Why Change is Difficult–and what to do about it

I was panicking.

My heart raced as I tried desperately to see a street sign, any sign that would give me an idea of where I was. But there were no street sign, none!

All the sayings from my parents flooded my head: “People will take advantage of you.” “You have to watch your back.” “Taxi drivers will take you the long way to get more money.”

And here I was, in the back of a taxi in a foreign country. Alone and naive.

As the taxi sped along, I finally spied a street sign on a building. I still didn’t know if the driver was taking me the long way or the short way to my destination, but seeing that sign calmed me considerably.

I was 18 and had just flown to Paris to attend college. Although I thought I was prepared for this big step, when I landed and had to get my bags, get a taxi and go to the hotel set up by the college, I became overwhelmed and anxious. These people weren’t speaking the French I was accustomed to — the French spoken by high school kids in Virginia, slow and deliberate with just a tinge of a southern accent. No, these people spoke rapidly and without pause.

I spent my first days searching for restaurants with english menus. I didn’t dare speak the French I knew, fearful of being made fun of.

Within a couple of days, the other three girls I was sharing a room with at the hotel showed up. It was a relief to have other English speaking students to explore Paris with. Even so, I found them odd and unlike my friends at home.

It never occurred to me that they might find me odd and unlike their friends at home.

Why Change is Difficult--and what to do about itLooking back, I see how the multiple changes made overnight were overwhelming. My small, known world had exploded and much of what I took for granted was no longer there, replaced instead by myriad unknowns.

In our day to day lives, routines and rituals ground us and keep us tethered to the known. We know how our day will likely unfold and progress. It’s part of what makes travel so exciting, so much is new — and part of why we’re usually ready at the end of a vacation to head into our own beds and the familiar.

When my partner and I chose to move to the south of France from Austin, TX, we did so slowly and with great deliberateness. Over the course of two years, we downsized, sold our house, gave away or sold almost everything.

I, a former packrat, had been persuaded to let go of my hundreds of books, the odd collections of little things from travels around the world. I learned to let go of my belief that things grounded me. We left our jobs, friends and families, and moved.

Sometimes being mentally prepared is not enough.

With the excitement of making our dream come true, we overlooked how we were untethering ourselves from ‘home.’ It’s one thing to say goodbye to loved ones; it’s something else to wake up wishing for the familiarity of another’s humor or wanting the ritual of sharing appetizers with specific friends at happy hour.

In moving, we were forced to create new routines and rituals to ground us. Admittedly, coffee is our choice of drug in the morning so we immediately set out to create that soothing routine.

The rest? Took time, patience and lots of flexibility. When you move to another country, you know intellectually that most things will be different. But, when you need something that can only be purchased at a pharmacy and the pharmacy is closed on Sundays, it can be frustrating.

You want to make a favorite recipe — and have no clue where to find the ingredients.

You go out for an early dinner and realize nothing is open until 7PM, but you’re hungry now.

After a change, it’s natural to second guess yourself.

People are sometimes surprised that the change they wanted (and planned for) has drawbacks, unwelcome feelings, and that it can create anxiety.

Change, even the changes that we want — such as a new job or promotion, a marriage, a baby, buying a house — involves newness and our brains aren’t always up for the challenge! Newness means we are out of our comfort zone and your brain will seek signs that you need to return to your previous state. That’s why at the first sign of discomfort, your brain will excitedly point out the issues:

  • ‘See, he doesn’t really love you or he would’ve texted that he would be late. You never should’ve gotten married!’
  • ‘I never should’ve asked for this promotion, now they’ll all see that I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel so stupid.’
  • ‘Why did you ever think you could be successful at being an entrepreneur? You’re not disciplined enough. Your family is right about you, you fail at everything you do.’

Harsh, right? Yet your brain is trying to protect you by convincing you that the known is better than the unknown. It thinks that, if you go back to the way it was, you’ll be safe. That primitive part of your brain known as the amygdala sees change and newness as a threat. Because it is so primitive (I call it your lizard brain), your amygdala doesn’t differentiate between a bear coming at you and being scared of doing a presentation at work.

When it gets activated, it resorts to old storylines from the past that used to keep you in line. Hence, it can sound rather like a bully. But, let’s face it, if a bear was coming at you, you wouldn’t want to be entertained and lightly cajoled to maybe, just possibly, getting out of the way.

Instead your amygdala faces the ‘threat’ of potentially being embarrassed, rejected or humilated by cutting straight to the chase. ‘You’ll be humiliated if you do that! You’re too old, too unskilled, not smart enough, not good-looking enough (insert your favorite here).’

How does one handle change then? Here are three constructive ways:

  • Anticipate that there will be setbacks and times when it doesn’t go according to plan. Your new house might reveal a problem, you may feel like you know nothing about babies, or feel like your choice to move/marry/accept a new job was all a mistake.

Tune in to your self talk and gently refute it. A problem revealed doesn’t indicate that you’re a loser any more than learning to be a parent means you’re not suited to be a parent. Remind yourself that it’s okay to have feelings about what’s going on and then let them go.

  • Learn to differentiate between anxiety and excitement. Physiologically they feel the same (butterflies in your stomach, sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat), it’s the interpretation of the physical symptoms that gives it meaning. Think about the ascent of a roller coaster and how you’re giddy with anticipatory excitement.

Those physical symptoms are similar to how many people feel before giving a speech. The ‘threat’ here is possible rejection or embarrassment if interpreted as anxiety. If viewed through the idea that you’re excited, you can envision it being well-received and being appreciated. Next time you feel anxious, try on the idea that you’re excited instead.

  • Remind yourself why you wanted this change in the first place (today I am only talking about a change that you wanted, not something unwanted or undecided by you, that’s another article!). It can be helpful to make a list of why you wanted this and what drove you to make the change.

One rainy day as we stood outside a closed shop on a Sunday, my partner sighed, “This isn’t quite what I thought it would be.”

“What did you think it would be?”

“Lots of people watching at cafes, good wine, amazing architecture, stunning views, good food. Not closed shops when I need something.”

We laughed together. All that good stuff was exactly what we had; it had just momentarily gotten lost in the frustration of another closed shop. So we did what reminded us of why we moved in the first place: we found a cafe, ordered food and wine and people-watched.

It was wonderful.

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