Are you afraid of making major changes to your life? Maybe you dream of moving to a new city, but can't work up the courage to actually go. Maybe you want to quit that job that's wearing you down, end that relationship that isn't quite working, or even start a new company. And yet something seems to be holding you back.
Making major changes can be frightening--I know. Six months ago, my husband and I left our home of 22 years in Woodstock, New York, and moved across the country to Snohomish, Washington. The move coincided with big changes in my professional life: My term as president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors came to an end. I went from being a twice-a-week columnist on this site to a daily one. All of it together was enough to reduce me, some days, to a quivering bowl of jelly. And yet. All of these changes were necessary and good, important opportunities to grow.
Fearing change keeps all of us stuck in place some times when it would be better to move on. That's normal human nature, but it's not serving us well. How do we get past it? It's not easy, but here are some questions that may help.
1. What's the worst that can happen if I make this change?
I'm not suggesting you indulge in worst-case-scenario fantasies. What I am recommending is that you think about the difficulties you're likeliest to encounter as a result of your big change, and make plans to mitigate them.
What if it turned out that we hated living in the Pacific Northwest? Just in case, we would rent rather than buy. What if the rainy dreariness of the winter months started getting to us? We made sure to find a place with a lot of light, especially in my office, and began investigating daylight-replacing light bulbs. By thinking through the most likely problems you could encounter, you may be able to make plans to avoid them, or at least figure out what you could do if they happen.
2. What's the best that can happen if I don't make this change?
Sometimes this question is the push we need to face up to change. It's simple: If you're unhappy with the status quo, and all you're likely to get is more of the same, then you have a choice: Learn to love what you already have, or go get something new. If you can't do the former, then you'd better do the latter, or you may be stuck in the doldrums forever.
3. Can anyone ever know everything?
There's a simple answer to this one: Obviously not. This tells you that if an unknown future seems scary--well it is, and it is for everyone. Thinking you'll know what will happen if you change your life is as much an illusion as thinking that you know what will happen if you don't. In other words--it's all a mystery, so if you have the urge to give something new a try, you might as well go for it.
4. If I don't make this change, will everything else stay the same?
This, too, has an obvious answer: No, it won't. This is something to keep in mind when making a decision about change. It's human nature to believe that the conditions we're accustomed to seeing will always be there but it isn't true. You may pass on that great business opportunity for the security of your job, only to be a victim of downsizing a year later. Or you could go start that new business, only to find that your former boss leaves and you'd have gotten that promotion if you'd stayed. Either way, there's a risk, and a choice to make.
5. Can I give myself permission to be sad about the life I left behind?
That was a big necessity for me. I loved my life in Woodstock, and although I never wavered in my decision to move West, I knew I had to grieve and say goodbye. You may need a little time to feel sad about the life you're leaving behind before you can fully move on to a new one. That's OK. And it doesn't mean you're making the wrong decision by changing. (Here's more on how to let go of what's holding you back.)
6. Will I be able to handle it if things go wrong?
This may be the fear that's really holding you back. And the answer to this question is almost certainly yes. Most people are more resourceful than we realize, and more able to deal with difficulty. If you're letting this concern stop you from making a change--don't. You can handle more than you know.
7. If not now, when?
No one likes to think about this, but the fact is each of us has no idea how little or how long we have left on this planet. I'll always remember my high school friend Stephen who advised trying out many careers because, he said, "Your life is long." It wasn't for him: He died of cancer at the age of 38.
The older I get, the more I find myself thinking about the choices I make in terms of how I want to spend the rest of my life. It's not an easy perspective to take, but it can be bracing. And when your nerve is failing, it can give you the courage to make a change.