‘If I want to change something, I have to change it in myself’

Want to change your life? ‘You’ve got to break it down into bite size pieces’

How do you change your life? It’s a big question, one that surfaces at periods in our life when things just aren’t clicking, when we feel dissatisfied or unfulfilled, when others around us appear to be making the type of headway that seems out of reach for us, when a landmark birthday is coming up, when we come out the other end of a relationship, or when major life events such as grieving a love one, a job loss or financial turmoil send our heads spinning.

Over the next five weeks, we are going to try to tackle that question, by looking at key themes that spark the idea or need for change; finding purpose, work and finance, state of mind, relationships, and the future.

We're going to harness the experience and advice of experts who hear about people's desires to change their lives all the time

Maybe you have decided to change career, maybe you’re struggling emotionally, maybe you’re seeking to reassess relationships with family, friends or partners, or maybe you’re wondering what the future holds at a time when world events and a general feeling of life insecurity gets under the skin. We’re going to harness the experience and advice of experts who hear about people’s desires to change their lives all the time; psychotherapists, life coaches, career experts, mentors, thinkers, talkers, and drivers of social change. Our first instalment examines the concept of purpose.

The genesis for wanting to change something can sometimes be imposed upon us, external events prompting upheaval, but more often than not, it starts with a feeling.


Finding your purpose

The idea of finding one’s purpose has taken on a commodified and cliched sentiment in an era of inspirational Instagram quotes and at a time where both social media and a changing work landscape is forcing us to look within ourselves for direction. As the concept of work changes from a lifetime in the same career, with people changing now jobs around eight times before they hit their mid-40s, change becomes embedded in career paths. There has been a notable shift in what a career path now looks like – a little less linear and a little more meandering. The secure “job for life” feels increasingly distant, for better or for worse.

Later in the series, we’ll be returning to work, but for now, let’s go back to that feeling, the niggling sense that you want something to change. How can you identify what that feeling is, and what do you do with it?

When we know we want to change something, one of the paralysing things is not knowing what that change should be, or even could be. It’s the muddy answer we give when we ask ourselves what we want to do or where we want to be: “I don’t know.”

Everyone seeks purpose in life. Looking at other people's lives on social media creates a movement of people who think they're doing the wrong thing

What makes people want to change their lives? Sarah Gilligan is an integrative and humanistic psychotherapist at Capable Minds Psychology, Psychotherapy and Counselling in Dublin. It can be a sense of “frustration, unhappiness, feeling stuck,” Gilligan says, “feeling somewhat powerless, feeling that nothing has changed, feeling that you aren’t where you thought you were going to be. This can be a deep unhappiness for some people. Everyone wants to create a sense of purpose in their life, be that bringing up your children or being happy in your job, or anything else. The way we look at it in the western world, we are currently self-obsessed. That muddies the water when you talk about purpose. But everyone seeks purpose in life. Social media I’m going to blame 100 per cent. Our reliance on looking at other people’s lives creates this movement of people who think they’re doing the wrong thing.”

Kathy Scott is the creative director of The Trailblazery, an entity that has produces inspirational live events, has conducted large-scale social research into happiness, and is now running a creative mentorship programme. “It’s a state of unrest,” Scott says, of that feeling that surfaces when we want to change something about our lives, “I think people go through a phase of hoping something outside will change things – the system, the people over there – but then it’s a realisation process that if I want to change something, I have to change it in myself and then bring that change out into the world.”

It can be hard to identify such feelings as a lust for change. Being able to change certain aspects of our lives is also a privileged position, especially at a time of inequality, a crisis in housing, and financial hardship.

“What I’ve seen is unrest,” Scott says, “People are in a Groundhog Day situation, or feeling uninspired, or feeling that only a half of them or a quarter of them is coming to the workplace and they want the week over so they can do what they want to do.”

If you’re unsure of your purpose, Scott says, a good place to start is to identify your passion, “What lights you up? What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning or work late at night? Once you identify what the passion is – and you know it, it’s a feeling, it’s an inside job, it’s a state and you want more of it – once you’ve identified the passion then it’s about getting clear on what that passion is and why you want to take it out into the world. I think when people get really clear on their ‘why’, then they’re off on the path.”

Activating changes

“Purpose is such a particular thing. Our egos are so immeshed in it,” Gilligan says, “That can get problematic because we think we have to be or should be a certain way. Sometimes it’s okay to be exactly who we are. ‘Should’ is the worst! It’s a terrible word! ‘I should be this’ or ‘I should be that.’ All it keeps saying is you have to be doing something else,” and that is not necessarily the case. Returning to the basics of what makes you happy can sometimes mean that major change may not be necessary.

Purpose can sound lofty, and Gilligan believes it’s something we need to bring back down to earth. “The problem is, we’ve made purpose into this huge concept, rather than bringing it right back down to things which might be: ‘I’m a really good parent’, ‘I love cooking really good food’, ‘I love doing people’s accounts properly’. Not everyone is going to be an online star. We can get things misconstrued and make purpose really huge and unattainable.”

So listening to that initial feeling, taking the opportunity to allow it to speak to you, identifying it, and then deciding what to do about it is the bedrock for exploring what one’s purpose is, and interrogating how that purpose can be achieved.

The journey is bitesized 

Change is often conflated with drama, or rapid movement. But the most sustainable change is manageable and gradual. It’s all about bite-sized pieces, Scott says, “People get overwhelmed when they start to think of a three-year plan. So what does an easy next step look like? You can have all the passion in the world, and get clear on intention, but not know what the next step is and freeze. You’ve got to break it down into bite size pieces.”

When people broach the idea of wanting to change their lives, Gilligan says a common mistake is “thinking things are going to change overnight”: “Thinking it’s going to happen immediately. That’s not to say change can’t happen very fast, but sometimes we think we’re going to do a 360 in two weeks. That’s not usually the case. It can happen. It might not be sustainable. It’s about doing it bit by bit. Every time we do it bit by bit, we learn something.”

“It’s like getting ready to run a marathon,” Scott says, “you don’t decide to do it next week, you’re going to start putting your body and mind into training and take rest time as well. It’s a gradual path to the finish line, and you can enjoy the view that way too, and you can be open to taking a slight detour. Flexibility is important. Patience is important. It can take time to lean into it.”

You have a choice

For Niamh Kennelly, a career and life coach and executive recruiter, people looking to change their lives have to remember to reclaim a certain level of autonomy. “Choice is the constant in your life. It’s constant. I think people don’t take time to step back and say ‘what are my choices here?’ What’s working, what’s not. Often people are in the positions they are in not by their choice. They did the course they did because that was the opportunity they had. Then that was their qualification and they felt that was the field they needed to go into. As they moved up in organisations they’ve been influenced by the organisation’s structure – a manager moving on or expansion – so their own planning doesn’t really come into it. That’s where people get lost.”

Naming what we’re passionate about and using those as signposts rather than the structures we exist in can be a clarifying force in determining purpose.

Don’t get disheartened

Changing things up can be daunting. But by starting to consider it, you’ve already begun. Don’t beat yourself up if you activate plans and then stall. Quitting change can also be part of the process. “People quit because they imagine change is going to happen really quickly and look a certain way, and oftentimes we just stop,” Gilligan says. “A lot of the time it’s not noticing any good things going on, and not giving yourself enough time to see that you’re actually changing.” For example, Gilligan says, “You might quit the process of changing your job. Sometimes we just quit the process of that purpose piece. We quit the idea that we can change something… It’ll come back though. Normally, for people who want that bit of difference or change, it’ll swing around. It’s that version of being able to decide on the incremental parts you need to do, and am I doing them, or am I trying to do three at a time, and can I be patient?”


1 Get clear on what the niggling feeling is. What part of your life does it relate to?

2 Take a break from social media. Plug out and turn your attention towards that feeling.

3 Talk to others you trust about your desire for change. Those closest to you might have thoughts and ideas about where you're at in life.

4 Be realistic. Things are not going to change overnight. Rapid change is often not sustainable. Change things bit by bit.

5 Don't compare yourself to others. Your purpose is yours alone.

Next week: work and finance