Change – Why do some people struggle with it?

Change – Why do some people struggle with it?

A New Way of Looking at Change

Our in depth examination of hundreds of thousands of judgment profiles and thousands of personal interviews taught us a few things about change–and they may not be what you expect.

We found that a person’s capacity to deal with change; and their openness to opportunity, is directly impacted by the intensity of their identification with their roles in life.

Huh? Sound odd? Let me explain…

Most people, to some extent, and for some people a very large extent, identify themselves, and are identified by others, in terms of their role, or roles, in life. Usually, roles are work-related, although often they are personal as well. A person may consider being a parent, coach, or stray-cat rescuer to be their primary role in life.

This is a normal part of life. For some, roles are not a serious issue. They are simply what we do. But for others, roles are a very serious issue and become who we are. Neither end of the spectrum is necessarily positive or negative–although there are situations where extremes can be exceedingly positive or exceedingly negative.

If your role(s) play a weaker part in your life, you see yourself as a singular, unique, individual first. You are not primarily defined by your job or role. You tend to have a deep sense of your own independence. Only secondarily do you view yourself in terms of your occupation or role.

With only a slight role identity you have an easier time switching between jobs and even careers, able to do so often without the slightest problem or misgivings, because there is no role identification to “lose,” and thus no lessening of your sense of self-worth. There is less likelihood that you will fear changing or losing your role because your role does not define who you are–even if you thoroughly enjoy what you do.

It is important to understand that how much you identify with your role is not a direct measure of how much you like, or dislike, your job. There are people who genuinely love what they do, yet maintain their sense of independence and personal uniqueness. What you do might be fantastic, your dream job, you love it, and your role brings great pleasure and joy. All the same, your role does not make up the entirety of your identity and does not define who you are. Certainly you might lament the loss of a fun, desirable, and important job, but you will not feel a loss of self-identity, or lessening in self-worth, should you lose or change jobs, even though you truly enjoy your job.

However, a very defined and compelling identification with a role, occupation or vocation is very common and reveals someone who primarily and predominantly views themselves in terms of their role or job.

Such individuals tend to give more deference to the responsibilities of their role or job; they even may feel exceedingly defined and bound, and sometimes unfortunately burdened, by their role. They may have lost their sense of self and uniqueness as an individual, as what they do has pretty much become who they are. Taking on a new job, or experiencing changes within a job, may cause them to cast doubt on their personal identity; their self-worth may diminish too, as their self-worth is so wrapped up with their job.

Therefore, they consider job or role changes, or sometimes any change at all, with skepticism and negativity, as it strikes at the core of who they are. Consequently they may experience more difficulty adjusting to a new job or responsibilities.

However, a strong role identity is not necessarily a bad thing. For many people, a strong role identity is actually a fantastic positive. When our work becomes more than what we do–when it becomes who we are, and if it engenders personal satisfaction and fulfillment–we come to view our work as a “calling.”

Many people are so drawn to their role that they develop a sense that they are doing exactly what they were put on this earth to do. Oftentimes, for example, priests, pilots, teachers, physicians, engineers and athletes cannot imagine doing anything else with their life. They feel a great sense of commitment to their work, so it is natural that they might resist major structural changes to their job, or are especially apprehensive of the idea of losing their job. Their work is their passion, and provides them with personal satisfaction, and much excitement and pleasure.

In this case, their role identity is a powerful positive that defines their place in life; for them, their vocation or job is totally and completely rewarding and gratifying. Consider that many people are lured and captivated by a particular avocation. Their work, their role, provides not only a sense of value and worth, but provides tremendous personal satisfaction, and without their particular role, if it was taken away, they would miss it terribly and feel a great sense of loss, sometimes even depression, as they lose their sense of self. Simply, your job is more than what you do. Your job becomes who you are.

So, if you have a strong role identity, is it a negative burden or a positive calling for you? The answer depends on the personal value and meaningfulness you receive from your work.

Should you have a powerful role identity and also derive great meaning from your work, you view your role as a “calling” or a “passion” in your life, and work is a positive endeavor for you. However, if you have a strong role identity and receive little meaning from your work, then you are trapped and encumbered by your role in life; you find it difficult to reject and cast aside, even though it is having somewhat of a negative impact on your life.

On average, men tend to have more role identity than women. This is an overall average within the population, and of course does not apply to all men, or women.

So how does role identity relate to change?

Well, particularly for those with less role identity, there is a high tolerance for, and a high willingness, to accept change. At times, there is even a powerful attraction to, and enjoyment of, change. These individuals are the classic “change agent”. They do not fear change, and often seek it out. If change is not a recurring and frequent part of their life, they may find themselves bored. These individuals make changes sometimes just for the sake of change, simply to bring about new and different non-routine experiences to their lives. They view change as something exciting, refreshing and positive.

Conversely, with a strong well-developed role identity, there is a low tolerance for, increased sensitivity to, and high resistance to, change. Such individuals may even fear change, and associate it with feelings of vulnerability, skepticism and negativity. Change is not a part of the comfortable variables in life and is inherently threatening, and viewed with skepticism and negativity.

Thus, acceptance or resistance to change is interrelated to role identity. Someone who is less bound by their role is more open-minded to wholesale variations and vicissitudes in their life, and therefore better able to move from one job to another; even from one career to another. Accordingly, they are much more open to change. Switching from one role to another is not an ordeal, and may even be exciting for those who seek out and enthusiastically enjoy change. They may relish the idea of moving from one great role, job or career to another, and have no diminishing of their self-worth or self-identity as a result.

Note: Resistance to change can be reasoned and purposeful–or arbitrary and fickle. A strong role identity in combination with high meaningfulness of work reveals a reasoned, justified, resistance to change due to positive circumstances, such as, for example, an enjoyable job, loving relationships, strong associations and rapports, generally positive influences. After all, why would you want to change, or move away from, the good things in your life?

However, a strong role identity in combination with low meaningfulness of work reveals the classic “no” person. These individuals arbitrarily and quickly resist any change whatsoever; they shut down, or tune out, opportunity and change. In their value structure, change is a negative, and their resistance to change is indiscriminate and illogical.

Of course, there might be changes within life that should be avoided, but for this person avoidance is not based on a reasoned approach, it is based on nothing more than an unsubstantiated, unfounded and incongruous resistance to any change.

This brings us to the final nuance: openness to opportunity. Each of these elements–role identity; acceptance of change; and recognition of opportunity–are interrelated and vary with one another. The strength of your role identity and your inclination to accept change in large part determine your propensity to be aware of, and open to, opportunity.

This can be extremely valuable information when you are faced with personal and professional options throughout the course of your life. As you undergo all of life’s experiences, whether or not you are willing and able to recognize potential opportunity is vitally important. Of course, opportunity is not a guarantee of success. Nevertheless, an ability to genuinely embrace and be open-minded to potential opportunity is important.

Individuals who have a strong role identity and are thus resistant to change–tend to shy away from opportunity, and are more likely to let it pass them by. This is their inclination whether their resistance is reasoned, or entirely arbitrary. Too, a person resistant to change is more likely to hold opportunity at arm’s length, and less likely to genuinely consider various personal and professional prospects and alternatives.

Certainly, individuals with less role identity (open to change) may reject various opportunities just as often as those strongly identified by their role (resistant to change)–but the differences of the rejections between these two groups is stark: Those with a weak role identity consider any opportunity with an open mind first–even if they ultimately choose to reject or disregard it. Those with a very strong role identity are more likely to reject opportunity out of hand.

Yet even individuals who feel their occupation is their “divine calling” do themselves no favors by summarily and precipitously rejecting the notion of an even better opportunity presenting itself!

The reality is, within businesses and organizations, a lack of openness to potential opportunity often leads to stagnation and companies being “left behind”–especially when others are more able to recognize shifting trends that present growth opportunities. So there must be an initial willingness to at least consider opportunity so that a company might be able to take advantage of its opportunities.

This can be a very serious issue when personal and professional transformations foist themselves upon the unsuspecting individual. For example, how an individual responds to retirement, corporate downsizing and layoffs, or the loss of a required certification, is directly related to the degree of resistance to change. Whether it be described as a lack of role identity, or an ability to accept change, or open-mindedness to alternative career choices and opportunities, individuals with strong judgment in this area are much better equipped to deal with changing circumstances and severely negative personal and professional ups and downs, either by finding a positive aspect or uncovering a budding opportunity. Someone with a fear of change more often finds such happenings accompanied by pronounced feelings of fear, dread and despair.

Recognize that the worth of an opportunity, or the likelihood that an opportunity will pan out into a successful endeavor, is distinctly different from our willingness to consider options outside our present circumstances. Are we even open-minded to the various options that come our way? After all, we must be open-minded to opportunity before we can take advantage of opportunity.

So what can you do if you have a very strong, overpowering role identity and you find yourself in the midst of great change?

First: Rather than wallow in negativity or depression over the loss of role, use your good judgment to put change and your role identity into perspective. When you work actively at it, you can become more comfortable with change, you can better understand yourself in terms of your own uniqueness and you can feel more confidence and less anxiety throughout various life circumstances.

Second: Should you choose to reject opportunities, base the rejection on the merits of the opportunity, rather than on the basis that they are a change from the status quo. When opportunities come your way, be open-minded to them, and do not instinctively shut them out because of your inherent resistance to change. A genuine opportunity is a terrible thing to waste.

Third: Resist the urge to say “yes” to an offer or a work request, when the offer or request does not benefit your entire situation, even if it is a part of “who you are,” or an aspect of your role. Do not allow your high commitment and dedication to your career or role overemphasize, and at times, subjugate too much of your time and energies to what you do. This is particularly important if your work is not particularly meaningful because your roles tend to have more negative connotations in your life. This in no way suggests that you should devote less time and energy to your work, job or roles, but simply to acknowledge that you may allow, on occasion, your work/life balance to skew inequitably toward work at the expense of personal and relational matters. There might be times when you simply have difficulty saying “no” to more and more requests of your time.

I’ll end on the note that improvements to an overpowering role identity do not come easy. At this point in time, you may not even really desire to lower the intensity of your role identity, because your role might bring you such joy and pleasure. However, understand that it is possible to love what you do, to cherish your roles in life ­ and yet maintain your own singular uniqueness, and your sense of self.


CDR Barry W. Hull, USNR (Retired)

Barry Hull is an expert in the field of evaluative judgment and decision-making. He helps organizations and individuals improve their success by helping them improve their ability to make good decisions and choices. Barry Hull is the founder of Pilot Judgment Inc. Additionally, he is a partner with the consulting firm, Athena Assessment Inc. He is a retired US Navy Commander, F/A-18 Hornet fighter pilot, combat decorated during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.


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