Learn to ride the waves of change

March 1, 1999

Pharmaceutical Representative

Embrace transitions.

Change is not the end of the world…or is it? James Baldwin said, "Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one identity." Change inevitably involves loss and, thus, struggle. Letting go of what was, to reach for what can be, is often frightening.

Change can come suddenly, but transition takes time. Change is an event that may be initiated by you, by someone else, or by life. Transition, on the other hand, is a process - an internal psychological adjustment that you must accomplish before you can really feel at home in the new situation. Transition has three stages: endings, new beginnings and an in-between phase.

Some people have learned transition skills that give them a hardy reliance when they face the uncertainties of change, particularly unwelcome change. So can you.

Necessary endings

The first stage in any change is endings. Before "taking up residence" in a new situation, you must first end your physical, mental and emotional ties to the old one. You may experience the loss of relationships, activities, surroundings, assumptions and rules about how things work, identity, reputation or plans and dreams. Particularly painful are the losses of "power," particularly in imposed change in which you have no choice. Endings are characterized by a roller coaster of emotions.

Denial. When change has the potential to take away something you value, a natural reaction is to avoid facing the facts. You may deny the existence of the change, the significance of it, or the time urgency of it. Like Scarlett O'Hara, you may tell yourself, "I'll think about that tomorrow." Squarely facing the facts is a necessary first step in dealing with endings.

Fear and anxiety. One of the most pervasive of the change-related fears is the fear of the unknown. Another common fear is the loss of personal competence when a job or personal change calls for new skills. Fears of all kinds of losses cause you to resist change. Avoidance always makes fear growl. Facing the fear and taking action despite the fear is the quickest way to gain momentum.

Anger and bitterness. Anger is not necessarily bad. When you deal with anger promptly and do not take it out on others, anger can actually energize positive action. On the other hand, anger can harden into long-term bitterness. Obsessive thinking about "justice" and revenge can mentally tie you and handicap you in your ability to move on. The ability to forgive, let go and accept your inability to change the unchangeable are necessary transition skills. The truth is, things aren't always fair. Plans don't always materialize. That's life. Don't get hung up in bitterness over it.

Depression. When you are depressed, you mentally exaggerate the most negative aspects of yourself, your situation and your future. You may eat too much or too little or sleep too much or too little. You may become less active or less involved with people. Fight depression by challenging your negative thinking, remaining active despite lack of motivation and interacting with people though you don't feel sociable and exercising daily. If you are clinically depressed, counseling and/or antidepressant medication can help.

Grief. Grief is nature's way of dealing with loss. Be careful not to exaggerate the losses, which can create depression. Rather, allow yourself to feel and express the sadness about the actual losses you have experienced. Tears do help (you, too, guys!) as does conversation with a caring friend. Grieve losses, and soon your pain becomes less intense and less frequent.

Wander the wilderness

The "wilderness" is the in-between phase, before your have connected to new beginnings. In this stage, you feel a combination of confusion, conflicts and power struggles, personal vulnerability and diminished self-esteem. You feel disoriented because familiar landmarks and assumptions are missing.

On the other hand, the wilderness can be the time of greatest creativity, if you determine to make it so. The very absence of the skills and habits you need for the new situation can create the necessity for invention. You can take fresh perspectives, attempt new procedures and take risks.

New beginnings beckon

When you have dealt with the other two stages of transition successfully, the new beginnings phase can be relatively easy. Intense emotion is diminished, and you feel relief in the gradually growing sense of order and predictability. You still have skills to develop and work to do, but you gain positive momentum from the renewed motivation that comes from small steps. That's the good news. The bad news? Your sigh of relief doesn't last long. More change is around the corner!

Ride the waves of change

I found some unexpected help in knowing how to deal with change on a speaking tour of South Africa. My seminar on change bore the same title as this article. I happened upon a group of surfers at the beautiful beaches of Capetown, and I seized this opportunity to interview these young experts on riding the waves. I invite you to extract and apply the valuable lessons on change from the five principles they shared.

Flexible positioning. Flex your knees, so that you can easily adjust to the waves that come. Don't be rigid.

Familiarity with the environment. Know the nuances of the environment in which you surf. Study the facts about the landscape and weather that can influence what you will encounter.

Preparation and anticipation. Don't be caught unaware. Watch for the wave, anticipate it and prepare for it.

Catching the wave. Don't fight the wave; go with it. Catch it, and enjoy the adventure of where it will take you. The surfer's definition of boredom is "no waves."

Wiping out without being "wiped out." Of course, sometimes you fall…you wipe out. Don't give up. When you do wipe out, get right back up on the board! PR