The Process of Change for the Better
Change is often initiated by feelings of restlessness, irritability and boredom. What used to satisfy you no longer interests you. Some of the people you enjoyed being around are so annoying you can’t wait to get away from them. Frustration is another instigator of change: you keep trying and failing to achieve a goal, as when you search for a job and all the doors close. Or (unknowingly) you hold on to a relationship that’s dead and gone and then wonder why you can’t move forward.
If you are not in tune with the forces that are pushing you to let go of the past you may interpret discomfort as the need to move, leave a job, marriage or relationship, get involved with groups or causes, or travel around the world. Sometimes external action is what you need to take, but until you identify the internal source of your malaise you’ll repeat the past wherever you go or whatever you do.
When you are unsure about what to do the temptation is to distract yourself from the confusion, rather than figure out which part of you is arguing with the authentic self. Ignoring your freedom loving self forces it to take drastic measures to get your attention, such as attracting an event that shakes you to the core: an accident, a boss fires you, a friend or relative lets you down, a spouse walks out, or an illness stops you in your tracks.
Like most people, your first reaction to an upsetting event is to feel scared and out of control, as though you have no power in the situation. While it is true that there are some events over which you have no control, you do have control over how you respond to the unexpected. This alone may tell you what you need to change about yourself.
The Freedom Urge
We all crave stability, but too much stability is antithetical to life – the freedom you feel when your heart and soul are fully engaged in what you are doing. In fact, once you get past the shock of whatever altered your world you realize the reversal forced you to become aware of structures that held you back from self-expression, such as the belief that you could not survive without what or who left your life. Not only do you survive, you thrive without the illusion of security. In some cases, the transformation is so profound people who “knew you when” may not recognize the person you are today. Here you have the payoff that follows adversity: absent the disruption, you would not have changed for the better.
Resistance to Change
A conservative outlook on life is programmed into the primal part of our brains as protection. To survive, stick with what you know even when it no longer works. The assumption is that change equates with the word worse. For example, when you think of the word change what is your first thought? Most likely you feel uneasy, unless you connect change with a positive outcome, how you’ll look in a new wardrobe, being with a friend who has the same values, or working in a job that uses your strengths and pays well.
But just when you begin to think positively, in will come doubt and disbelief, the enemies of change for the better. You think of all the reasons why you failed in the past, and why you’ll fail now: I’m too old, it’s too late, it’s too much trouble, nobody wants what I have to offer so I’ll just take it easy, on and on until you give up on what makes your life feel fresh and new.
Michele Faces Her Fear of Change
“I had to leave the meeting because I felt so upset,” one of my clients said about a seminar I suggested she attend to gather information about the sales career she was considering. Michele had told me she was bored to death with staff roles, she wanted to make things happen.
“All of my fears came up, just as you said they would,” Michele continued. “I got so overwhelmed I decided sales must not be for me.”
Michele assumed that discomfort meant she was off track. It is true the wrong path will not work out, but usually the choice feels right in the beginning because it’s easy, and then it gets worse. The right path, on the other hand, is difficult at first, sometimes excruciatingly difficult, but then it gets easier.
Michele’s avoidance of discomfort was a pattern I saw in her autobiography, the initial assignment I give to my clients. She never ended anything; instead, she set it up so that others made the decision, then she felt angry and victimized. For instance, she was let go from jobs, and left by two former spouses.
Like most thinking types Michele did not trust her feelings, with good reason. She was highly educated, but her feelings were still in kindergarten, volatile as a six year old. As a result, she made choices that kept her in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction.
Rather than move into sales right away, I suggested Michele go to work on maturing her feelings.
“How do I do that?” Michele asked anxiously.
“By feeling them,” I said, and then we both laughed, since we knew that was not what Michele wanted to do.
“Keep a feeling journal and send that to me at the end of every week,” I said to Michele. “In time, your mind will be able to distinguish between feelings that are from the past and feelings that are current. But you’ll have to be patient. Your mind is so quick it will criticize the feelings for not being fast enough. The day will come when you know what you feel as well as what you think. Then you’ll make wise choices.”
As you can imagine, the process of change for Michele was long and tedious, with setbacks and frustrations. Some days she was ready to give up, but she persevered. A year and a half later she knew for sure what she felt.
“After meeting with several sales managers using the approach you outline in your book I’m convinced I can do the job,” Michele said to me. “I am so different now when considering change. I see endings and beginnings as the same process: you have to be aware of what you feel, what you really feel; you also need to get accurate information to confirm what the feelings are telling you. Everyone I met with agreed that with the right training I would do fine in sales. One offered me a job. I said I’d get back to him when I was finished with my exploration.”
Changing for the Better
Make a list of what you need to change about yourself to improve your circumstances. Start with the most pressing need. Then write about what you can do day by day to make these changes a reality. As an example, if you need to think clearly sign up for a class in Logic. If your feelings need updating, enroll in an acting class. When in doubt, be like Michele: do what scares you to death; everything else is boring.
Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the Sacramento/San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Need. Her website is workwithpassion.com.