Every single aspect of life and the biological systems that exist are composed of cycles and rhythms that are everchanging. We, as humans, are wired to adapt to all of life’s changes and those occurring within us. The changes that are most difficult to accept are often those we never asked for nor desired.
Usually, when changes are good or at least expected we can accept them and adapt to them more easily. For example, a job promotion or growing up are for the most part considered universally positive. They can both be somewhat expected, as for one we put in hard work and are aware that dedication merits a reward or positive consequence, and for the other we know that it’s bound to happen.
On the other hand, there are those bad or unexpected (or both bad and unexpected) changes that occur, inevitably affecting our lives. One of the biggest examples of a change that is perceived as bad and/or unexpected is loss. Some losses are perceived to be “larger”, or more difficult to overcome, than others. For instance, losing a close relative versus losing a job is perceived differently by different people depending on how they prioritize and balance both.
A Little Side Note on Human Nature:
No matter what sort of change occurs and how it is categorized/perceived, by and large human beings make one huge mistake. We overestimate the stability of our current life. As Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert exposed in his TED talk about his study on the “End of History illusion” (paper link below):
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
This explains why when change hits us in the face, we tend to feel overwhelmed and begin to drown in denial. The “end of history illusion” explains why people underestimate the power of time and the constant presence of change, which is bound to happen or come to our lives at relatively “unexpected” times.
How, then, can we come to accept the changes we don’t ask for?
The one thing that goes hand in hand with change and is the key word for this post is perception. While we cannot control the changes that occur, we can decide how we view them. Viewing changes as positive, unavoidable parts of life from which we can benefit in at least one way helps us move forward and accept the fact that we do not have control over them. Unfortunately, during difficult times it is very hard to remain optimistic. These are five reasons why we find it difficult to be positive when we’re affected by changes we didn’t ask for:
1. We are stuck in the past or the future. We don’t live in the now. In some cases it’s very easy to look back and feel some degree of nostalgia. We wish things to be as they once were. In other cases, we are stuck in constant daydreaming of how we wish things to be. Both dwelling on the past and dreaming of the future are escape mechanisms to momentarily avoid the unavoidable: the present that we are not totally content with. But as mentioned in the preceding sentence, the two problems with this escape mechanism are that (1) we can only temporarily avoid the present and (2) we are trying to avoid the unavoidable.
2. We are not grateful. The key to overcoming any obstacle is appreciating its presence and acknowledging the growth that comes along with even the most uncomfortable and unwanted experiences/events. Try and make a list of at least three good things that can come from an unwelcome change. While you think of the things you can place on this list, without being sarcastic, also think about the idea that things work out for the best. Play with the thought that everything happens for a reason and with a purpose.
3. We are afraid of failure. Failure, believe it or not, is actually necessary. Because failure may be tied to our sense of self-worth, we often view the negative feelings associated with failure (such as a loss of confidence or sense of helplessness) as making failure an overall negative experience. In spite of this, we learn most from our failures. There’s a saying that I’ve held onto as I’ve experienced some of the biggest changes and failure in my own life: “I never lose. Either I win or I learn.”
4. We constantly make negative comments. In a study done by Golnaz Tabibnia et al. focused on studying the power of language in relation to exposure therapy for phobias they found something interesting.
“…negative words can also have a lasting (1 week) effect on emotional reactivity. In the presence of negative words, aversive stimuli may be processed in a deeper and more symbolic manner, allowing the ameliorative effect of the words on emotional reactivity to last long after the words have disappeared.”
While the study is related to aversive stimuli and exposure therapy, it exemplifies the lasting effects of words on feelings. Count the number of times you make a negative comment, simply for the sake of awareness. Every time you start to think something negative, make the choice to change the casette and not express the negativity.
5. We are too busy with trying to be happy, rather than accepting things as they are. When we focus solely on trying to be happy we are assuming and trying to ignore that at the moment we are not. Rather than focusing on what we could be, we should accept that in this moment we are not all that happy and move from there. We should focus on what is in our capacity to change instead of focusing on what is out of our control.
One example is being rejected from a dream job or dream college. While we could easily get stuck into thinking that either (1) we must have done something wrong and subsequently become overly critical of ourselves or (2) get stuck into thinking about what could’ve been had we gotten the job or into the college, we could choose to focus on what our other options are. We can accept that it is okay if things didn’t happen the way we wanted them to. We can start looking into the great possibilities that lie in the unwanted.
Finally, we could resort to an ego protection device. Unfortunately, when our ego is hurt one way to boost it is by doing such a thing as downward comparison. As social beings we are constantly comparing ourselves to others mainly for purposes of knowing how to behave in the social context where we find ourselves. According to social comparison theory, we can do upward comparisons and downward comparisons. In downward comparison, we compare ourselves to people that may be less proficient than us or have less than us. This, in turn, makes us feel good about ourselves. A classic example is when getting results back from an exam. By comparing your 75% to the class average of 64%, you know you did better and, therefore, feel better about yourself. Back to the prior example of being rejected from a job or dream college, if you compare your rejection to someone who has experienced worse, you may not feel so bad about yourself or your situation.
By doing the opposite of these 5 things listed above in bold, we might find it easier to be optimistic about that which we cannot control. We can then better expect the changes that will come and know how to keep moving forward.
For more on:
- Dan Gilbert’s published study on the “end of history illusion”:
- Paper on the lasting effect of words on feelings:
- Social Comparison Theory (scroll to page 62 and read from there onward):