recovery plan to help us regroup. Make a plan to have a therapy session or cup of coffee with a friend afterwards to debrief. Reward yourself with a movie on Netflix. Plan to throw yourself into childcare or the next work project after you’re finished facing the icky stuff — whatever works.

Allow yourself to envision the change

Where do you want to go with change? What would life be like if change happened? Allow yourself some space to explore and expand your vision of what could be. There are no wrong answers here and no need to be realistic. Life will constrict us soon enough — so dream, and dream big. This is a great time to turn inward to your deepest values and inner compass. What would it look like if your inside vision of your priorities and needs matched the outside landscape of your life?

Talk to people who have made the move

Don’t be afraid to talk to people who have made big changes. The woman in the PTA with you who left her unhealthy marriage. The stay-at-home mom who went back to school. The college buddy who quit the six-figure job to write a novel. These folks have things to teach you. They listened to themselves and took leaps of faith, with and without safety nets.

Start with small, manageable goals

Get started, and if you need to, start small. Some change can be tackled overnight, but other changes may require years of planning. That’s okay. Just get started, even if it’s baby steps.

(Caveat: Leaving an abusive relationship, tackling addiction, and other potentially dangerous changes may require support. If you have safety, health, financial, or other significant considerations intertwined with your change, please reach out to therapists, doctors, shelters, financial planners, attorneys, and other experts to support and guide you. These kinds of changes can feel the most overwhelming and lonely of all, but there are compassionate and knowledgeable people you can put on your team.)

Scientific research on how people can harness their energy for change tells us we need to make our goals fit the “SUCCESS” model. Keep this in mind, and break down those big dreams into smaller actions that fit the criteria.

SUCCESS goal formula

Note that a key component of the SUCCESS goal-setting structure is that the best goals are yours. Not your mom’s, not your manager’s, not your kid’s. Your dream change may benefit others in the long run, but they originate with what is best for you. The next thing to highlight is that SUCCESS goals connect you with others. You share them with your support system, include others in your planning, and are no longer alone in your process.

Maybe your goal is to say goodbye to your corporate grind, tap into your inner creative entrepreneur, and launch a candle-making business by 2024. Your first goal could be to spend two hours each weekend for a month visiting local farmers’ markets with your sister to interview people who are doing what you want to do. Another goal could be to research DIY candle recipes for 30 minutes a day and find three to experiment with at home next weekend. You commit to your partner you will email your results to them in one week. Maybe funding your dream feels like a big and scary barrier, so you should start with putting aside money each month or researching small business loans and you involve your financial planner in this process to set up an automatic withdrawal to a savings account.

Reframe and problem solve your fears

Let’s not minimize how loud our fear can get and how paralyzing it can feel when we contemplate change and start working towards it. But one approach is to remember these fears and worries are just trying to look out for us. They want us to be safe. They can help us pinpoint where we need to go next.

The key is to do things that address the fear: respond with actions to what they have to teach you.

If I leave him, how will the bills get paid?

Great question, me. Way to identify a barrier holding me back. I will learn about how to make a budget, get some skills training if I need it, and find a job.

If I work, who will take care of the kids?

Wow, me, I’m such a good mom to worry about the kids. I will ask about the elementary school after-care program. I’ll make sure I find a job that allows me to work from home if needed, take sick leave, or move closer to my parents.

If I’m single again, how will I manage the loneliness? Will I ever love again? I don’t want to be alone.

Good job thinking about my emotional and relationship needs, me. But let me remind myself that I’m lonely now, in the marriage I have. I will be clearing space for new relationships that I will vet for their capacity for emotional intimacy and connection. And I will heal myself with time and effort. I will become my own best friend.

So listen to your gut, map out your vision, and get started. Even if it’s baby steps. Reading this blog post counts as a baby step, by the way. So congratulations, you’re already on your way!