Why is change so hard?
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Any change involves uncertainty, and that can be unsettling. We need a measure of safety and security to maintain life as we know it. On the other hand, we need some excitement and stimulation to encourage growth. Even though we know everything changes (the only constant is change), we still cling to the idea of permanence and stability. Why?
There is solace in knowing that the sun will come up, the seasons will change, that the world moves according to a predictable pattern. In our own lives, we create schedules and calendars to help maintain a sense of certainty. This gives us a secure base from which to explore new things, while not overextending ourselves too far into the unknown.
From a historical perspective, when we lived in hunter-gatherer tribes, it made sense that we sought the security of the group, the fire, the known. The darkness contained multiple possibilities for death and destruction, but at the same time potential rewards. This is the struggle between order and chaos, stagnation and growth, yin and yang.
We are naturally goal-oriented beings, and derive satisfaction from setting and achieving goals. This is nature’s way of keeping us moving towards life-sustaining activities such as finding food, shelter and compatible mates. Although these are good goals to have, we do not live in the untamed wilderness, and have the time to reflect, regroup and move forward with clarity and purpose.
One of the hardest places to be is in the middle of a transition period. We are letting go of the past, and moving ahead into the future. This can be particularly challenging, especially if it is unclear what the next goal should be. We can’t go back, as much as we might want to, so we are left with the responsibility of moving forward—do or die.
In this in-between stage of a transition, counselling can be helpful. It gives space to learn from the past, re-organize ourselves, and plan for the future. The time spent between careers, relationships or identities is sometimes called the neutral zone—this is the space where it can feel like nothing is happening. As a result, we may move too quickly to the next thing: a new job, a new partner, a new academic program.
One of the goals of therapy is to help us become more comfortable with uncertainty, rather than simply reacting to circumstances—not jumping forward without first doing the necessary work on ourselves. The danger of moving too quickly is that we may end up repeating the same unwanted patterns over and over.
The neutral zone is a place for rest, reflection and planning, allowing the natural rhythm of life to play a part in what’s next. During transition and change the path forward is not always clear, but by embracing the present moment (uncertainty and all), we have a better chance of coming out the other side a stronger version of ourselves. We just need to trust the process.