Making Changes.

Making Changes. January 21, 2015

Last time we hung out, I shared why I was afraid of change. But I came to realize that change is not only inevitable but actually necessary–and I realized that I could learn how to manage it better.

For a while after leaving Christianity, I became a trifle, well, precipitous. I wasn’t used to making my own decisions or feeling like I was totally on my own. I didn’t know how to assess ideas for viability or feasibility, and I didn’t know how to plan ahead very well. Often I’d put off making needed changes
until there was absolutely no other way to do it except by taking drastic measures–which generally resulted in flying out of the frying pan and into the fire. I’d dither till the light was turning yellow, metaphorically speaking, then floor it through the intersection and hope no cops were watching. It sure wasn’t boring for a while there, but I don’t think lurching from crisis to crisis is a really ideal way to go through life.

Learning to think for myself wasn’t a skill that was stressed anywhere in my early life. The situation wasn’t made easier by belonging to a religion that taught me from earliest childhood that nothing less than a “god” was passionately interested in every little thing I did and had strong opinions about every single decision I could ever possibly make. I didn’t go quite as far as some folks in my religion who couldn’t even go to lunch without first praying about which fast-food restaurant “God” wanted them to visit, but I felt downright paralyzed if I didn’t have some kind of feeling about what my deity wanted me to do regarding most decisions I made.

I was so used to second-guessing myself about “God’s” will that when I made a decision, I felt like some crucial steps were missing and suffered a great deal of anxiety. After a while, I realized that what I was feeling was a sort of “muscle memory” for religion–that these habits and compulsions spoke more to my own ingrained need for structure and unchanging routines than to the realness of the religion’s supernatural claims. As that link discusses, not all habits are good habits; not all muscle memory builds proficiency or skill at anything. Sometimes we can ingrain bad habits and compulsions into ourselves. My habit of seeking some kind of external validation for my decisions was one of those bad ones. Well, more to the point, my habit of seeking false external validation for my decisions was bad. External validation itself is great–we all need that sometimes! But I was seeking it from the wrong place.

(The above paragraph took me about ten years to learn.)

Eventually I did figure out how to make healthy changes in a slightly more constructive and progressive manner rather than in a way that amounted to a real-life forum flounce.

How I Manage Change.

I keep an eye on the math.
I’m not one of those folks who keeps a strict ledger of accounts receivable in life, but I do keep an eye on my big three priorities: work, life, love. If I’m putting way more time, effort, money, or care into one of those than I feel like I’m getting out of them, then it’s time to re-assess what I’m doing. Maybe I’m falling into some of those old unhealthy patterns I used to have. Feeling stressed, annoyed, hurt, or run-down frequently is a good indicator that something’s in the early stages of not-working.

I try to make smaller-scale changes first, and I try to make them early.
It’s a lot easier to make smaller changes than huge ones and sometimes smaller changes will make it so bigger ones aren’t needed at all. Catching problems early means often a smaller adjustment or course correction can make all the difference in the world.

Small changes are also a lot easier to make than big ones and they are less risky, which means that as I learned to make these smaller changes I built self-confidence faster and learned to trust my intuition and judgment when it came time to make bigger-scale changes.

I wrote out pros and cons of some of the proposed changes.
If you hadn’t guessed, I’m a compulsive journaler. When considering whether or not to move from a city I disliked, for example, I wrote down all the reasons for making the move and all the reasons I should stay, and there really weren’t a lot of reasons to stay. I knew I’d miss a couple of things about it, but not enough to justify staying there.

A friend of mine told me about a meditation technique involving walking a labyrinth, and I tried it and thought it was a useful way to force myself to think through a decision I needed to make a while ago, but writing accomplishes the same thing for me without my having to find or make a labyrinth. Plus, I really like writing in nice journal books.

I research as much as possible.
If a proposed change involves moving to a new area, I make contacts in the new area–real estate agents, gaming friends, whatever. If it involves buying a new car, I research cars and talk to people who own the kind of car I think I want to buy. Whenever possible, I try to get external sources so I’m not just flying by the seat of my pants. I did that more than a few times early on and ended up in situations way over my ability to cope (one of those memorable decisions involved acquiescing to my then-husband Biff’s decision to move us to Japan on the spur of the moment, which was a neat adventure but ended up nearly bankrupting us).

It’s amazing to me now that there was a time when I used to just pray about a decision, get a “still small voice” about it, and assume that meant everything would be just fine and I shouldn’t bother researching it further than that.

I confront, name, and accept my fears.
Naming my fears and accepting that I had them was a big deal for me. I’m always going to be a little intimidated by the unknown, but affirming those fears makes them less scary. Before deconversion, I hadn’t been in touch with my feelings at all–often I’d feel anxious or depressed but I’d have no idea why. Just knowing I felt a particular emotion helped a lot. I might not know the reason why even today, but the act of naming the feeling gets it into the light and makes it less stressful. Giving myself permission to feel those things is the next necessary step. I didn’t feel like I was allowed to feel negative emotions as a Christian–only certain pre-approved emotions were permitted to be shown.

Nowadays, telling myself that it’s okay to feel a certain way is important to me. Sometimes those fears are telling me something that I need to hear, and I won’t hear it if I’m sticking my fingers in my ears and singing LA LA LA LA LA.

I make contingency plans just in case.
When I was striking out on my own after fleeing Biff and deconverting from Christianity, I deliberately chose an occupation that made cross-country moves fairly easy. No matter where I landed in all my peregrinations afterward, I was never out of work more than a week or two. Jobs like that aren’t glamorous–we’re talking like retail clerking, call center staffing, restaurant work, and the like–but they are plentiful. If you know you might have a tumultuous life for a few years, it’s not a bad idea to plan ahead by cultivating job skills that make landing at least a temporary job fairly easy so you can at least afford food and housing while you’re figuring things out.

This sounds really elementary to most folks, I bet, but as a Christian I was trained to avoid making contingency plans. When Biff wanted to move us to Japan, I was in the last stages of deconversion, so I was able to ask him what we’d do if we failed to find employment there. He just stared at me in response. He totally didn’t even want to make plans for if that happened; he thought it was tempting fate and showing “God” that we didn’t trust him or something, which might make that god peeved enough to rip away the blessing he’d given us. When we did in fact fail to find employment, subsequently, Biff blamed me for having doubts. And he was hardly the only Christian I ever knew who talked like that.

I’m okay with failure if it happens.
Despite my precautions, I know I might fail anyway. Everybody does eventually. Despite my certainty to the contrary while Christian, there is not and never has been a deity or angels holding a safety net under anybody’s feet. I only thought there was, but that false sense of assurance was worse than not having any assurance at all–and folks, I can categorically state this to be the truth now that I’ve lived both ways. I would 100% rather know there’s no safety net than falsely think there is a net when there isn’t one.

I failed as a Christian all the time, just like everybody else does and just like I do now as an ex-Christian. But failure as a Christian meant more than just not reaching what I was aiming for. It meant that I was possibly disappointing what I thought was a god–possibly even thwarting that god’s divine plan for me, my family, my church, my society, and even my entire world. It meant that at best I’d totally misread what I thought he’d told me to do, at worst that I’d sinned somehow in not being able to accomplish something he thought I should have been able to do. (Though I tried to avoid prosperity gospel, I didn’t even contemplate at the time that maybe I was supposed to suffer.) The stakes were simply unimaginable–and I had no way whatsoever to gain external corroboration of this deity’s wishes and commands.

In the illusory world of religion that I once inhabited, failures were devastating admissions of inadequacy. In the real world, though, the stakes aren’t always that huge–and most failures can be worked around, forgiven, or ameliorated to some extent. There are very few mistakes anybody can make that are permanent or life-altering. So while there’s not a way I can stuff myself so full of rah-rah that failure just won’t happen, at least I don’t need to be so paralyzed by the fear of failure that I never make any needed changes. I won’t be looking back and regretting never trying to improve my life.

It’s okay to be afraid of changes, of starting over, of failure, of risk, of being wrong.

It’s okay.

Change happens whether we like it or not, and dealing with change is a skill just like dancing or kissing or cooking. It’s a skill we can learn and apply to our lives. And learning that skill, for me, sure beat the original way I dealt with life changes. If we don’t learn that skill, then what we might get is a life spent in quiet desperate stasis as we try to stop and control that which cannot be stopped or controlled, a stasis that is constantly punctuated by wild lurches from crisis to crisis whenever our pot boils over. That was what my life certainly felt like long ago.

But the really funny thing? It was touch and go for a bit, yes, as I began learning those lessons. I won’t deny that. But now that I’m a seasoned veteran at making changes both large and small, I can say with total confidence that my life’s a hell of a lot better than it ever was while I was trying to do things the way my old religion said they should be done.

Plus, gang, it’s just ridiculous to pray about whether one should go to Taco Bell or Burger King. Seriously. That’s so far past sad it’s turned back around and is doing donuts on Mrs. Cringeworthy’s lawn. I get mortally embarrassed just thinking about the many friends I had who thought this was a perfectly reasonable thing for adults to do. Though I can thank them for showing me what over-dependence looks like when carried through to the absurd degree. We’re going to talk about that over-dependence next–and as always you are invited to be here or be, um, wait, “square” doesn’t quite rhyme., but you get the idea, right?

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