Why Our Grown-Up Need For Stability Isn't Always Good

I've been thinking about why the actual process of change is so unsettling, particularly for those of us in midlife and beyond. What keeps us rooted in place, rather than forging ahead, despite our deep desire for change?
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I've been thinking a lot about New Year's resolutions, and why they are so hard to achieve. And this led me to thinking about why change is so hard, and how most of us have a vision of how we'd like our lives to be, how we'd like to change, what we want to become, but for whatever reason, we can't seem to get there, at least not completely.

And then that got me to thinking about why the actual process of change is so unsettling, particularly for those of us in midlife and beyond. What keeps us rooted in place, rather than forging ahead, despite our deep desire for change?

When we're young change seems inevitable. In fact, when we're in our teens and 20s, even in our 30s, most of us seem to crave change. And yet when we grow older and mature in our thinking, our brains seem to crave stability over the new and exciting. I'm sure this is good, as it is our need for stability that allows us to raise families, to become financially stable, and become more solid contributors to society.

But perhaps our grown-up need for stability isn't always good; perhaps at times it gets in the way of our desire to achieve new goals and create lives of more meaning. Maybe we need to fight this seemingly natural tendency toward stability in order to keep moving forward in life.

Every day I hear people in my age cohort -- 50s and above, talk about how they want to make meaningful changes in their lives -- find a relationship, leave a relationship, move forward in their career, change careers, go back to school, start a new hobby, meet new people, get healthy, let go of clutter, move to a new town. So many admirable goals, but so few of us actually accomplish them. Why?

I'm a very visual person, and sometimes it's easier for me to conceptualize ideas about life allegorically. So here is what I'm thinking about change and why it's so difficult to achieve. Picture yourself in a boat moored to a dock on the shore of a large lake. Being anchored to the dock provides you with a connection to the mainland and a sense of security, without fearing that you'll become adrift at sea. But what if you need to get to the other side of the lake? You would have to pull up your anchor and drift across the water, and it wouldn't be until you reached the other side and safely anchored yourself to that shoreline that you would feel secure and stable again.

I think many significant life transitions are like this -- we have a destination in mind, and we likely even know how to get there, but once we set out on our journey and we experience the feelings of being adrift at sea, caught between two shores, where continuity and stability are temporarily lost, we feel unsettled, and maybe even scared. We question our wisdom and our abilities, the validity of our dreams, and then we turn around and head for our familiar shoreline again.

The bigger goals in life are harder to achieve because the bigger the change, the bigger the body of water, and the more time adrift at sea without either shoreline in sight. In other words, the bigger our goals and dreams, the more likely we are to hightail it back to the security and stability of our old dock on our old shoreline.

Unfortunately many of us will never make the journey, particularly the bigger journeys in life, because the feeling of being adrift is just too much for us. Add to that, the tendency of our well-meaning friends and family members to call out to us from our old shore, beckoning us back to safety. So we remain anchored and moored to our old docks, content to gaze across the water, wondering what could have been, but convincing ourselves that it really is best to just stay put.

2015 was a time of dreaming big for me, and yet very few of my dreams have yet been achieved. As a consequence, I spent a fair amount of time last year feeling adrift at sea, questioning my decisions, my desires, my dreams. The more I found myself adrift in rocky waters with no shoreline in sight, the more I questioned. Can I achieve my dreams? Are they realistic? Or are they nothing more than middle-aged pipe dreams and should I just settle for living out the rest of my years moored to my old familiar dock? I don't necessarily have the answer to all of these questions, yet.

Certainly some of our dreams are unrealistic, and were never intended to be achieved in the first place, because they were conjured up in our minds as a way of avoiding our real lives and responsibilities. But other dreams -- of having more meaningful lives, of living lives of greater passion and joy, of walking away from misery and abuse and walking toward freedom and love, of contributing more and holding on less -- these are all worthy goals we can all achieve, as long as we're willing to spend a season adrift.

While we all like consistency and stability, maybe the path toward authentic change lay not solely in the worthiness of our dreams, the level of our ambition, our intellectual capacity, or our exceptional talents, but in our ability and willingness to sit with dissonance, to be uncertain, to tolerate ambiguity, to be unsure, to accept feeling lost, for a season.

I think we can manage these feelings if we tell ourselves every day that after the season of change is over, after we get to the other side of the lake (and we will get there), after we set down our anchors again and tie ourselves to a new dock, we will no longer feel adrift, and we will experience security and stability once again.

Here's hoping that each and every one of us can roll with the tide long enough to accomplish our goals and achieve our dreams in the new year, and beyond.

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