It’s that time again, when many people have begun the process of making those New Year’s resolutions happen. While some embrace, even bask in, the promise of change, others falter in the slow torture—often doomed to failure—that change represents to them. We have great plans and aspirations, yet so often find ourselves at the end of each year having made little or no progress—or worse, having lost ground. Many have long since abandoned the annual ritual, because they grew weary of falling off the log, which made them feel even worse.
Why is change so difficult? Thousands of wise and seasoned answers are offered in books, articles, interviews and research. We know what the formulas are and that change requires thoughtful planning and devoted execution. Change must be conceivable, believable, achievable etc. Most of us are capable of excellent planning and have the means at our disposal to support the changes we aspire to make. More than the how of change is the endurance required of change that often eludes us.
Why is it easier to fail at change than succeed? My work in biofeedback and stress recovery brings people from all stations and walks of life and careers. Athletes from scholastic to high-profile professionals, musicians, business and corporate leaders, healthcare professionals, police and firefighters, craftspeople, parents, teachers, coaches and students, young, middle and older—everybody, without exception, struggles with change. Quite simply: Change feels stressful.
The ambivalent approach of “stress management” is not enough. Instead we need to learn how to manage ourselves in the face of the stress we experience and build resilience. The archaic concept of “stress management” is a myth. Life is full of stress, and it’s not going away any time soon. We truly cannot “manage” a great deal of what stresses us. But what we can do—what we must do—is learn to manage ourselves in the face of the stress we experience. A similar approach is the concept of “time management.” The truth is that no one can manage time. The clock keeps ticking and time moves forward. What we can do, however, is learn to manage ourselves within the time that we have. There is a very fundamental difference in perspective here. We can now move from the passenger seat to the pilot seat.
All stress is not bad stress. In order to change, we are asking ourselves to do something (or several things) differently. Doing things differently feels strange and uncomfortable to us. Many of us don’t tolerate this discomfort easily or well, and therefore the concept—as well as the work—of change is experienced as stressful to many people. The habitual response to stress is to do something that relieves or removes the stress. When we respond that way, the stress is making the decisions. To relieve the stressfulness, we then revert back to the “old way” and it feels familiar, better. Further, we often hold a mindset that stress is bad, and everything that stresses us requires relief. And that’s where we get stuck. This mindset anchors us to the old behaviors, and sabotages our efforts to change. We simply don’t or can’t tolerate the stressful discomfort of change long enough for it to become the new comfort.
So, how do we learn to tolerate the discomfort that the process of change creates long enough to get comfortable and succeed in making a change? This process is initially counterintuitive since we are programmed by habits and life experience to resist discomfort. So we need to adopt a new and different skill set to manage it. A current perspective on this process is referred to as “stretching yourself.”
Learning the skills of stress recovery and resilience enables a person to restore his or her sense of emotional and cognitive balance and function. The feeling will be tangibly different from the sense of stress that disrupts our intentions. During the challenging early phases of change, you can employ these skills to soften the stressfulness that accompanies the discomfort of change. As you master the skills of reducing the stressfulness you feel, you will resist change less and can learn to tolerate it with the understanding, determination and self-trust that the change you have selected is good for you and your future.
Many skills and techniques can restore balance and counteract stress. One of the most powerful and effective is to learn the skill of intentional, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. Another is to train yourself to remain mindful and focused on what you are doing, rather than on what you want. In this kind of work, when we focus too much on what we want, our stress level stays too high to get it (the classic “trying too hard,” as in test-taking anxiety). However, when we master the skill of remaining mindful, together with balanced breathing, and focus on what we are doing, what we want will usually show up. It isn’t forced; it just happens.
Once this stress recovery is engaged, the stress is no longer making your decisions; you are making your decisions. In this way you learn to tolerate and resist that stressful “pull” back to the old habit, allowing the new ideas and behaviors to gradually replace the old ones. The experience generates a new comfort paired with the new habit: the change you want.
Of course not to imply that it’s easy, but when you understand the mechanics of the resistance to change, and begin to regularly practice the skills and tools to manage your response to it, you can also pave the way to change and the greater things you want for yourself in the weeks, months and years ahead. You can learn to more comfortably “stretch.”
Practice these skills for 10 minutes every day. Every day. Yes, you do have 10 minutes a day for personal development and growth. Invest in yourself. Practice and allow time to adjust—be a little patient. Practice makes permanence.
This year I resolved to share these ideas with the LinkedIn community. Hopefully the concepts will resonate for Jewish Link readers as well, and help to unlock the understanding, tools and courage to take those initial small steps in learning to tolerate the discomfort of change—just long enough to become comfortable with the new “who and what” you’d like to become.
Happy 2018 and best wishes for a successful year ahead in a safe and peaceful world. Cheers!
Please share your journey if you feel the ideas were effective for you.
By Ellie Wolf
Ellie M.B. Wolf, MS, BCB is a Fellow, BCIA (Biofeedback Certification International Alliance).