Why Change is Difficult
For many, the end of summer signals a time of transition—and sometimes, trepidation. As the trips to the beach, walks in the park, street fairs, and balmy nights yield to earlier sunsets, cooler nights, less humidity and the hint of seasonal change, it’s not unusual to experience an emotional shift. The leisure tempo and frivolity of summer are replaced by a more industrious, somber mood—one that anticipates the cold, dark days and months ahead–and you may notice subtle changes in your mood. For some, there may even be a hint of uneasiness, disquiet, or even depression. Why do we have such trouble with change?
Don’t think we’re the only species on earth who must deal with transition. A walk in the park will alert you to the squirrels gathering nuts and beginning to fatten up as they seek to put on their winter weight; overhead the honking Canada Geese form their languid, arching V-formations as they head for warmer lands; and the buzz-saw cacophony of summer cicadas slowly fades behind the ever present din of traffic. Clearly transitions and change are part of life itself.
The reluctance of humans to “transition” has to do with our basic evolutionary, make up; we are creatures of habit. If it weren’t so, you’d have to relearn to tie your shoes every morning and relearn to touch-type every day at the computer–habits make our world more efficient. Millions of years ago, nature anticipated the adaptational advantage of not having to reinvent the wheel every day and thus, we were blessed with a capacity for forming habits. Essentially, we become enamored with the familiar and tend to resist change and movement toward the unfamiliar. Most people find that change is usually accompanied by some degree of stress or anxiety as we are forced to alter our routine patterns and habits.
Unfortunately, our inclination to remain static is in direct contrast to the world we live in. And herein lies the problem. Like the creatures around us we, too, go through many unavoidable transitions in our lives. The change of seasons is only one example; we are challenged by illness, job demands, social and financial obligations–our world is anything but static. Yet in spite of all the change, we manage to somehow maintain a sense of continuity in our lives. Perhaps I should say the “illusion” of continuity. We do this because as resilient and capable as we humans are, we also abhor not being in control. And change typically feels like a loss of control—at least initially. A world that is perceived to be fragmented, variable, or erratic can easily produce feelings of stress and anxiety. We cling to the familiar, to the predictable, and to our illusion of a fixed world because it affords us another illusion that we are in control.
There’s no doubt that some people are more adaptable and resilient, when it comes to life’s challenges, while others are challenged by the simplest break in their routine. The underlying variable that determines whether you are adaptable or not is your level of insecurity. What is insecurity? Insecurity is a learned habit of vulnerability. Let me explain. Insecurity is an inevitable by-product of living in an imperfect world. Since no one grows up in a perfect world, no one gets to escape illness, suffering, frustration, and so on. To some extent, we all have insecurity–it’s part of the human condition. Simply stated, insecurity is the anticipation of vulnerability.
Depending on your baseline level of insecurity, too much change can bring on feelings of vulnerability, loss of control, stress, tension, anxiety, or even a depressed mood. Since, we all have some degree of insecurity, we’ve all had the experience of being overwhelmed with circumstantial challenges: your report was rejected by your boss, you strained your back and can’t jog, your mother called and she needs money, your dog needs surgery—when circumstances pile up, even the most resilient can be brought to their knees. The longer that such a struggle persists, the more depleted you feel—physically as well as emotionally. The depleting effects of stress are felt not only emotionally, but also physically. Your brain chemistry is altered, not by the overwhelming circumstances of your life, but by your interpretation of these circumstances.
This is a critical point—it’s not life that depletes us, it’s how we interpret and react to our lives! Sure it’s hard to manage bad times, but I have a friend who maintains a posture of resilience and optimism in spite of the agonizing ordeal of chemotherapy. And yet I have patients who become distraught if their five-year-old isn’t invited to a birthday party. Bottom line: the ability to tolerate change is directly proportional to your degree of insecurity and to your attitude. Here’s why.
If you are easily challenged by life and find yourself going into one tailspin after another, you need to recognize the importance of actively choosing to break the habit of insecure thinking and perception. Just because you have a knee-jerk reflex of insecurity doesn’t mean you have to remain victimized by it. You can choose to do something about how you handle your life and your challenges. Yes, that’s right, you can choose! It begins with the three A’s of change–awareness, action, acceptance:
- Awareness. In order to dismantle insecurity, you must first be aware of how it manifests itself in your life. Insecurity speaks in the form of doubts, fears, and negatives. These are tip-offs to insecurity and it pays to be on the lookout for this type of thinking. Know your enemy.
- Action. Choose to change! You can think about changing your attitude. You can think about being more resilient and more adaptable, but unless you actually change your thoughts and attitudes, you’re just spinning wheels.
- Acceptance. Changing your attitude and challenging insecurity will often cause some discomfort. You may feel unsure, intimidated, or anxious. It’s important that you’re willing to accept some degree of discomfort if you’re going to break the habit of insecurity. Just keep in mind that it’s not at all unusual for change to feel initially uncomfortable. This isn’t because change is bad, it’s only because insecurity likes to cling to the tried and true.
The question you need to ask yourself is, How do you adjust to change? If you resist change, then you will be fighting life itself. Why? Because life is change. Even the physicists tell us that everything in the universe is in a state of flux, nothing remains static. If you cling to the illusion of permanence because of your insecurity, then you are setting yourself up for struggle. The answer isn’t in fighting to preserve more control and sense of permanence, the answer is in learning to flex with life, to flow from season to season without a clinging resentment. As we approach the change of seasons, see this as an opportunity to flex and yield, rather than holding onto and clinging.
And the next time you look up and see a flock of Canada Geese flying overhead, recognize the metaphor that lives all around you—change and transition are a natural part of life, choose to let go and enjoy it.