An Exercise That May Help You Make a Big, Scary Life Change


“Change your thoughts and you can change your world.” ~Norman Vincent Peale

Making a major life change, such as changing careers or moving to a new state, can be really scary.

Even if our hearts are pulling us in one direction, we may still be plagued with doubt, fear, and anxious thoughts, such as: How do I know if I’m making the right decision? What will my family think if I do this? Will I regret this?

Even after we make the change, doubts and worries can still linger.

In 2016, I was on the brink of a major life change. At the time, I was enrolled in a doctorate program in psychology. I had always dreamed of getting my doctorate. But after two semesters in the program, I realized the path I was on was making me miserable. While my advisor was passionate about his research, I didn’t feel anything close to passion.

I came to realize I wasn’t in graduate school for the right reasons. I wasn’t there because I wanted to contribute to the field. What I wanted was to win the support and approval of my family.

Once I realized that, I knew pursuing a doctorate wasn’t the right path for me. However, even though my intuition was screaming at me to leave, I didn’t trust those feelings. I fought with myself. I kept coming up with rational reasons for staying: I worked so hard to get here. I should be here. I’m smart enough to be here—I even passed the comprehensive exams in only my third semester!

But no matter how hard my rational self struggled to sway me, my inner voice kept reminding me how unhappy and unfulfilled I was.

I vacillated between leaving and staying. Deep down, I knew what I wanted to do. But I was terrified. My self-worth had always been linked to academic achievements. Without my status as a graduate student, I worried I’d feel worthless. Plus, what would my family and professors think if I left?

Soon the pull of my intuition became too strong to ignore. I decided to leave my program. While my husband was very supportive of my decision, my family was not supportive—just as I feared. I tried to reassure myself. I continually reminded myself that I had left for the right reasons: to prioritize my happiness and pursue a more fulfilling life path.

But the doubts and negative self-talk lingered. I started to believe that I was a failure, a loser. My family even said as much. A former professor was also disappointed with me.

I became so wrapped up in my doubts and negative self-talk that I lost sight of the reasons why I left in the first place.

Then serendipity hit.

For some time, I had a side project in writing uplifting letters to strangers. I would write positive messages and leave them in places I thought would be helpful, such as inside self-help books at used bookstores.

One day, while writing a letter, I suddenly got the idea to write a letter to myself, a letter reminding myself that in leaving graduate school, I was doing what was right for me—being true to myself and prioritizing my happiness.

“Dear You,” I began. I spent the next hour crafting a letter to myself. I wrote as if I were a compassionate friend writing to myself.

In the first paragraph, I briefly acknowledged my doubts and feelings.

Next, I told myself to stop being so hard on myself—I had left graduate school to do what was right for me and my happiness.

Then I wrote about why I knew graduate school was the wrong path for me. I recalled how happy I was before starting graduate school, and that my happiness rapidly declined since pursuing this path. I reminded myself that I was now free to let happiness back into my life. In the end, the letter ran to just under one thousand words.

After particularly hard days, I would read the letter. What I found was remarkable: the letter instantaneously swept away all of the self-critical thoughts I had about leaving graduate school. It broke the pattern of my thinking negatively about myself and made me see, in my own words, why what I had done was right.

Each time I finished the letter, I would be confident about my decision again and proud of my choice.

But then, a day or two later, something would trigger me to feel badly again. The negative thoughts and fears and doubts would return. In the evening, I’d read the letter again and feel confident once more.

Clearly, reading the letter was helpful in boosting my mood and confidence in the moment. So I thought: What if I started reading the letter every day? Would it help me feel better about my decision in the long-term? And so I started reading the letter every morning. It was often one of the first things I did after I woke up. In the beginning, I read it several times a day.

Reading the letter every day proved to be powerful. Within a couple of weeks, I noticed that the things that had triggered me to feel badly, no longer had that effect. Instead, when confronted with these triggers, I found myself automatically thinking about the sentiments I had expressed in my letter.

After a month of reading the letter every single day, my thought patterns had completely changed. No longer did I think less of myself for leaving my graduate program. Instead, I felt proud.

In leaving my doctorate program, I had done what was right for me. I had listened to my intuition and bravely made a move toward pursuing a more fulfilling path. Sure, I was more than capable of being in graduate school and finishing the program, but it wasn’t the right path for me, and that was okay.

And my letter had helped me stay on the path that was right for me.

Are you facing a major life change and struggling with doubt, fear, or negative self-talk? If so, writing a letter to yourself and reading it consistently may be helpful in transforming your thoughts.

Tips on Writing a Letter to Yourself

1. Acknowledge your current thoughts and feelings.

In the first paragraph, you might start off by acknowledging your current feelings or thoughts. For example, I started off my letter by writing, “I know you may be doubting yourself right now…” Reading this made me feel comforted and soothed, as if I were reading a letter from a friend who completely understood where I was coming from.

2. If you’re having trouble coming up with reassuring thoughts to include in your letter, talk over your situation with a supportive friend.

I talked over my situation constantly with my husband. I thought that my being sad to let go of my program was evidence that I was about to make the wrong decision. But he reminded me that it was normal to feel that way; after all it was a dream I had held for so long. It made sense that it would be a little sad to let that go, even if I knew it wasn’t right for me. This sentiment made its way into my letter.

3. Make it conversational.

I found my letter more impactful when it was written in a conversational way. Don’t worry so much about spelling or grammar. It doesn’t need to read like an essay.

4. Use positive words.

In her studies of the subconscious mind, Dr. Sherry Buffington found that the subconscious can only understand words that produce a mental image or picture. Words such as don’t, not, and no do not form an image or picture. Therefore, the subconscious doesn’t recognize them.

For example, when you write, “You are not weak,” your subconscious only recognizes you and weak, and interprets this statement as, “You are weak.” Yikes! That’s not at all what you meant! If you use positive words, your subconscious will recognize the words and interpret the statement correctly. In this example, if you write, “You are strong,” your subconscious sees exactly as you intend: “You are strong.”

5. Make it accessible.

I wrote the letter in a Google Doc, which is stored within my Google Drive. That way I could access it easily on my phone. This might be helpful for you, or you may prefer a handwritten letter instead. Ultimately, you want to choose a method that will allow you easy access every day.

6. Be open to revision.

I know that my letter is just right when I feel comforted and soothed when reading it. If a sentence or paragraph doesn’t have the right effect, you may need to revise it a little.

7. Read it every single day!

For the letter to help you stay the course, it’s important to read it every day—for as long as you need to.

Making a big life change can trigger a lot of fear, doubt, and negative self-talk. These overwhelming feelings and thoughts can become so habitual that you can feel stuck and unable to break free from them.

Writing an empathetic, empowering letter to yourself can remind you why making a life change is so important to your happiness and well-being. And reading it regularly can help reprogram your thought patterns and keep you on the right track.

About C. Corbeil

C. Corbeil is a writer from New England. Find out more about her at www.caelancorbeil.com.

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