Slipping off the edge of your comfort zone may be terrifying, but it could bring just the opportunities you need. Catherine Eden of Femina magazine shows how to face your fear and take the first step into a brave new life.
At the beginning of this year, a friend wished me a 2008 'with a zero activity pattern.' No such luck, of course. Change is as inevitable as night and day, and the only thing that is certain about life is that it requires constant adaptation to fluctuating circumstances.
But, while you can't avoid change, you can decide whether to resist it or embrace it. Remember the power cuts? Well, picture this. After dealing with more than my fair share of death and drama, zero activity on my electricity meter (be careful what you wish for!) is the last straw that sets my small world rocking.
But I have a deadline to meet, so I head for Jaqui Daya, my favourite coffee shop, which is open, illuminated and welcoming. Jaqui himself plugs in my laptop and invites me to stay all day if I need to. I order poached eggs and coffee, flex my fingers and type my headline: 'How to make change work for you.' Hah! How good am I at following my own counsel when the chips are down? Bongi, the waitress, catches my eye. She knows I'm stressed so she grins and mouths 'breathe…just breathe!'.
Bongi has hit on a useful piece of advice for someone in upheaval. Change brings instability and instability causes anxiety and stress. However, if you focus on your breath, say the yogis, you direct your attention away from apocalyptic scenarios and back to the present, where all your energy is needed. You navigate one moment at a time, and before you know it, you've weathered the crisis.
All very well for the yogis, you might say. Ordinary people have real-world challenges to deal with and they mount by the day. But their point is that resistance to change is often based on fear of the unknown.
Even if we are in a miserable situation, we want a guarantee of safety before taking the step that will initiate the change we want to see. We dwell on fantasies such as, 'If I give up my job I may starve; if I leave this relationship I may not cope on my own'. But are you really likely to starve? Do you really doubt your ability to survive? Panicky feelings about change are often a response to a perceived threat, not a real one.
The reason we don't leave bad relationships and frustrating jobs is that they are familiar, says Dr Judith Sills, author of The Comfort Trap or, What if You're Riding a Dead Horse? (Penguin). 'Your identity defines whether you think you can or can't [initiate change] and those thoughts delineate the boundaries of your current comfort zone. Change those boundaries and you will change what you think. Change what you think about who you are and you will profoundly change your life. Leave, move on, stir things up, start something new. If the horse is dead, get off.'
That doesn't mean we have to force change. 'In fact, it's probably more spiritually challenging, more emotionally demanding to find satisfaction where you are than to keep moving from source to source, looking for a hit of pleasure,' writes Sills.
'In this sense, the ability to establish a long-term, stable comfort zone and to continue to find satisfaction in it is a mark of emotional maturity…right to the point of pain and the moment when you see clearly that there is something you want and it's on the other side of the fence.'
And then you have to act, and taking action can be terrifying. When the discomfort of staying stuck is greater than the fear of change, we find the courage to move, but we can waste an awful lot of time dithering at the starting line. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, says philosopher Lao Tzu. So instead of fearing the future, focus on what is real and present and what step you need to take right now.
Trust the process
Eight years ago, when Nina* was in the midst of a personal earthquake, a friend she hadn't seen for years called to ask how she was.
'I'm facing enormous change,' Nina told her. 'Well, change is good,' the friend said encouragingly. 'As long as it doesn't knock out your three major props at once: your relationship, your home and your job.'
'I've lost all of them in the last six weeks.'
'Oh. In that case, fasten your seat belt, girl, because the universe just put you on fast forward.'
Being on the accelerated change programme is both frightening and invigorating. 'When every day is a challenge and your adrenaline is pumping, you know that you are alive and in the process of shaping a new reality,' says Nina.
'You realise pretty fast that the only possible direction you can take is forward, so you learn to trust your instincts as you make new choices. When you look back later and realise that the storm has passed and that you not only survived but are safe, there's the satisfaction of knowing that you have what it takes to cope with everything life throws at you.'
The voice of integrity
'The more we listen to the intuitive voice of integrity and don't let the voice of our likes and dislikes govern, the more likely we are to make the right choices,' says Cape Town-based change management consultant, Vicky Coates. 'We have to ask what feels right in each situation.'
During periods of radical change it might be useful to be open to asking for and receiving support from family, friends or professionals. 'It's also helpful to realise that there is a cycle to coping with change, and that it is normal to feel a sense of loss or possibly even grief in the early stages,' says Coates.
'Once we have let go of the old, there is often a learning curve before we move into the acceptance of the new.
Although change may be uncomfortable, it opens the way for fresh possibilities. Think of the act of walking: shifting your weight brings about imbalance, but that imbalance allows you to take the next step, which brings about equilibrium.'
Women facing divorce, separation, menopause, empty-nest syndrome, retrenchment and possible downscaling or retirement know all about the feelings of loss that are often associated with inevitable life changes.
'I can't bear the fact that I'm ageing,' says Ingrid*. 'My marriage has ended and my children have their own lives. When I retire next year, what will I do? I'm quite afraid of the future.'
Nina's attitude is different: 'I'm not going to waste valuable time worrying. Yes, I'm alone now, but the independence gives me freedom. I'm going to take life as it comes.'
In their forties and fifties, women have to take a good look at what they want from life, says Johannesburg counselling psychologist Shoki Motlatle. 'This is a good time to reflect on your life journey so far and how to make the best of what remains of it. Such re-examination may lead to the realisation that it is better to invent your future than try to redesign your past.
There's the choice to make relevant revisions to your life or stay in a rut. Change presents dangers and opportunities and the more inner strength a woman has and the more she has relied on herself for dealing with past life crises, the better she'll cope with new challenges.'
Life is dynamic
Challenge is a feature of the 21st century. James Canton, author of The Extreme Future (Dutton), writes that a new era is emerging that will redefine our lives. We have a deluge of information and limitless options. In an era where environmental, social, business and technological change occurs at a phenomenal rate, we have to adapt or we'll get left behind. But we forget that we deal with change all the time, from the almost imperceptible daily shifts to the earth-shattering events that turn our lives upside down.
Life is an accumulation of adjustments, says Coates, and we should give ourselves credit for the way we cope.
Change can be stressful – even happy events such as marriage or a promotion. The status quo is upset and we feel destabilised. When change is forced on us, via retrenchment, illness or the death of a loved one, the stress is harder to deal with.
'Some people have difficulty accepting and adjusting to change and uncertainty; others relish the changes and view them as great opportunities,' says Dr Cyril Harrisberg, CEO and founder of The Stress Clinic, which has branches around the country.
He suggests several techniques to make change less stressful: check your fearful assumptions for their accuracy. If there's a realistic chance that you might be retrenched, for example, be proactive about finding other options and tightening your budget.
Be easy on yourself, don't take on more than you can manage and don't be afraid to ask for help or make use of resources available to you. And very importantly, maintain a sense of humour and remember to take care of yourself. When stress builds, we tend to ignore our health, pushing ourselves harder, skipping meals and not getting enough sleep, fresh air and exercise.
In addition, says Motlatle, take ownership of your personal areas of change and examine the words you use to describe them. Are you 'catastrophising' things that aren't that important? Can you find ways to rephrase negative statements so that they don't become self-fulfilling prophecies?
'In the midlife crisis, the people who struggle are those who aren't in touch with the changes in their bodies. They aren't realistic about the present, but instead cling to the past, perhaps to the way they used to look or to the way things were done. The danger is that they may feel so negative about themselves that they turn to self- or substance abuse in an attempt to cope. The healthy response is to accept that the
past has ended and to grieve if necessary, but then to go bravely into the unknown and find the courage to reorientate and redefine what's important.'
*Names have been changed.
(This is an edited extract of a feature that appeared in Femina magazine, September 2008 issue. For more fascinating features like this, see the current issue of Femina, on sale now.)