Making a big life decision? Stay calm and be positive, experts say

Making a big life decision? Stay calm and be positive, experts say

Many Hongkongers are wondering whether it’s time to stay or go. Experts offer advice on how to make the best decision.

For the past three months, Sarah and her husband have been grappling with a big question – whether to stay in Hong Kong or leave.

“It’s all we ever seem to talk about – at home and with our friends. I don’t know what the right answer is, and this indecision is killing me. I’m not usually an anxious person, but I’ve been feeling super stressed over this,” says Sarah (not her real name).

There is no doubt that change – or the prospect of it – is in the air. A recent wave of emigration saw nearly 90,000 residents leave Hong Kong following the imposition of the national security law in 2020, and a survey in October by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that 42 per cent of Hongkongers want to emigrate.

For clinical psychologist Dr Sharmeen Shroff, whose clients are mostly expats, the “should we stay or go” question comes up in most of her sessions. She says change generates fear and anxiety because the outcome is unknown.

“As humans, we are hard-wired to hate uncertainty, we want to be in control. There are few people who don’t feel anxious at the prospect of major upheaval. The problem comes when the fear of change keeps you paralysed in situations which aren’t fulfilling,” she says.

We don’t want to move out of our comfort zone, so we repeat the same patterns over and over until that really doesn’t work for us any more.

“Change really is inevitable – you can either struggle with it or surrender to it, it really is a choice. The more we fight, the harder it is. The build-up is often worse than the actual change,” says Shroff.

British journalist turned teacher Lucy Kellaway’s recent book, Re-educated: How I Changed My Job, My Home, My Husband and My Hair , describes a year of big life changes. Speaking at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival earlier this month, she said the biggest challenge was in anticipation of her big move.

“The scarier wobbly moments are before you’ve made any changes and you are stuck, and you don’t know how to get out. I think that’s really the scary thing,” said Kellaway.

Once she had made the leap – leaving her job, her husband and moving home – she said the momentum kept her going; it was too late to turn back, and she made things work.

“Sure, there are problems in my life just as there always have been, but I think change in itself is very, very energising and the energy it gives you is more than enough to resolve whatever problems come up along the way,” said Kellaway.

Before considering the best way to approach change, it’s worth being alert to common ways of coping with change that are not beneficial. Because change can invoke fear and anxiety, for some it may be tempting to use alcohol or shopping as a crutch.

“When immigrants move to a new country and are separated from their friends at home, they may resort to alcohol to ease their loneliness,” says Hong Kong-based clinical psychologist Dr Cindy Chan.

Other unhelpful coping mechanisms include avoidance (staying in the comfort zone), rumination (worrying about the possible negative outcomes of change) and asserting control (as seen in the “empty nest” mother who attempts to micromanage her college son from a distance).

So how can you face change in a healthy and constructive manner? Shroff is a strong believer in beginning by defining the reason for the change.

“What is it very specifically that you are not happy with? As you define the reason and purpose for the change, you get a better idea of what you want and eliminate the options that may not work,” she says.

She cautions against making impulsive decisions – “Hong Kong isn’t working, we should leave” – and instead advises planning well, doing plenty of research and ensuring adequate resources are in place.

Chan knows of recent Hong Kong immigrants to the UK who have struggled because they didn’t do enough research before they set off.

“They found it really cold [in the UK], they couldn’t find a cha chaan teng. If you can get more information about cultural differences, weather differences and lifestyle differences before you go it will ease your transition,” says Chan.

Good preparation is not just material; you need to be emotionally prepared for the change ahead.

“Have an open mind of acceptance and not avoidance. Rather than looking at what could go wrong, try to reframe change as an invitation for new possibility,” says Shroff.

“It does make the difference between whether you will get through that change or struggle with it. Force yourself to focus on the positive and the things you can gain from the change rather than the things you will lose from it.”

For those grappling with whether or not to leave Hong Kong, the decision is clouded by shifting quarantine rules and uncertainty over the government’s evolving response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Will quarantine be in place until 2022? Or possibly until 2023? These things are out of our control, so it can be helpful to have a personal deadline in mind, some sort of end point,” says Shroff.

If the prospect of change is making you feel uneasy, don’t forget that this is a normal reaction. Change is daunting – and moving to a new country is at the top of the list of most stressful life events. So accept your limitations and show some self-compassion.

“When we face change, it is inevitable we may make a mistake as it’s the first time we have tried something. We may start work in a new company and not understand the culture and make a mistake – it’s OK to make mistakes and learn and change,” says Chan.

When Chan faced a big change 13 years ago, making the leap from a secure job in a public hospital to opening her own private practice, her anxiety showed up in disrupted sleep patterns and stomach aches. Once she made the jump, she didn’t have time to worry, as she was busy establishing her business and attending courses.

“We need to actively do something to make the change, but mentally and psychologically it’s best to go with the flow and not stress too much on the outcome,” says Chan.

Yoga therapist Charlotte Douglas says that although change is inevitable, uncomfortable and maybe even painful, it doesn’t mean we need to push ourselves into shedding our skin overnight.

“While top-down strategies are an important tool in coping with the stress of change, change is something that we feel in the body and therefore body-based strategies are also a vital part of building greater resilience to change,” says Douglas.

Shroff says she doesn’t know anyone who hasn’t struggled over the past two years. For her, the start of lockdown last year and the shift out of her comfortable work-life routine was initially hard.

“The beginning really threw me off. Then I began creating a structure of routine within lockdown at home and finding new things I could be interested in. Reaching out to friends and family, my own therapist, and the support network was key,” says Shroff.

If you are facing change, know that this stage, the anticipation, is likely to be the hardest part. Do all the preparation you can in terms of information gathering, harnessing resources and roping in your support network. And as you take the plunge, remind yourself to focus on the positives and be kind to yourself.

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