Managing change with psychological flexibility

by | Oct 19, 2020 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Photo by Justin Luebke on Unsplash

After a recent family relocation, I have been thinking a lot about how my family and I deal with change. I recalled many of the changes across my life; international moves with my children all born on different continents, two very different careers, family members passing away, my children becoming teenagers. Change still brings up complex emotion for me, yet I realise I have also changed my orientation toward it over the years.

Traditionally I am not a person who naturally enjoys change (where other family members are positively energised by it and daydream about it). My personality is such that I would rather perfect one skill than move on to develop another, keep outdated software because I am familiar with it, do my groceries in the same place so I don’t have to traipse unknown aisles and experience frustration. Avoiding change keeps things comfortable and predictable. However, it also means that our implicit assumptions about ourselves and the world remain unchallenged. It means we never have to challenge or test our beliefs about ourselves and the world. In the same
way that exercise produces micro-tears in our muscles, allowing them to rebuild and strengthen, and that immunisations strengthen our body’s response to infection, experience with change can unlock capacities we would otherwise not acquire. Change can be the gift you were given that you did not know you needed.

Psychologists work alongside clients with issues related to change every day. Often the way through change processes involves increasing our psychological flexibility, which can be thought of as our ability to respond to change, discomfort or challenge without breaking. When faced with situations of difficulty and change, what is your usual response? Sometimes we attempt to control our circumstances, which although understandable, is a strategy that may become more difficult to manage than change itself! When change keeps coming, a more effective response might be to respond with flexibility.

Why don’t you read through these approaches to see what makes sense to you?

Think through the impending change realistically. Our brains are wired to make quick assessments (heuristics) to minimise our vulnerability, however this process, though efficient, is prone to produce unhelpful thinking (bias). If we feel believe change to be difficult and threatening, our brains are going to minimise our exposure to thoughts about change by giving us beliefs based on heuristics, rather than considered opinion. Giving some time to think concretely, realistically and pragmatically through the change will actually turn down this neurobiological pathway of avoidance and thought distortion.

Make room for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. When we practice observing our thoughts and feelings non-judgementally, we’re in a position to partner and coach ourselves through challenges. ‘Oh, I notice I’m feeling some resistance to getting going on my preparation for change. That may be because I’m overthinking again. I’ll stick with what’s in front of me and focus on that instead’.

Focus on your coping capacity before the uncertainty. So often our heads drive us to problem solve, and sometimes, coupled with anxiety, the problems we think we are solving can be less realistic and more hypothetical. While we may believe that we will be better prepared when we think through all possible outcomes in our situation, we do know from research in populations of anxious individuals that approaching change this way increases the belief that problems are overwhelming and decreases confidence in our own ability to cope. A deliberate focus upon the ways we have been able to adapt or manage ourselves in transition is a great way to increase the belief we have for ourselves to manage challenges.

Be aware of myths. Our own internal dialogue through times of change can reveal some of the underlying mechanisms driving our overall change-orientation. More deeply held beliefs, or what has been modeled to us about change may actually need addressing. If you are a person who had little exposure to change early in life, or perhaps observed a caregiver’s response to impending change, you may have some developed some internal models about change.

Change is intolerable. I can’t change. People never change. If we think and behave as if these messages are true, we can feel drained, defeated, disempowered.

Looking back, I see that adaptive, flexible coping with change is possible. Looking forward, I see that a flexible mindset equips me to manage future changes effectively. What is your orientation toward change? Where is your opportunity for growth in flexibility?

‘Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise’. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

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