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Change Is Hard, Here’s How to Make It Easier

It's a good time to talk about how we can comfortably accept change.

PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Big Stock Images
Source: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Big Stock Images

A lot has changed in our lives over the past year. We’ve changed the way we dress (hello, face masks), the way we work, the way we parent, the way we interact with loved ones, the way we interact with strangers, what we do for fun. As we head into a new year, it’s a good time to talk about how we can more readily and comfortably accept change.

Change can be frightening. Often, we will resist it. Our instinct to continue on the same path is strong even when it’s making us unhappy or unhealthy. For example, you stay in a bad relationship or continue in a career you hate long after the first red flags screaming at you to “get out!” first appear. In behavioral economics, this is known as the “sunk cost fallacy.” You continue to invest in something because of how much you already invested. You think to yourself, “I’ve already put two years into this relationship. If I get out now, those two years will have been a waste.” So instead of accepting the discomfort of change, you stay with the partner you’re not happy with. When you do eventually get out, you’ll have “wasted” even more years than you would have if you’d accepted the need to change earlier.

Sometimes refusing to change can hurt an entire community. Those who didn’t quickly adjust to pandemic life caused real harm—and still do. An unwillingness to acknowledge a changing world (like, for example, the results of an election or global warming) can drive a wedge between you and those who accept reality. Sometimes refusing to change hurts our loved ones: The toxic romantic relationship that ruins friendships, the job that leaves us angry and exhausted with little emotional energy for our partner and kids. And sometimes, refusing to change hurts just us.

To make change easier, we have to get comfortable with not knowing. We’re afraid of change because we don’t know what the future in which we accept change looks like, but we think we know what the future will look like if we reject it. The problem is that it just isn’t true. “This relationship might be unhealthy, but I don’t know if life as a single person will be any better,” you think. In this situation, you’re assuming that your relationship can’t get any worse. But it can, of course. You can’t predict the future in either direction. You have to frame the choice in a different way: “If I don’t change my situation, all evidence suggests that I will stay unhappy. If I change my situation, happiness is a possibility. Which would I prefer?”

Find change role models. Think back on times in your life when you were scared of change, but you accepted it, and the change turned out well. These can be examples from loved ones’ lives, too. You’re probably surrounded by change role models: People who were scared of making big adjustments in their lives but did so and are happier for it.

Investigate your fears. To get more comfortable with the unknown, it can help investigate what it is about it that scares you. Ask yourself questions such as “What am I afraid will happen if I make this change?” or “What do I think the world will look like if I accept this change?” Then examine whether those beliefs are faulty or not. They most likely are.

Practice radical acceptance. “Radical acceptance means fully accepting our reality and letting go of the bitterness,” according to Marsha Linehan’s dialectical behavior therapy. When you radically accept something, you recognize that fighting reality just leads to more suffering. “In order to do something about a problematic situation, you first have to accept what is already happening. Thus, you’ll release the energy that was previously spent on uncomfortable emotions and thoughts and you’ll be more able to make a proactive plan for change.” [1] You can’t change your life for the better or accept a changing world if you’re continually fighting reality. So instead of making a better life for yourself or finding a way to better fit into a changing community, you do nothing or dig in, which just makes things worse for you and those around you.

Try realistic positivity. In my book Mindful Aging, I introduce the term “realistic positivity.” Realistic positivity means seeing and accepting what is now—both in your inner and outer worlds—and then putting your focus on what you would love. When you view change through a lens of realistic positivity, you don’t pretend that change will be easy or that the results of changing or accepting change will be all sunshine and daisies. Instead, you embrace that change can be difficult and that you don’t know what will come next, but instead of ruminating about it, you focus on building a life you will love.

Life is always changing whether we want it to or not. Children grow up; people die; governments change hands; scientists make discoveries; new ways of thinking replace old ones; relationships fail; jobs disappoint us or disappear. We can stay stuck in the past, or we can embrace the future. Every opportunity for change we face can make us stronger or weaker, depending on how we deal with it. If we dig in and refuse to change or refuse to accept a changing world, we’ll stay stuck, small versions of ourselves. If we embrace change, we can learn from our past selves, from the uncertainty, from the struggle, from all of it, and grow, becoming stronger, healthier, more complete versions of ourselves.