By Gail Schaper-Gordon, Ph.D.
The other day I was reminded that sometimes there is something more behind the obvious excuses we give for not making changes in our lives. It all started with a refrigerator that had been in our garage for more than 15 years. It kept us from ever running out of something cold to drink and helped us feed our friends during our multiple-day “movie marathons” and holiday parties. Because it served us so well, we overlooked the tight fit for parking our car and the weird contortions we had to make for getting out of the car.
Looking back, it all made sense — until it stopped working, about two years ago. My husband continued to store the extra supply of sodas inside, as if nothing had changed. We continued to maneuver our cars carefully into the garage, to avoid being contortionists when getting out. Occasionally we’d say, “Some day we need to get rid of that thing,” as if we were really just waiting for the right time to have it hauled away.
Then the opportunity came. Our neighbors had called the City to pick up large items from their home, and we could add our refrigerator. Easy enough, except for the pushing and shoving to move it out of the garage and to the side of the house. Finally, it was over and done with. Not another thought about it; it would just be picked up the following day.
However, the next morning I was shocked by what I experienced when I saw the discarded refrigerator as I went out on a walk with our dog. A flood of memories and a wave of emotion hit me, when I realized that old refrigerator had been around my home for the past 30 years. It was there when my son was growing up and he came home from school and had a snack before dinner. It had been there for all of the team parties, pool parties, graduations, funerals, and weddings. How many hands of people close to me touched the handle to open the door or pressed the lever to get fresh ice cubes?
That morning walk was different from most others. I don’t usually start my day with deep reflection. I felt a strange sadness, as if I was letting go of something from my past that I’d never get back. I rushed to finish the walk so that I could take a picture of the refrigerator before they came to pick it up. It was a strange compulsion, but I took the photo anyway (actually three or four photos). And I wiped away a tear when I said goodbye. It wasn’t just an old, useless refrigerator that I was letting go: I was letting go of a time in our life, before our home became an “empty nest.”
If you’re still with me, I can only imagine what you might be thinking. But this silly experience with the refrigerator reminded me why it can take so long to accept and adapt to change. The refrigerator died about the same time all of us began to experience the full weight of the recession. While I’ve watched a lot of business owners make cuts, reduce expenses, and give up a lot to keep things going, I suspect that there are a lot of “old, useless refrigerators” that are still around because of emotional attachments to the way things used to be.
Our “new normal” is a garage shelf that takes up much less space, holds more spare sodas, and makes them more accessible than the refrigerator ever did. And we no longer have to be contortionists to get in and out of our cars! Of course, I couldn’t have made this change until we got rid of the old refrigerator.
William Bridges, Ph.d. in Transition, The Personal Path Through Change outlines the Phases and steps for managing change.
To be able to successfully move through the first phase of transition you must begin by focusing on:
- What is ending?
- What are you losing?
- What impact [will] these losses … have on your life?
Next, reflect on the expectations you had in this situation:
- How did you expect to feel and how are you feeling?
- How did you expect yourself to react and how are you behaving?
- How did you expect others to react and how are they responding?
- How has this affected your sense of yourself, feelings for others, beliefs?
Then consciously let go of what must end:
- Look at your losses objectively and try to label them.
- Accept that you will feel sad and this is normal.
- Identify the parts of your life that will continue, e.g. relationships, knowledge, and skills.
- Find something to take from the past with you, e.g. a photograph, memento.
- Look for lessons learned from this and other, past endings.
- Use symbolic acts or a ceremony to make a clean break from the past and mark your new beginning.
Some of the business owners I meet have not yet accepted or adapted to the new normal for their businesses. They are still waiting for things to return to the level of activity and profitability they experienced before the recession. They are working harder and longer and frustrated by not getting better results. They are also getting to the end of their financial reserves.
Peter Drucker noted that “The most common cause of executive failure is inability or unwillingness to change with the demands of a new position. The executive who keeps on doing what he has done successfully before is almost bound to fail.”We are fast approaching three years of living with the effects of a major recession. If you feel like you are running faster and harder without getting any further ahead, it is time to ask what necessary change are you avoiding or resisting. Use the outline above to make changes and bring balance back to your life.