We usually think of change as a break. A revolution. A radical transformation. The problem is that sometimes that conception of change frightens and, far from encouraging us to change what must be changed, it paralyzes us, keeping us within the limits of our comfort zone. A solution to face changes with less stress and anxiety is to focus on what remains the same.
Fear and uncertainty generate a great resistance to change
Resistance to change usually originates in fear and uncertainty. When we focus on everything that is going to change, we can experience a kind of psychological vertigo that pushes us back to cling to the safe and familiar. As a result, we reject the change, even if we are aware that it is necessary. We prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.
The fear of the unknown is so intense that it clouds our reason, making fears dictate our decisions. The prospect of having to abandon many of the things we know, without knowing for sure what awaits us, makes us cling to our comfort zone, that space where we feel safe because it is made up of known habits and things, although it’s not the best space where we can be.
Continuity as a way to mitigate the impacts of change
Any change, however radical, always contains the seeds of the past. When the change that lies ahead is frightening, focusing on what will remain the same, on those things that will not change and will remain a common thread in our lives, will help us deal with the anguish.
Psychologists from the University of Amsterdam put that idea to test and discovered that when we focus on continuity and our essence, on things that will not change, it is easier for us to accept change and embrace the uncertainty that is emerging on the horizon. In one of their experiments they recruited 208 students. Half received a letter from the dean communicating important changes in the plan of study. The other half received a letter informing them of the same changes, but at the same time conveyed a vision of identity continuity.
The researchers evaluated their support for change and their sense of identity. They discovered that the change was perceived more positively and received more support when it was presented focusing on those things that would remain identical. On the contrary, when the change generated great uncertainty, the students were more reluctant to accept it.
How to find continuity in change?
If you need to implement a great change in your life and the transformations that lie ahead generate anxiety or anguish, focus on what remains the same. Seek continuity in change because, however radical the transformation may be, there are always aspects that remain virtually unchanged.
If you are going to change job, instead of thinking about having a new boss, think about the skills and knowledge of the current position that you can use in your new job. If you are going to change city or country, instead of focusing on the friends you leave, focus on those routines that you can maintain and that make you feel good and safe.
After all, it’s about understanding that there are many ways to expand the comfort zone. There are those who prefer to jump into the unknown and there are those who prefer to explore the new step by step. Some changes do not have to be spectacular, just happen. “It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you don’t stop”, as Confucius said.
Venus, M. et. Al. (2018) Visions of Change as Visions of Continuity. The Academy of Management Journal; 62(3).