Human beings are creatures of habit. When we are asked to go through a process of change, we don’t always like it and we can get cranky. Most people don’t like to be pushed out of their comfortable and familiar way of doing things even though we know intellectually that change can be positive and necessary, and it can even make things much better.
People respond to change in varying ways. Some people thrive on change. They become excited, enthusiastic, find renewed energy, and may eagerly use the opportunity to initiate more change than is really necessary. They are bored when things stay the same for any length of time. Most people though, find the transition from the old way of doing things to the new way stressful, disruptive and exhausting. We all process change differently and while there is no right or wrong way to go through change, understanding your feelings and responses can help you to feel calmer and more in control.
When faced with a change in an important part of your life, it is not unusual to feel overwhelmed, confused and even frightened by the upcoming transition. It doesn’t make a lot of difference whether you’ve chosen the change or not – like accepting a new job or getting married – it will still have an impact on you. The effects of change may show up in your mood, your energy level, the degree of your patience, your ability to do your work or to relate to others, or your general level of well-being. You may want to withdraw or resist the change by refusing to give up aspects of the old way of doing things. You may feel irritated and angry, or become negative and critical of the proposed changes. You can even try to actively sabotage the change process. Deep down you may worry that you will not be able to meet the new expectations. Many of these reactions are unconscious attempts to slow things down, reduce anxiety, and to try to regain a sense of comfort and control.
There are lots of things you can do that will make it easier for you to cope with change. Here are some tips.
Expect that you will react. Whether the change is positive or negative, big or small, you will react so don’t criticize yourself for being human.
Whether or not you have chosen the change or have had the opportunity to provide input, if it is a “done deal”, make a decision to accept the change. As a friend of mine once said about a significant corporate change, “I realized that the train had already left the station. I had to decide to get on board the train or get run over by it.” So much of our energy is wasted on resisting change. Expressions of bitterness, criticism, and blame are often an attempt to push the change process back because a person feels overwhelmed, hurt, or unable to control what is going to happen. Instead of being angry, acknowledge and express these more vulnerable feelings. These feelings are a normal part of the progression of moving through a change – letting go of the old and making way for the new.
Give yourself permission and consciously choose to go through this experience of letting go. You might not have had any control in initiating the change, but you do have the power to choose your reaction to the change and to let go of your resistance. This means that it is important for you to process the change intellectually and emotionally. Once we understand the need for change, know what is required of us, and how the new way of doing things will impact our work or personal life, we can begin to get ready to make the change. A huge factor in moving through the “letting go” experience is having the confidence that you can deal with the discomfort (or some would say “chaos”) of the transition and meet the requirements of the new situation.
Trust yourself and know that this adjustment period is time-limited. Set yourself up for success. Consciously decide to be open to something new and better and to be flexible in your thoughts and behavior as you approach the change. Tell yourself that you will do the best you can, just like everyone else. Make it easy on yourself by approaching the change with a sense of adventure, and a large dose of humor. Be curious about what is around the corner and about how things will work out. Believe that you can handle whatever comes your way.
Remind yourself that while some major aspects of your work or life are changing, there are still many things that are familiar and will stay the same. If you can, bring the familiar things with you into the change. These things can act like an anchor for you and settle your feelings when you start to feel upset or overwhelmed.
Talk to others. The worst thing during a time of change is to become isolated and to feel alone. Dealing with change is a human experience. When you share a difficult experience with others, you gain support, ideas, encouragement, and comfort. Talking to others about your thoughts and feelings is a very effective way of working through the process of change. It relieves emotional pressure, provides new perspectives, and inspires you to believe that you can and will get through this time.
Take things one step and one day at a time. If the change is going to occur over a long period of time, divide the bigger changes into smaller steps. As each step is successfully achieved, you will know that you are making progress and moving forward toward the goal.
Remind yourself every day to see the positive aspects of the change. This is essential to keeping your mood and energy level high and to feeling strong and competent during a difficult time. Unless your name is Pollyanna, the bad things are usually easy to recognize, but make sure that you fill out your perspective to see the rest of the picture. Sometimes you will have to look hard to find the good but it will be there. You might make a new friend, learn a new skill, see things in a new way, or find a strength you were not aware that you possessed. If you can’t find the good in it, ask someone else. At the very least, you will have a good discussion or a good laugh and that may end up being the good thing for the day.
Finally, realize that while all good things come to an end, all bad things come to an end too. At some point, the change will become the new normal, things will settle down, and your life will feel comfortable and familiar once again. Make note of this and enjoy the feeling. After all, the next change is just around the corner.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph.D., R. Psych.