“I don’t love change, but I’ve got no choice.”
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How often do you feel this way? It seems like change is happening all around us, all the time, and while you might elect some of those changes (new outfit!), there are others that get imposed on you, like it or not.
Years ago I was working in an office that was still on a paper-based system. When a new boss informed us that we were going to modernize, everyone thought it was great–at first. Of course, we should be using computers for this work!
I was on the project team, and I helped with every aspect of sourcing, selecting and designing the new system. You would think I’d have it all under control, right? But after we went live, it was terrible! I told one of my colleagues that I felt like I was sliding backwards downhill in the dark all the time.
To cope with this new reality, I did things that really seemed like the right thing to do:
Making sure everyone else had someone to turn to (me)
Working longer hours
Trying to figure out everything myself
These strategies fit my self-image as someone who works hard, understands technology, is a good problem-solver and takes people seriously when they have problems. Still, it seemed like everything I touched that week was just getting worse. No matter how hard I worked, nothing was getting better.
Just a couple of weeks after our go-live date, I was mandated to attend a training workshop. By the time this workshop started, I was feeling deeply shaken. My sense of being someone who was good at my job had completely vanished, replaced by the feeling that I couldn’t do anything right and was a hazard to operations.
The first morning of that retreat, one of the facilitators (Frank) told a story about a vacation he’d taken. His wife had given him a gift: The Richard Petty Driving Experience at Daytona’s International Speedway. He was paired with a driving instructor, who gave him the chance to drive around the track just once on his own without any instruction. He did so but did terribly–unable to take the turns without stopping and making huge corrections.
Frank only got halfway around the track before he pulled over and dropped his hands in his lap. “I can’t do it,” he told the instructor.
Instead of giving him a list of directions, the instructor just asked him “Do you know how to drive?”
“Yes!” Frank said, exasperated.
“Okay, then stop thinking about this being Daytona. Stop thinking about the track and the car. Just do what you know to do.”
Frank gave him a puzzled look, but took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a moment, and then put the car in gear. He focused just on the driving and let go of everything he’d been thinking and worrying about. And, while he wasn’t a speed demon, he made it around the rest of the track without the problems he’d had for the first half.
When I heard this story, it hit home for me. I felt like everything I’d been doing in my office for the last several days had been just like Frank’s first attempts at driving the track. I was making nothing but mistakes and fixing my own screwups.
Two days later, when I returned to the office, I just kept repeating to myself, “Stop thinking about the software and how different everything is. Just do what you know to do.”
I stopped getting in my own and everyone else’s way. It took us a few months before everything felt so second-nature that we could turn things around as quickly as we’d done (if not faster) before the change, but that backwards-downhill slide stopped.
Ever since, I’ve been trying to notice when I am distracted by worried thoughts, especially to notice when I’m allowing those worried thoughts to motivate anxiety-fueled decisions. What I have been practicing now kicks in a lot faster.
Recently, when my husband decided to quit his job and then get a new one, I had to practice everything. I didn’t allow myself to get in the way. It was tempting, but I stayed supportive and managed my own anxiety by focusing on the present moment, not my fears about the future.
This was very important. By managing my own anxiety I was able to help him manage his. If I hadn’t managed myself, he would have had both his own emotional reactivity to deal with and my own. He knew that I cared about him and believed in our partnership, whatever might happen. He got a new job quickly, partly because he was able to focus on the present moment and show up to interviews in a calm, collected manner.
Bottom Line: While some changes are not your choice, how you deal with them is in your control. Will you fight it, or accept that it exists? Will you try to change what’s happening, or make the best of it? Stay aware of what you do have and what you can do, and try to let go of your fears about what will happen in the future.