Change, whether we like it or not, is a fact of life. It's actually one of the few things that we can be sure of happening. Change can be big or small, it can be unexpected or planned, it can be sudden or gradual, it can be imposed by external circumstances or arise from our own actions.
So, while change can sometimes look like progress, it can also feel like a threatening disruption of the stability and security that we have built for ourselves. Depending on how we perceive it, it is an exciting opportunity or a catastrophic loss. A promotion at work can be thrilling and terrifying by turns. The break-up of a relationship can be a tragedy or a relief.
Two things we know for sure. Change is a reality that we have to face in our lives, and it is a reality that can cause considerable stress, both physically and mentally. Even a positive change can be extremely demanding. The key to coping is first to recognise that change is occurring, to understand the effect it is having on us, and most importantly, to take responsibility for our responses.
Types of Change
Before we look at strategies for responding effectively to change, let's consider the kinds of events that push us from the known and the familiar into unknown and potentially uncomfortable territory. In the workplace, a stable job for life is now a distant memory for most people. In an increasingly competitive world, professional changes can include:
At home, the changes we face may be part of life's natural rhythm, but they still have the potential to disrupt our lives in quite unexpected ways if we're not prepared. Changes can include:
It's also a mistake to view change at work and at home as separate challenges. One often feeds into the other. Job relocation, for instance, can mean uprooting the family and leaving friends behind. This can put pressure on marriages and create strife with children. Conversely, the birth of a new child at home, say, can trigger a deep shift in priorities and ambitions at work.
Threat vs Opportunity
It is tempting to believe that the only kind of change that we need to be concerned about is that which is imposed from outside, such as redundancy. In reality, it doesn't make much difference whether we've chosen the change or not, it will still have an impact. Any kind of change, no matter how well planned, can seem threatening and stressful. And most humans, most of the time, react to stress in one of two ways…fight or flight.
In a flight response, we try and avoid the change. At one extreme, we can go into outright denial by telling ourselves that it just isn't happening. We ignore the change, or take a passive role in the process. In the workplace, this might mean not volunteering for teams or committees that are handling the transition, or staying quiet at meetings to discuss the move, or simply not showing up. Sometimes known as “cocooning”, it allows us to feel like a victim of circumstance, which may be painful, but it serves to protect us from the possibly far more frightening prospect of staring the looming change fully in the face.
If we go into a fight response, we actively resist what's happening. This is even more painful and potentially far more damaging. This kind of resistance can include persistent negativity, gossiping, cynicism, undermining colleagues, constant complaining, destructive criticism and even intentional sabotage.
Both of these responses will not help you, and they certainly won't help those that you either live or work with. But there is another way, and the key to discovering it lies in a simple (but not easy) acceptance that life is now not going to be the same as it was. Once you have done that, you have put aside the defences of fight or flight and you are free to participate actively in the process.
That does not mean that you are agreeing with what is happening. You don't have to like it. But once you stop perceiving change as a threat, you are taking responsibility for the part you can play in it. More importantly, you are able to change what was a negative into a positive. In short, a frightening risk becomes an exciting opportunity.