As the long days of summer wind down,  kids everywhere are getting ready to go back to school, filled with a proportional mix of anticipation and dread. It means for them – amongst other things – homework again, new subjects to learn and new tests to study for.  They are undoubtedly thinking – “Who will my new teacher(s) be?  How will I have to behave to make a good impression?  How much will I have to study to get good grades?”

A child’s capacity to accept and adapt to change never ceases to amaze me.  As children, it is as universal a truth as the inevitable start of the school year.  It happens.  A lot.  Every September, children change teachers as they change grade levels.  Many even change instructors several times in a single day! They change friends, activities, and the foods they eat (well, some kids do that.) Because that change is expected, they can deal with it, perhaps even embrace it.  In the span of a semester, they size up their teachers, figure out the rules for getting good grades (i.e., the expectations behind homework and tests) and adapt.  It’s a recipe for success.  So why is it, that as adults, we forget this important life lesson?  Why do we think that voluntarily leaping into a different job or career is impossible?  Why do grownups get so trapped in complacency?

Even though those are a lot of whys, it all comes down to a few simple reasons. For starters, change is incredibly scary and disorienting.  It generally creates a buildup of anxiety within ourselves which we can’t eradicate through our typical coping methods (because we have deliberately taken away the familiar cues and footholds to which we would normally cling.) We have to find new ways to confront a problem or situation – which means, we have to use our brains, get creative, take a risk, and maybe make a mistake or two along the way.

There are two instinctual reactions to change, both harkening back to prehistoric times – fight or flight.  If we don’t fight, then we run or fly away from having to confront any real change in our situations.  We do this by ignoring what is happening, being passive, and refraining from making suggestions; in essence, we are cocooning ourselves as the proverbial ostrich does with his head in the sand.  (Actually, ostriches don’t do that – it’s all a myth – but as an adult, I refuse to change my beliefs about the bird.)  On the other hand, if we fight, we actively resist change by striking with negativity, destructive criticism, and sabotage. (Whoever thinks that ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand must be pretty stupid.)

But don’t despair – what a lot of people don’t realize right away is that there aren’t just two reactions to facing up to change – there’s a whole range to choose from.  One of the more sophisticated ways to deal with it is to control it rather than have it control you.  By harnessing and guiding it, change can become a means to your goals, not a barrier to them.

When my clients are leaving a job, whether voluntary or involuntary, they generally experience the following emotional stages, similar to the grieving process:
•    Some shock and denial that the old routine must be left behind;
•    Anger that change is inevitable;
•    Despair and a longing for the old ways; and,
•    Acceptance of the new and a brighter view of the future.

Everyone works through this process; for some, the transition is mercifully quick while others, it is painfully slow.

Kurt Lewin, who is often recognized as the “founder of social psychology”, proposed a three-stage theory of change commonly referred to as Unfreeze, Change, and Refreeze.
During the first phase of this theory – unfreezing – people start bypassing their own constructed defense mechanisms, dismantling existing mind sets and overcoming inertia.

In the second phase – change – when the dust from phase one has yet to settle, people find themselves momentarily nonplussed; things are confusing and as a reaction, they shift into neutral gear. That is to say, they don’t move back to their comfortable old ways yet they haven’t started to move forward – they are unable to start anew. This in-between state is so full of uncertainty and confusion that simply coping with it drains people’s energies, and, as a result, they are driven to get out of it. Some rush ahead, leaping into (often any) new situations, while others back-pedal and retreat into the past. This is where the real energy of transition is found and real transformation takes place.

Once a person is able to move forward, the mindset is crystallized and stage three – refreezing – is established.  Comfort levels return, as people have adjusted to the new environment and their behavior reflects their adaptation; however, this can be disconcerting — it puts one’s sense of competence and value at risk.   For example, the new employee who is succeeding can feel like a fraud, will I be found out?

It is critically important during a period of change that people take stock of what they can control. It will reduce their stress, and the truth is, we can control much more than what we can’t control.
What we can control: how we behave or act, our thoughts, our choices, our contribution and performance at work, what we say to others, positive or negative input.
What we cannot control: decisions by top management, other people, consequences of our behavior or actions

If you are contemplating a change in your life, perhaps in your job, or career, marital status, location or anything else, here is some general advice:
    Recognize why you are uncomfortable
    Acknowledge that change is constant
    Keep your expectations realistic
    Use and grow your coping skills
    Exercise, even just a little (it helps keep stress levels down)
    Relax your body
    Calm Your Mind
    Hold that pose!  (See my last blog article.)
    Use distraction
    Use additional resources as needed
    Remain upbeat and positive
    Never become complacent
    Find out what’s waiting in the wings

Let’s use our kids or our own experiences as children as role models for coping with change. Buy new clothes for the first day, make your lunch, work through the stomach ache, listen and ask questions of your new teachers and come home excited about what lies ahead. If adults were to anticipate a new boss every year, wouldn’t we embrace it too?

“Nothing limits us except ourselves; for the truest aspect of every person is unbounded potential.” Deepak Chopra

Edited by Annie Wong

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