Change feels like running in the dark. You can’t predict what each step will be like. You stumble. You get a few tree branches to the face. The darkness keeps you guessing.

Change feels like walking in the dark.

You know generally the direction you’re going, and you know you’re making progress. But you’re not sure how much further you have to go. You can’t judge the distance. And you can’t predict what each step will be like. You stumble. You get a few tree branches to the face.

The darkness keeps you guessing.

You’re doing something you know how to do (walking!), it feels uncertain and risky.

Big change feels like running in the dark.

What makes a “big” versus a “little” change? It’s all about how the change makes you feel. That’s usually related to the level of unpredictability and the potential impact of the change:

  • More unpredictability makes a change feel bigger, less makes it feel smaller.
  • More impact makes a change feel bigger, less makes it feel smaller.

If you’re in a change that’s full of unpredictability, but has limited impact, it may not be as scary as a change that has less unpredictability but more impact.

Also, it’s not really about the impact a change will or does have; it’s about the impact that a change might have.

It’s about potential impact.

You don’t know—until you’ve gotten to the other side, change complete, ding!—what the impact will be. The more “important” the area of the change, the greater the potential impact.

So, small changes to your health or work or relationship with your partner might feel bigger than big changes to your house or hobby or relationship with a friend.

The combination of high unpredictability and high (potential) impact creates change that is especially big. In emotional terms, it can feel so overwhelming that you don’t even know how to talk about it.

That sucks, because you need to talk about it.

The less you talk about it, the more overwhelming it feels. The more you keep it inside, swirling in your head, the bigger it seems.

When a relationship is changing, it feels like holding hands with someone while walking in the dark.

You’d think this would make it easier—support, togetherness, less scary, less alone facing-the-dark! But the effect can be different.

Imagine how much you stumble when you’re walking in the dark. Now you have to recover from your own stumbling and tripping, plus deal with the push-and-pull of the other person as they stumble and trip and try to find steady footing.

Sometimes it seems like you’re holding each other up, but sometimes it seems like you’re knocking each other down.

When someone you love is changing, it feels like being dragged behind someone who’s running in the dark.

It’s all the fear and discomfort of running in the dark, with an added element: complete lack of control.

Terrifying is too weak a word for this feeling.

It’s the kind of terror that can paralyze you, shut you down, consume you entirely.

The greater the unpredictability and the greater the (potential) impact, the more terrifying the experience.

Ok, so: we’re in the middle of change, we’re trying to keep all our shit together, it’s not fun, there’s no pause button, what can we do?

We bring in the light.

Walking isn’t scary, is it? But walking in the dark is unpleasant and risky. Running is fine. Running in the dark is dangerous.

We need light. If we can bring light to the experience of change, it takes away a lot of the discomfort and pain. It reduces the risk. It re-establishes a sense of control. It helps us avoid things we’d stumble over in the dark.

More light means fewer tree branches slapping us in the face, and that’s a good thing.

In fact, if we’re able to add light to the process of change, we can change the entire experience without changing either the unpredictability or the potential impact of the change.

Some ways to turn on the light:

  • Talk more. Talking is a way of processing, and when we talk we can pull out the feelings and thoughts that are inside.  Sometimes all we need to do is express the feelings, and they are relieved. Sometimes the thoughts and fears we have, when we say them aloud, become insignificant. Sometimes things are just as real and scary when spoken as they are when unspoken, but now we have power: once something is spoken, we have named it. We have identified it. We are beginning to understand it. That’s important. When you understand something, you can control it or (at least) control your reaction to it.
  • Ask more. Ask yourself questions. More than one person involved? Ask each other questions.
    • “How is this affecting you?”
    • “What feels scary to you?”
    • “What impact do you think this could have?”
    • “What feels unpredictable?”
    • “What outcome do you want? What outcome do you fear?”
  • Set boundaries. You can still venture into big changes—without a dissolution of the basic structure of your life—if you set boundaries. Boundaries can be set around
    • Duration: by setting time limitations. “I’ll try this for one month.”
    • Unpredictability: by setting limits on the options you’ll accept. “I’m only willing to spend X amount of money.”
    • Impact: by defining how big the change can be. “XY area can be part of this, but ZY area is out of the discussion.”
  • Give permission. If you’re in the midst of change that’s affecting others, you can give them permission to pause the process of change, set limits, ask questions, be angry, share their feelings, etc.
    • Side note: If the change doesn’t impact someone directly, I think it’s better to keep it clean and quiet. Focus on your process and let others deal with their own issues. However, if the change is impacting someone you love directly, giving permission shows respect (Your experience is real and it matters) and kindness (I care about your pain). Plus it tends to make the other person involved feel safer, which removes a good deal of the discomfort and suffering triggered by (unpredictable) (high-impact) change.
  • Find a survivor. Who’s been through this kind of change and come out okay? It could be someone you know or someone you don’t know. Finding others who have been through what you’re going through can make a huge difference in your experience.
  • Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Change is difficult. Say it with me now: Change is difficult. And it’s okay if you feel bad, angry, upset, confused, tired, exhausted, overwhelmed, hurt, offended, terrified, or lost. Feelings are always true. Feelings are never bad. You don’t need to ignore your feelings or justify them. You have them; that’s enough. Let yourself have them without adding guilt, anxiety, or a sense of failure on top.
  • Don’t settle for feeling bad. Feelings are true and feelings need to be expressed. If you will let yourself feel and express them, you’ll find more feelings. On the other side of worry, you might find excitement. On the other side of anger, you might find courage. Change is difficult; change is also part of life. We are inherently creatures of change. We’re all changing, all the time. We can get better at dealing with change so it becomes less fear, more flow. We can go into those negative emotions and find out what they’re telling us. We can tell ourselves a different story. And we can find moments of power in the experience of change.

Some other things that might help:

Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.


Image courtesy of Kenny Luo.