Why is change so hard?
In one way or another, my career has been all about that mystical concept of ‘change’ for many years now. These days, as a counsellor and a wellbeing tutor, I talk to people about their personal experience of change, or desire for change, on a daily basis.
In the current climate of trying to work around COVID-19, things are changing on a daily basis, and for some, this is really destabilising and difficult. Many others have been taking this time to reconsider their lives and decide further, personal changes that they would like to make. So what is it about change that feels so hard?
The change curve
First of all, it can help to understand the way that change impacts our self-esteem. The change curve, (often attributed to Kubler-Ross, but there are several variants on the same theme), is used in a variety of different industries to help people to understand the stages that you go through to get to the other side.
You can find images for this in a graph format easily on the internet, but the basic stages are:
1. Shock. Whether we knew it was coming or not, we often start off with a bump. Our initial reaction to change is to be surprised by it.
2. Denial. Next, we protect ourselves by thinking it might not be true, or it may not actually happen. This is our brain’s way of giving us a break for a while.
3. Frustration or anger. We realise that things are changed and we get angry about it; we keep wishing for things to go back to the way they were. Conversely, if we created the change ourselves, we might be impatient, or anxious.
4. Depression and acceptance. Often, once we accept that change is happening, we hit rock bottom. But from that place, we can start to accept and move forward.
5. Experimentation. We start to try out little ways of changing and doing things differently. We find ways to make the change work for us and solve some of the problems that it might bring.
6. Integration. We begin to live in the 'changed way' and incorporate it into our lives
Once you realise that you have to go through the change curve, you can start to accept that it might feel tricky at first, but that this is natural, and it happens to everyone.
Accepting the loss
With every change that happens, we are losing something that used to be in its place. Whether it is a way of thinking, a way of being, a person or a place, change involves being able to let go of the old and make room for the new.
This can feel unsettling, and it can mean that we go through a type of grieving process for the old ways. This is certainly true for changes such as divorce, redundancy, and moving house. It is important to allow those feelings of loss to be felt accepted, even if we are happy about the change that is coming. Once we can come to terms with the end of the old ways, we can start to embrace the new.
We’ve all heard of the idea of getting out of your comfort zone, and the reason why its good to do this periodically is so that it doesn’t feel so alien when we are forcibly pushed out of it in the future. Our brains are wired to form habits and do things the same way every time because it is more efficient, it saves on brainpower. However, this does not necessarily mean that the way we do things is the most efficient way, or that it is even good for us.
Doing something new can feel unfamiliar and strange, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is bad. Often, the learning from it, or the positive experience of the outcome can far outweigh our reliance on feeling comfortable. How many times have you tried something different and said ‘I wish I’d done this years ago!’?
Doing, not thinking
When it comes to personal change, the main barrier I see is our need to think things through before doing something else. Do any of these phrases sound familiar?
- ‘I want to change but I don’t know how’.
- ‘I keep trying to change and it never works’.
- ‘I don’t know how to be different than I am’.
The similarity with all of these so-called ‘problems’ with change, is that they all imply that you need to change something about yourself in order for it to happen. We assume that we need to think differently or be different in order to change. In reality, the mere fact that you have thought about making a change means that you are thinking differently, you are just stalling at putting it into practice.
The key is to simply start doing, instead of thinking. We learn from our experience, not from lying awake at night mulling it over. The more that you do differently, the more has changed. The more you think about it, the less has changed, and so the more you are likely to start beating yourself up for not changing.
So, for example, if you think you can’t be the kind of person that says ‘no’ to other people, just start saying no. Start really small: say no to the dog or the salesman at the door. Before you know it, you have new experiences that show you can be different, and when you did them, something changed.
Look how much has changed already this year, and how we have coped. This is because we just had to start doing, we had to have the new experiences, we had to live the change, and we are still doing this every day.
Imagine what we could do if we actually made some of the personal changes in our lives that we really want to make. All we have to do is start doing things differently.
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