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It’s Not Change That Frightens Us: 3 Steps to Freedom

There is a common misperception that most people are afraid of change. That is simply untrue. All marketing is based on the assumption that people long for change – if it is a change that they desire. If we didn’t, we would never buy that dress, that diet, that car, that house, take that job, marry that person, or have that child. What we are afraid of isn’t change – what we are afraid of is that we have zero control of the outcome.

Instead of change per se, we fear losing something we value, or not getting something we long for. We are afraid of loneliness, loss, suffering, discomfort, unimportance, failure, exposure, poverty, and most importantly, a loss of power. The loss of power is the most ironic, since it assumes two somewhat contradictory ideas – the first being that we can manage change to generate precisely the outcomes we prefer, and at the same time it assumes that we are at the mercy of the “powers that be.” This warring set of ideas plays out in every decision we make, like an eternal flipping of the coin for heads or tails.

What we are afraid of isn’t change – what we are afraid of is that we have zero control of the outcome.

Change has taken on an exaggerated and inappropriate negative form in our workplaces – so much so that many companies actually have Change Management departments, especially in times of merger, reorganization, or downsizing. The very name of these departments feeds into the constant battle between power and powerlessness in the employees’ minds. The employees know they cannot manage the change that is being directed at a level above their pay grade (and their control.) In the employees’ minds, they are simply the victims of the change, which is what feeds the general sense of anxiety and futility in these organizations during the change.

Organizations also love to hire professional speakers to inspire them in times of turbulence to embrace change as a positive influence. They are not wrong. Change can absolutely be a positive influence. What’s missing is the comprehension that positive and negative are defined solely from the perspective of the individual. One person’s Nirvana is another’s personal hell.

In essence, we want change both ways. If we like our current set of circumstances, we resist change. If we dislike our circumstances, we will do everything we can to hasten change in that area. In both scenarios we have less control than we like, which leads to stress, frustration, disappointment, and depression as we try desperately to control the uncontrollable. A better approach would be to apply the following three steps to embrace change as an inevitable process, which we can harness for our advantage, instead of resisting in futility.

  1. See Change in the Broader Perspective. When we recognize that change is, as they say, the one constant, and is happening all around us, every single moment of every day, we stop seeing only the negative influence of change, and instead see it as an impersonal Law of Nature, of which we are inextricably a part. In this step, consciously pay attention to the change you are participating in every day, from witnessing your children’s development, to the transformation of the seasons, and even the cycle of washing dishes. Each of these changes are happening on varying scale and duration all of the time.

  2. Stop Being A Victim. We tend to think of the things and experiences we desire, as something we were in control of, while those we dislike as something where we were victimized. One example would be the difference between being fired during a corporate downsizing and finding that perfect job you’ve been seeking. In both cases we have a tendency to see each event as the end of the change process. In order to stop being a victim of what we perceive of as “bad” change (job loss), it is crucial to remember that change continues tirelessly and inexorably, regardless of our perception of it. When you lose your job for any reason, you may expect to move on to something else, which may, as you perceive it, be even better. This is not to dismiss what can be any number of fears around income, financial stability, age, hire-ability – just to name a few. It is to emphasize that it is not personal, and change works both ways if we let it.

  3. Get Real. Knowing that change is constant and inevitable, as well as impersonal, it becomes possible to relax a little into reality. Reality, quite simply, IS. It may be painful at times, while it is delightfully pleasurable at others. By becoming a witness to your reality, you can be more responsive and less reactive to change. Awareness of what frightens you about negative change helps you to frame a response that addresses those concerns, instead of becoming stuck in your anxieties. Knowing change has occurred, the realistic thing to do, is to act on what the current reality is, moving in the direction of creating the next change – a change you desire.

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