A No-Labels Approach to Handling Change | The BridgeMaker

A No-Labels Approach to Handling Change

By on Oct 22, 2009


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We know what we are, but know not what we may be. – William Shakespeare

I have a love – hate relationship with change. I feel some things change far too fast and others just don’t change fast enough. Like everyone, I am bombarded with advertising on how I can improve the quality of my life by purchasing new products. Political parties promise me change and infer that positive stability will follow.

We are encouraged to gain education and training that will unlock the door to a better future but find ourselves bored, if not disillusioned, by the stability of actually doing the work we sought. If successful, we often find ourselves working in positions where we yearn for freedom to change but feel trapped by the “golden handcuffs” of salaries, 401k plans, health insurance and paying off mortgages. Yet, when the job is eliminated, we look back wistfully on the stability that seems so attractive.

Labeling the changes we experience as “good” and “bad” is so automatic that we are hardly conscious of it. When we experience changes we call good – winning the lottery, remission of a serious illness, finding the ‘love of our life’ – we move toward it almost as if to grasp it so it won’t leave us. We want to hold on to it dearly and avoid change.

When bad things happen to our desired stability – lost employment, divorce, illness, a falling stock market – we move against it to push it away as quickly as possible. We grieve our losses (in healthy or not-so-healthy ways) wishing we could go back to the past.

I have a poor track record in accurately labeling change as good or bad. So often, what I think is going to be such a great outcome of an unexpected happening soon turns out to be anything but good.

Changes I’ve imagined would be helpful and worked for, turn out to have unintended consequences that make me wish I’d never had the idea in the first place. At other times, when it feels like disaster is happening all around me an all seems to be lost, the most serendipitous positive results happen and I am shocked at good fortune. My experience is that I am not alone in labeling change as good or bad.

Hold Your Labels of Good and Bad Lightly

This is easier said than done, but any step in that direction can bring a profound sense of peace. I am not suggesting that we cut off our emotions or deaden ourselves to the impact of change. I am suggesting that we deal with the reality of the change without labeling it as “good” or “bad” in a judgmental way.

Dealing with reality calls for judgment and making decisions, but knowing what we are feeling and experiencing in the here and now is not being judgmental. If I purchase a bad-tasting meal from a restaurant my judgment tells me to not eat it. I’ve become judgmental if I label all their food as bad. Holding labels lightly allows us to be present to the reality of the moment.

Deal with Reality, Stop Predicting How It Will Turn Out

When significant change happen most us have an internal video of how it will play out in the future. If it is good, then the imagined next steps get better and better. If it is bad, we see it playing out like a row of dominoes falling into each other and we end up feeling that “life is over.” The video rarely conforms to the reality as it actually turns out, but we experience the emotions as if it was real.

Draw on Your Faith Resources

So often the mental video we imagine about bad changes does not include anyone on our side of the challenge. I often ask people if their image of God was with them in the imagined future as a resource and their answer is almost always negative.

It is as if they have to stand against all the negative forces alone – and they wonder why they feel panic. Unfortunately, some find their image of God is always as an antagonist in their imagined future and not as a resource at all – an indication that their faith journey needs some attention.

Usually, when we can replay that imagined future with a sense of not being alone – whether it is an image of God present and/or friends and family standing with us – the story is reframed and panic is reduced.

An ancient story illustrates this kind of “letting go” of labels

A poor and elderly widower had little to show for his life – a son and a few horses. One night, thunder and lightning from a ferocious storm spooked the horses. They broke down the corral fence and stampeded out into the darkness. The next day, his neighbors saw his loss and expressed their sympathy for the tragic events.

The old man simply responded, “We’ll see.”

A few days later the horses found the way back to their corral and an amazing stallion came with them. Now, the man’s wealth had increased substantially by this good fortune. His neighbors soon heard about his good luck and complimented him.

The old man simply responded, “We’ll see.”

The man was too old to try to break the stallion so his son attempted to ride him. After falling off several times, the horse threw him so violently that his leg was broken. There was no doctor in that area of the country so the old man had to set it as best he could. It was likely that his son would be crippled for the rest of his life. The neighbors now expressed sorrow for this travesty.

Once again the only response from the old man was, “We’ll see.”

Not long after, a marauding band of warriors came through the area and forced all the well-bodied young men to join them or die. Of course, they did not want his son with the broken leg. Through their wailing and tears, the neighbors told him how blessed he was that his son wasn’t taken.

His response?

“We’ll see.”

Dr. Paul Fitzgerald is a Life Coach and offers several dimensions to help clients move toward personal wholeness and create a fulfilling life. You may contact Dr. Paul at drpaul@heartconnexion.org.

Dr. Paul Fitzgerald is a Life Coach and offers several dimensions to help clients move toward personal wholeness and create a fulfilling life. You may contact Dr. Paul at drpaul@heartconnexion.org.

  • Thanks @Ralph and @I Take Off the Mask. The amazing thing is that we rarely doubt the first story we tell ourselves about the “value” of a new situation until “the worm turns” and the story is at odds with reality. We can know our batting average for accurately labeling experiences is not great yet be convinced that this time we are certain about the outcome. Blessings

  • I think another word for labels is “limitation”. When we label something, we want to define it into a role that it cannot escape or be redefined later. Change can also be a label, when we seek it for the sake of escaping something that is at hand. Let life flow freely and joyfully, and may we learn to savor both our laughter and our tears 😉

  • Great post Paul. I think drawing on your faith is so important. Having solid ground to stand on allows me to not worry about change and the things I cannot control. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thank you @Tristan & @Lorraine. Stepping out of allows perspective and healthy detachment without needing to cut off from fully experiencing life. @Linda, reality is often hard to face and there is sometimes a feeling of being disillusioned but if the alternative is being “illusioned,” I’ll take reality 🙂

    @Al, I couldn’t agree more. Some people take this suggestion as license to cutting off from their feelings as if having feelings is being judgmental. The important distinction is between the possibility of any result and its probability.

    Thanks all for the Tweets and ReTweets.