Change is not difficult. We make it difficult

We are more afraid of change than we should be.

Resisting change won’t make it disappear — It will make things worse. What we resist, persists.

Resistance is a signal, not a natural behavior. We must listen to what it’s trying to tell us, instead of turning it into a paralyzing sign.

Follow Ladders on Flipboard!

Follow Ladders’ magazines on Flipboard covering Happiness, Productivity, Job Satisfaction, Neuroscience, and more!


Lao Tzu summed that up perfectly,

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them — that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

As a society, we screwed up our relationship with change. I’m not saying it’s easy. But treating it as the enemy, rather than our ally, doesn’t help. Change is our natural state of being. By focusing on what we can control, it will feel less stressful and more comfortable to achieve.

Change has a bad rap

We fear what change can do to us, instead of thinking about what we can do because of it.

Experts love making us feel we are facing a crisis — The acceleration of change creates anxiety and stress.

The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is “danger at the point of juncture” — Consultants present change as a life-or-death situation. While this approach might benefit their business — organizations get scared and hire them to help — it’s intimidating people.

Change is a continuum, an evolution. So, why do we love to portray it as something threatening that’s coming to get us?

In this well-researched essayAlex Murrell makes a strong case: the pace of change is not accelerating, as everyone claims.

As the author explains, “The feeling that we are being carried along by an uncontrollable current of change is not unique to modern times.” Experts said that change was accelerating in 1900. They also said it in 1920. In 1940, in 1960, in 1980 and 2000.

The article explains how the belief that we live in an era of “mind-boggling economic upheaval and change” is unfounded — Research by various economists shows a decades-long slowdown in almost every indicator of business dynamism.

“Change or Die”

Thinking in binary terms doesn’t help.

We’ve turned change into a dangerous species — It feels like an enemy that’s ready to hunt us down. Rather than an ally that can help us grow, we are afraid it will wipe us off the face of the earth.

We need to get past the life-or-death perspective. Moving beyond our comfort zone shouldn’t be stressful or dangerous — it’s usually safer than we think.

That’s the mistake many people make — there’s an intermediate space between the ‘comfort zone’ and the ‘dangerous zone,’ as I wrote here. Personal growth happens in this temporary space called the Learning Zone. Only by crossing the line between certainty and familiarity, you can grow.

Leaving our comfort zone is not a radical decision though. You can always take baby steps and explore. We abandon the comfort zone temporarily, not forever. The secret lies in finding the balance between new and familiar things.

Change doesn’t need to cause harm. You can stretch beyond your comfort zone without putting your life at risk.

We are more adaptive than we think

Our brain is like a muscle — the more you exercise it, the fitter it becomes.

When talking about resistance to change, most people refer to our ‘reptilian brain.’ The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something terrifying. The release of hormones prepares your body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away.

But that’s just one side of the story.

“Neurons that fire together wire together.” — Donald Hebb

When brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens. Messages that travel the same pathway in the brain over and over begin to transmit faster and faster. Training and practice can encourage our neurons to fire together.

Playing tennis for the first time can be intimidating. But, the more you practice hitting the ball, the more natural it becomes.

Change makes us feel off-center — our initial response is to return to the way things were. But, we are much more adaptive and resilient than we think.

As Confucius said, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

A groundbreaking study on resilience busted the myth that a troubled childhood leaves you emotionally crippled forever.

Psychologist Emmy Werner spent 40 years studying kids from impoverished, unstable families. In spite of the adverse environment, 30% of the children grew up to become successful students and adults — many of them surpassed peers from more privileged backgrounds.

We also have a natural tendency to return to a stable level.

The Hedonic Treadmill theory describes how, after either negative or positive events, we usually get back to a relatively stable level of happiness. External events can boost or harm our emotional state. But, after some time, we get used to that new level and then return to our normal level of happiness.

Change, regardless if it’s positive or negative, doesn’t kill you.

Resistance is a signal

Research by Rosabeth Moss Kanter identified ten key reasons why people resist change. Not surprisingly, most of them are emotional. But there’s an underlying theme: our need to be in control.

Most of the times, we see change as something that happens to us, rather than us being part of it.

Change makes us feel off-center — our first response is usually to do whatever we can to return the way the world was before. We feel a loss of control, so we do whatever is possible to regain mastery over our lives.

The paradox is that we want to be in control of something that we can’t fully control. Most of the things in life are out of our control. But, we can manage our decisions and emotional reaction — resistance is not a natural behavior then, but a choice.

Our ability to adapt is more natural — We must learn to control less and trust more.

Fear to change is a signal that a window of opportunity has opened in front of you — Inaction can be more damaging.

As Seth Godin wrote, “By the time the fear subsides, it will be too late. Someone else will have already done it, it will already be said or it will be irrelevant. The reason you’re afraid is that there’s leverage here, something that might happen. Which is exactly the signal you’re looking for.”

Resistance is also signal that our identity might be at risk.

Research shows that loss of identity is a key barrier to collaboration among groups — People don’t want to lose the sense of who they are by opening up their work rituals. We believe that, by changing our behaviors, we change who we are. Or, even worse, we think we cannot adopt new habits because “that’s not who I am.”

If you want to improve your fitness, labeling yourself as “I’m in bad shape” won’t help you start exercising. You must separate your identity from your behavior. That you like sleeping until late doesn’t make you a lazy person either — that shouldn’t hold you from changing your habits.

Labels are deceiving — they oversimplify who we are. They get us stuck in our present reality instead of liberating all our possibilities.

You are not fixed, but fluid.

The brain can be trained to create new neural connections and turn — what initially seemed daunting — into something familiar. The mind can also be trained to accept, understand, and manage our emotions and thoughts(without suppressing them or letting our feelings take over).

As a change instigator, I’ve seen teams dramatically transform their relationship with change — in just a couple of hours — when you help them understand their emotions, and provide a safe space and tools to address those.

Part of our confusion about change has to do with low self-awareness — we are detached from the natural rhythms of life. We are so obsessed with science, stats, and measuring everything that we lost connection with our common sense.

We are continually becoming

Change is a sign that we are alive. The world is dynamic, not static. Fighting impermanence or change is going against the basic rules of nature.

“Refusing to grow up may be a form of rebellion. But really growing up could be a revolution.”

— Susan Neiman

Being and becoming are united — they define the path of life. Being represents our relationship with the now; becoming, our relationship with our future.

The future will happen to us regardless. External events will affect our perceived stability — People are not under your control. Their decisions will have positive or negative consequences in your life. You can’t alter that. But, you can change how you react to it.

Instead of trying to control change; we need to allow it to become.

Everything that happens to us shapes our lives. And then, we return to a new normal. The less we resist that transition, the better we’ll be.

As Mankutimma said, “Even if the floods cause the seas to unite — drowning the land in between. Even if the forest is covered in fog. Do not let go of your inner tranquility. Do not feel anxious. The seas will recede. The fog will clear up. There is an end to everything — good or bad.”

We must have an open relationship with the future. Resisting change doesn’t allow us to benefit from all the possibilities that the future can bring. Personal growth is about becoming — to continually be learning, growing, evolving, and transforming.

Make space for things to happen. When we resist, we block our future. When we adapt, we keep the door open to new experiences. We can’t change reality, but we can change our attitude.

Take water for example — the most changing element in nature. Rain for a farmer is a blessing, but a disturbance for tourists visiting a new city. The roar of big waves can be exciting for a surfer, but a worry for a man with little kids.

Embracing change is about becoming like water — we cannot control the environment, but we can choose how we adapt to it.

Bruce Lee said it best,

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water.

If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot.

Now, water can flow or it can crash.

Be water, my friend.”

This article originally appeared on Medium. 

You might also enjoy…