Some people seem to cope with change better than others, even though change is inevitable. Change is happening all the time. The ancient Chinese book of philosophy and guidance, The I Ching is known as ‘The Book of Change(s)’, recognizing that we are living in a state of potentiality. How we cope with change and how we bounce back is largely down to perception. Change can be a threat, an opportunity or a time for reflection. In this post we’ll look at some of the psychology behind change and consider a few tips for coping better adapting and thriving in the face of uncertainty.
Black and white categories and cognitive-economy
We make sense of the world, mainly through selective attention and simplification. We wouldn’t be able to cope if we had to process every bit of information that comes our way, so we run a sort of cognitive economy filter. One of the way we simplify is to carve the world up into black and white categories, just like those TV barristers who demand yes or no answers to their questions. These black and white categories are really a model of the world than an accurate representation of the world. Dealing with black-and-white thinking is a key theme in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). If we adhere to rigidly to these categories then emotional problems may occur. It’s one of the things I tackle in my confidence building workshops. Seeing confidence as an ‘either-or’, ‘have-or-have-not’ state is not very useful. Often there is a lot to be gained by considering the grey area, the excluded middle. This is often where real-life is live and where we can find solutions.
In/tolerance of Uncertainty
In psychology there are various concepts to describe a preference for black-and-white categories, such as Personal Need for Structure and Tolerance of Ambiguity. As with all aspects of psychology, the human experience inhabits a spectrum of difference. We all need structure to varying degrees, that same with our tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty. Those who are more tolerant fare better in times of change. It’s tempting to use the ‘that’s just the way I am’ card, but it is possible to work our tolerances. We can adapt to change by changing our attitudes and perceptions. Again, this is a key theme in CBT.
Competing Needs: Novelty versus familiarity
If you’ve ever attended a training course, chances are you’ve encountered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. After our biological needs have been satisfied, one of the fundamental needs is our need for security. A key aspect of security is that things are familiar and predictable. However, just to mix things up, if you’ve ever observed a baby or a toddler you’ll know that they are drawn to new things. This doesn’t change as we age. Throughout our lives we balance novelty and familiarity. Often they are at odds with one another. We do a kind of mental accounting to assess whether we should play it safe and stick with what we know or take a chance.
The buffering effect of Psychological Hardiness
When I was writing and researching Unlock Your Confidence, I happened upon the concept of psychological hardiness (like resilience) and how it provides a buffering effect for health and well-being when dealing with stressful life changes and times of uncertainty. Much of the research was carried out with people in stressful jobs, such front-line services fire-fighters and people in the military. Three key attitudes were found that help some people cope with uncertainty and change better than others. These are the three Cs of: commitment, control and challenge.
- Commitment is the attitude of taking a genuine interest in other people and having curiosity about the world and getting involved with people and activities. The opposite of commitment is alienation, which involves cutting yourself off and distancing yourself from other people.
- Control is the tendency to hold the attitude that control is something that comes from the inside and act as if you can influence the events taking place around you by your own efforts. It is The opposite of control is powerlessness which includes the perception that your life is controlled by external forces (fate, government) and that you do not have the means or capabilities to meet your goals. Our sense of control is often based on perception and not objective facts.
- Challenge is the attitude that change is the norm, as opposed to stability and that change offers opportunities for personal development and not threats. The opposite of challenge is security, and the need for everything to stay the familiar and predictable, allowing you to stay in your comfort zone
Keeping a journal to cope with challenges and change
Journaling is a simple and effect technique of coping with challenges and change. When stressed our focus and thoughts narrow to survival options. This means that we overlook past experiences that could be the key with coping with a current situation. Journaling helps on two ways: (i) It helps you to organize your thoughts as you are going through the situation, (ii) It provides a permanent record of your personal coping strategies. Keeping a journal is also one of my top three tips for getting the most out of a self-help book.
Cognitive tricks for coping in times of uncertainty
It’s tempting to write off techniques as mental tricks. I’ve heard people claim that such methods are just fooling ourselves and are not authentic. I’d argue that the exact opposite is true. We use mental tricks all the time to make sense of the world. We actively filter things out. Taking control of our lives is in part about being aware of how we structure our experience. It’s also about being more aware of the range of our experience. One trick that I used when I moved home and found it difficult to settle into a new routine was to pretend I was on holiday. So I set myself a time limit of two to three weeks and I’d be as flexible as I have to be on holiday. I’ve been island hopping in Greece a few time where you have to make the choice of : be flexible or have a lousy time. Part of being on holiday is exploring the surroundings, finding stuff you liked doing and tolerant things that ‘get on your nerves’. This change in attitude was all it took to help me to settle in. I’ve shared this idea with countless people (friends, family and clients) and it has worked for them too.
Another technique I use with clients is the personal experiment. When we agree a possible way forward or solution, I don’t ask clients to commit to it with every fibre of their being. It makes much more sense to treat it as an experiment and try it on for size. So we agree a time span and then after that we have a review and discuss how the experiment went. This removes an implicit sense of failure. At the end we are discussing the results as feedback, such as what didn’t work, what did work and what adjustments we can make.
Distraction is also a useful technique. When my parents moved house, my mother found it difficult to adjust. I’d tried for a few years trying to persuade her to do an evening course at college. They moved house in the middle of the summer and that year she decided to ‘take the plunge’ and sign up for a course in flowering arranging. It’s become her passion in life. Moving house became a blessing in disguise as it was her way to discover a passion and a new talent. Taking up a hobby is about choosing to do a newt hing. This sense of choice fits in with the psychological hardiness attitude of control.
Seeking Professional Help: Coach or Counsellor?
If you feel you can’t make a break through on your own then it maybe time to consider engaging the help of a professional. Obviously with something like a bereavement then a few cognitive tricks may not cut it. When the issue or problem sparks strong overwhelming emotions it may help to talk things over with a counsellor (or a psychotherapist). Keeping a journal is also useful as when things get better you will have a record of how you got through it.
When I get enquiries about (life) coaching this is one of the main things I discuss with you. Is it a general sense of dissatisfaction or is it overwhelm that reduces you to tears? Are the emotions making you want to press forward or is there a stronger need to talk through the emotions and make sense of them? There are really three ways to deal with this: (i) go ahead with counselling and consider coaching a later date when you have worked through the emotions: (ii) have separate coaching and counselling sessions (iii) have coaching. I work within a group of other professionals so am able to make referrals. I wouldn’t be doing you or myself any favours by always going down the coaching option. It’s about what is right for the client.
These are just a few insights and pointers to help you to turn again. However, there is not a one-size fits all approach. The beauty of coaching is that it’s a totally tailor-made personal development course. It’s not an off-the-peg experience. You bring the agenda and the coach (that’s me) provides the tools and techniques in a way that’s meaningful to you. I practice solution-focused coaching and in a typical session we would describe the issue for 20% of the time and for the other 80% we explore solutions. In this way, things start moving right from the first session. In fact, some people only need one or two sessions.
So review you life and write down some ways in which you have coped with change and uncertainty in the past that rely on your abilities, skills and strengths. These become your own personal toolbox in challenging and uncertain times. Coaching is a way to help you discover more ways in which you cope, adapt, bounce back and thrive.
If you want to explore coaching, I urge to read my earlier post: How to Find a Life Coach (and the questions you need to ask before hiring one). If you like to discuss my coaching services please contact me.
If you found this useful or interesting:
About the author
Dr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.