Home All Change and Negative Emotions

Change and Negative Emotions

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 26 January 2009

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

Choosing to Change?

change-b-rosen.jpg In many of the articles posted on PPND this month, the subject of personal change has been approached from the perspective of choice. Kathryn Britton’s “Choosing Change” for example, focuses on the critical subject of how to get the biggest bang for your buck, i.e. how to decide which of our many habits or behaviors to change. Dave Shearon’s article “Four Statements to Happier” sets out  the prerequisite conditions for change, what it takes for people to choose to change rather than stick with the status quo. He highlights two crucial points about change:

  1. To be successful, people have to change themselves; you cannot make the change for them
  2. Expectations need to be managed – change doesn’t just happen at the drop of a hat. Change takes time, and effort.

In “Great Expectations of Change,” Derrick Carpenter points out that we can underestimate our emotional resilience, and that this inability to forecast correctly how we’ll feel in the future is frequently what prevents us from making important changes (e.g., finishing a relationship or ditching the dead-end job).

Benefits and Costs

In those areas where we do have a choice about whether or not to change, it is nevertheless useful to try to weigh up the pros and cons of different decisions as objectively as we can before taking the first step.

First, it’s worth realizing that there must be benefits to staying as we are; if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be clinging so steadfastly to the status quo. So it’s just as well to acknowledge what these benefits are, and work out whether those we expect to get as a result of changing will be greater.

Secondly, we have to work out whether we’re prepared to accept the costs of changing. Yes, it’s true, even positive change has costs, and we may as well try to anticipate those now.

Four key coaching questions which may help you to explore these costs and benefits of change (or no change), and hopefully avoid any nasty surprises, are:

1.    What would happen if I did… (make the change)?

And what else?

2.    What would happen if I didn’t…?

And what else?

3.    What wouldn’t happen if I did…?

And what else?

4.    What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t…?

And what else?

Repeat ‘and what else?’ until you stop coming up with anything new.  Although you might think the answers will just be the reverse of each other, when I’ve used this set of questions in coaching it has been surprising what additional insights surface.


Having to Change?

So far then we’ve assumed that we have a choice over whether or not to make a change. What about when change is imposed on us? What does positive psychology say?   Several of my close friends have lost their jobs recently, or are in consultation with their employers about being made redundant. Even though no-one can claim ignorance of the current global economic crisis and rising unemployment figures, that doesn’t stop it being a shock to the system when redundancy happens to you.

It appears that the primary reason that many people find change which is imposed on them difficult to deal with (notwithstanding the research referred to above on affective forecasting) is that it takes away their sense of control, and as we know from the work of Dr. Suzanne Thompson, and earlier from Dr. Ellen Langer and Dr. Judith Rodin (amongst others), a lack of control significantly decreases both physical and psychological well-being.

So when negative change happens, I often refer people to the so-called “Change Curve” (attributed to Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross). It’s a staple model of management consulting firms the world over, and it applies just as much to experiences of personal change as it does to organizational transitions.  Change is a process; people go through a range of different emotions as change occurs.

Kübler-Ross isn’t typically associated with positive psychology (her original five-stage Grief Model came out of research into death and dying), and even though positive emotions are conspicuous by their absence in this model, it has much to offer in terms of understanding the process of change and the range of typical emotional responses we should expect, and thus points us to the types of activities and behaviors we need to encourage to accelerate our progress and emerge the other end stronger and more resilient. As the saying goes, “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

Stage of Change



Stability  – the status quo

In control

Pretty positive Everything’s OK, I’m in control, I can…

Out of control

Shocked, confused or disorientated I don’t understand what’s happening here
Denial Perhaps more positive but not in control Change? What change?
Anger Hostile, frustrated This shouldn’t be happening to me / it’s your fault
Depression Helpless, hopeless, disengaged I can’t deal with this / there’s nothing I can do

Regaining control

More optimistic and regaining control I might actually be able to make this work

In control

Realistic I can see myself in the future / I can see how this would work


sun-aussiegall.jpg The Change Curve doesn’t specifically refer to pessimism or hopelessness either, but we can easily add these to the illustration. By understanding that these negative feelings will be the likely reactions to imposed change, we can prepare ourselves better, have more realistic expectations and avoid wasting precious physical and psychological resources at a time when conserving or even developing positive energy is crucial.

So the question for positive psychology must therefore be, can we do anything to reduce or offset the experience of negative emotions that result from changes we don’t want, and if so what?

Three Activities for Offsetting Possible Negative Effects of Change

The above conclusions point to three key areas of activity:

1)    Concentrate on activities which boost your sense of control.  There will be other important domains in your life which you can influence, such as hobbies. Set realistic goals and work towards them everyday. We talked a little bit about this in my October 08 article.

2)    Make a real effort to keep up your social contacts, especially with those friends and family who you can rely on to support you and make you feel good. Keep doing things for other people – this helps to ensure that your focus is outwards.

3)     Don’t be surprised by the depth of the negative emotions that you experience. This is perfectly normal. Take a meta-perspective of the situation. A colleague of mine once created his own Change Curve on paper and monitored where he was on it from week to week. He said it wasn’t pleasant knowing he was likely to be heading into a pessimistic phase, but on the other hand, he was prepared and knew that it was one step nearer the end of the process. He also knew to ask for help from friends and family during the difficult times.

As has been suggested by other PPND writers, such as Kathryn Britton in her article “Resilience in the Face of Adversity,” there are various things you can do to increase your resilience. But why wait for the worst to happen? You can create your own personal Resilience Bank, and you can do it now. This might contain photos that make you smile, letters, emails or Thank You cards from people expressing their appreciation for things you’ve done, or mementos and souvenirs of especially happy occasions or celebrations, in fact anything that lifts your spirits. Even just spending five minutes looking through your Resilience Bank can make the world of difference to your mental outlook.

There are various practical steps that we can take to increase our ability to manage negative change more effectively; I’m sure you can think of many others – please share them with us in your comments. To paraphrase Darwin, it isn’t the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.


Langer, E. & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of choice and enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in an institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34(2), 191-198.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1970; 1997). On Death and Dying. New York: Scribner.

Thompson, S. (2002). The role of personal control in adaptive functioning. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. (pp. 202-213). New York: Oxford University Press.


Images from flickr and reused under Creative Commons License.

Change image by B. Rosen

Cntl button by renatotarga

Blue flower with reflected clouds by aussiegall – labeled “Into the sun”

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Senia 27 January 2009 - 5:04 am

Hi Bridget,

This four-question approach is really interesting to me. It’s like it demonstrates patience. And that patience will get the job done.

Also, there’s something intriguing about looking at the Change Curve, and knowing that many people follow the same habits and directions consistently.


Senia 27 January 2009 - 5:12 am

Hi Bridget,

Someone referred me to this Scientific American article about the change cycle. What do you think of this? Would love to hear your thoughts.


jd 28 January 2009 - 12:39 am

Kathryn & Bridget, I’ve been following your good work on PPND since the beginning. Change is something I am keen on learning more about.

Lately, I’ve come to believe that no major life changes occur without a socially supportive context, ever. Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, behavioral science, and experts on is examining expertise and learning all back social support as a large driver of how people change. To do great things, you have to be prepared. Preparation must include great teachers, coaches, and others. In other words, no one goes it alone. Peterson’s Other People Matter to me reads, Other People Change You.

This poses a real danger/opportunity for introverts like myself who have very few people in their stable. I think that PPND would serve its readership well to look at how loners develop and sustain social networks that are supportive. Loners would benefit the most from learning how to grow connections.

Of specific interest are articles that highlight how, in a rapidly changing world, community can stay strong. I have moved 37 times in 32 years. As a professional, I don’t think my experience is atypical. There is no substitute for face-to-face time. When you move a lot, friendships are harder to maintain. Critics may attack making friends as a skill “my kindergarten teacher taught me”. Did your kindergarten teacher also explain how to maintain these relationships while working full time, commuting an hour to and from work, while not neglecting professional development, fitness, other commitments? Add some kids to that mix. Maybe a second job to help with your credit card debt? Elements of supportive relationships are zero-sum. Either you invest in supporters you don’t have support. Another complexifier is that not all friends are created supportive. Ouch! We all know backstabbers. A good guide to social support would include ways to navigate selecting, keeping, and weeding out relationships.

May I ask PPND to recommend wise ways to spend your friendship-energy dollar? Specific areas I am curious about are: what are reliable ways to garner allies (not just friendship ties but support at work, too)? What are some key questions to ask yourself to guide you through the social support maze?

Leanrainmakingmachine 28 January 2009 - 9:07 am

I empathize with the view that acquiring and maintaining supportive social relationships is not trivial, esp in the adult circumstances you describe. I also have observed that women are much better at it than men.
A few observations from my personal experiences as well as critical observations: (i) it needs to be a priority; deciding that it is an important life goal (for many reasons) is the first step; (ii) because it is a priority, it requires meaningful time and attention, (iii) the more honest, genuine vulnerable and humble we are, the more easy the relationship. The universe of people is enormous; therefore, for every Jack there are many Jills and vice versa. people identify with and “like” those witrh common interests. Identify those and pursue them. This means that synergy works well. For example, if you enjoy and pursue fitness, you may find rewarding friendships and supportive folks as workout partners, gym class habiyues, etc. Focussing on how you can contribute to others is a lot easier than trying to “get the most” out of a relationship.
Finally, we can’t pick our family, but we can pick our friends. So, energy drains must be let go with compassion and an open heart for the future. E.g.: alcoholics need to leave behind their drinking buddies; fit people or those pursuing fitness cannot “hang” with sedentary obese overeaters –it’s socially contagious; folks seeking optimism and happiness cannot spend their time with depressed pessimists; busy people do not thrive among “do nothings.”””

Leanrainmakingmachine 28 January 2009 - 10:18 am

Happiness Gap in the U.S has narrowed; overall happiness has not improved:


Editor S.M. 29 January 2009 - 5:23 am


I am SO GLAD to hear your advice. I will certainly pass on your message to our authors, especially in February when we write about love… I understand two message from what you ask:
1) How to spend friendship-energy? I think this is wonderfully phrased.
2) How can loners be social?

Thank you!

Editor S.M. 29 January 2009 - 5:26 am

Lean rain making machine,
Two points from what you said in answer to JD really resonated with me:

That energy drains must be let go with compassion (and I would add that energy drains are different for different people – an alcoholic may need to leave a drinking buddy, but a non-alcoholic can continue to be friends with that same drinking buddy).

And that enjoying oneself is much easier than trying to “get the most” out of people. When Margaret and I write our book, we often discuss how some terms in the world are not so clear. Why do managers say they want to “get the most” out of people? They really want “people to be their best.” Strange.


Leanrainmakingmachine 29 January 2009 - 11:43 am


Unfortunately, I think too many managers are, in fact, trying to “get the most” out of people in a selfish and ultimately counterproductive way. By providing resources, advice and support, a manager can help “people be their best” and thereby achieve the most for the organization, but many managers do not “see” that…
Similarly, in personal relationships, those who focus on “getting the most” fail, for they look to take rather than to give. Ironically, Happiness research shows that improved well being comes from the giving, and we all know that relationships where one or both parties focus only on “taking” are not loving, productive or health boosting….
It is so much easier to find ways to be useful/kind than it is to find ways to get someone else to be useful to me, especially given the absence of control and the liklihood of an adverse reaction
Almost like that St. Francis guy got it right those many moons ago……:)

Kathryn Britton 29 January 2009 - 12:18 pm


Thanks for the suggestion for a writing topic. I’ll let it rattle around in my head and perhaps something will emerge for my February article.

One thought that comes to mind is to think of high-quality connections in the terms that Jane Dutton proposes — “… a high-quality connection doesn’t necessarily mean a deep or intimate relationship. High-quality connections do not require personal knowledge or extensive interaction. Any point of contact with another person can potentially be a high-quality connection. One conversation, one e-mail exchange, one moment of connecting in a meeting can infuse both participants with a greater sense of vitality, giving them a bounce in their steps and a greater capacity to act.” (Energize your Workplace, p. 2)

So instead of thinking about ways to add more social interactions to your life, why not start by thinking about ways to improve the quality of the connections you are already experiencing. You pass somebody in the hallway — do you greet the person and if so, how? You answer an email — what is the tone of your response? You hear somebody arguing for something in a meeting. Do you respond in a spirit of inquiry?


Kathryn Britton 29 January 2009 - 12:21 pm

P.S., Jeff — I have had very high-quality connections with you through PPND. You seem to have a natural ability to treat people with respect and appreciation, whether you are an introvert or not. Kathryn

Jeff Dustin 29 January 2009 - 1:32 pm

Senia & Kathryn, Two of my favorites,
I thought that February might make Love its showcased strength. I see that writing along Themes is working well for PPND. Given how effective change can be when done *together*, I figured I’d ask my loner question.

$enia, when I think of you I see a very effective encyclopedia saleswoman. You get people pumped about stuff that without your insight would remain as exciting as an accountant’s logbook. I would never had read Publicani without your gentle prodding; it was a page turner.

KB, I’m proud to call you a high-quality connection. Ha. I really like your blog, too. The flood and your dad’s tale were fascinating to me and I don’t know exactly why. It drew me in. I’m also excited to see how your story-narrative interventions shape up.


Senia 30 January 2009 - 3:59 am

Incredibly fulfilling note to read.
Thanks for being here form the beginning and throughout.

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 30 January 2009 - 5:59 pm


Going right back to your first couple of comments here, on the 4 questions, I think they help develop a ‘meta’ perspective, which I think is essential when you’re grappling with a difficult decision. Because they’re kind of complex, you really have to think carefully about what they’re asking, and in doing this you become less ‘attached’ to the issue, and therefore moer likely to be able to see other perspectives.

As for the ‘Change Curve’ and the Scientific American article, that’s v interesting. I’ve seen criticisms of the Stages of Moral Development before but not of the Grief Cycle. I’ll come back to you on that one, it will need a bit of reflection first!


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 30 January 2009 - 6:01 pm

Sorry, I forgot to say thank you for your comments.

A Big Thank You!

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 30 January 2009 - 6:53 pm

Jeff, Lean rain making machine, Kathryn & Senia

Loved this discussion – so much worthwhile stuff here about social connections, introversion, how to maintain friendships in our ever-more hectic lives, how people change, whether you can change other people etc etc. I hardly know where to start!

One really big thing I’d like to mention is the importance/relevance of the internet and social networking using sites like Facebook in building human connections. Some research suggests that extraverts who use the internet extensively are less lonely than those who rarely use it, whilst introverts who use the internet extensively are more lonely that those who rarely use it. I think this is fascinating, it suggests that we need to be careful with ‘one size fits all’ solutions.

Additionally I’ve read research which suggests that even though your average Facebook user has say 100 ‘Friends’ (it might even be more than that), the majority of these friendships are characterised by ‘weak ties’ whereby useful information gets passed between people (eg about jobs), but the deep emotional bonds that you have with close friends don’t develop. This picks up the theme of High Quality Connections. It looks as if people keep really close to only a small number of friends, even if they have hundreds and hundreds on their profile page. So Social Network Sites seem to be enabling more human contact to take place, but not necessarily enabling people to develop close relationships (or rather, the way we currently use Social Network Sites is not enabling this to happen). But, there are exceptions to this, of course, I’m sure we all know someone who met their partner/spouse on the internet, so clearly some people are able to develop deep emotional connections with others that they haven’t met in person. I wonder what it is that they do differently, if anything.

I’m sure that technology is going to continue to have a huge impact on the way human connections develop and are sustained, and because technology is such a huge part of our lives, the more we find out about the (positive) psychology/technology overlap the better. I’m looking forward to reading next month’s postings on love/friendship and seeing others’ perpsectives on these subjects.

Best wishes

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 6 February 2009 - 7:17 pm

Hi Senia

Firstly apologies for the delay in replying. Thanks for the link to the Scientific American article about the lack of evidence for the grief cycle. The article doesn’t name the particular studies referred to by Neimeyer in the 3rd para, so if anyone knows which they are, let me know as I’d be interested to read them.

I looked on PsycARTICLES and PsycINFO and came across a recent empirical study by Maciejewski, Zhang, Block & Prigerson (2007). It found partial support for the stages of grief model: “Counter to stage theory, disbelief was not the initial dominant grief indicator.Acceptance was the most frequently endorsed item and yearning was the dominant negative grief indicator from 1 to 24 months postloss…. Acceptance increased throughout the study observation period. The 5 grief indicators achieved their respective maximum values in the sequence (disbelief, yearning, anger, depression, and acceptance) predicted by the stage theory of grief”. Several comments/criticisms of this paper were published by other researchers in the field (e.g. it wasn’t a longitudinal study – Bonanno & Boemer, 2007) but unfortunately I don’t have access to the full articles so cannot comment further.

Michael Shermer, the author of the article, claims that stage theories were only helpful when people lived predictable lives. I think we’re assuming a position of predictability from hindsight. It may be that to those people living through those times, life wasn’t predictable at all. I don’t know if stage theories impose guilt and pressure on people if they don’t ‘conform’. I would hope that psychotherapists who use them see their clients as individuals and treat them accordingly. Apparently Kubler-Ross said that not all people experience all stages of the grief cycle, and/or not necessarily in a linear fashion. I agree that if this is the only empirical study which supports the grief cycle then more needs to be done(although readers might be aware of other studies apart from the one mentioned above).

Shermer also likens stage theories to story-telling and suggests that all narrative/story-telling is bad, but this is not necessarily the case. I think the value of story-telling is in helping achieve ‘distance’ or a meta-perspective on the issue, for example using metaphor. In practice I’ve noticed that metaphor rather than simple logic has a more powerful effect on many people. I’m not sure if metaphor lends itself to empirical study, so I’ll have to do some more research on that front. Perhaps others can comment?


• Maciejewski, P., Zhang, B., Block, S., & Prigerson, H. (2007). An empirical examination of the stage theory of grief. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 297(7), 716-723. http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/reprint/297/7/716

• Bonanno, G., & Boerner, K. (2007). ‘The stage theory of grief’: Comment. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 297(24), 2693-2693.


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