(You can listen to David Bowie's song Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes as a sound track to this essay.)
This New Year many of us will make resolutions to change. What are our chances of success? Not great, actually. One study set the odds at 9 to 1 of making enduring attitudinal and behavior changes. This holds true even when faced with dire consequences-like death! (Better not let go of those larger sized jeans just yet.)
Why is change so difficult? The psychological findings from studies in neuroscience, linguistics, cognitive studies, and related fields reveal how we resist change and point to some of the critical factors for making lasting changes.
Basically we are wired so that we think in terms of frames, or complex mental structures, for interpreting the world. While rewiring our brains to form different frames is not easy, current research demonstrates we are capable of it not only when we are young, but throughout our lives as well. The dictum "use it or lose it" applies here as we discover that the practice of change and its close cousin, learning, provides our brains with an important workout that keeps us alert and healthier as we age.
Now to debunk a myth-facts don't change minds. Our wiring is such that we can easily dismiss facts that don't fit our conceptual frames. Moreover, we generally think the bearers of non-congruent facts are misguided, irrational, or crazy (and they, in turn, think that of us too!) Not wanting to be surrounded by craziness, we tend to seek out the familiar and thus reinforce our perceptual frames. By engaging with people, experiences, and information outside our comfort zone, we can begin to stretch ourselves in ways that open the door to change.
It turns out that what has the greatest power to ultimately change our minds is emotion. While fear can be a compelling motivator, it is actually positive emotions like hope, joy, and a vision of a better life (dare we say, the good life?) that are much more potent at promoting significant and lasting change. A recent example of this was the messaging in the last presidential election during which an emotionally positive campaign helped to inspire many people to engage with the political process, eventually trumping a campaign primarily based on fear.
Since we think in these complex mental structures, creating new frames in the form of stories that are simple, emotionally appealing, and easy to relate to is one of the most effective ways of changing minds. (Yes, we can!) Childhood is filled with stories that convey values and specific perspectives, and over time we internalize these stories. If later we want to change, we need to change the stories we tell ourselves.
In addition to new stories, we also need support, and generally lots of it. Support often needs to occur on two levels: emotional support that inspires us and keeps us focused, and material support for the physical, logistical, and/or information needed. Support can come from friends, groups, or professionals, and usually a combination of these is most effective. For some, even negative support can serve as a helpful motivator as well. One fun example is on StickK.com where you can sign up to notify your friends of your progress, or lack thereof, and to have money donated to your least favorite charity if you are unsuccessful at meeting your goals. (Yikes!)
Another source of support comes from practices that work with the body and the body's energy. These can include massage, reiki, acupuncture, systemic constellations, and network chiropractic to name just a few. These approaches can create and integrate new patterns in the body, and help to overcome psychological barriers to change. They can also offer opportunities for healing that are sometimes a necessary part of change.
One important form of support is experiencing some success early on. This is one reason for first choosing low-hanging fruit, or those things that are easiest to change. Positive and tangible evidence of the benefits of a change help to reinforce motivation as well as the new story.
On the other side of the equation there are obstacles to change, and we need to take these into account as well. People frequently see a lack of resources and time as barriers to change, but less apparent are the role of relationships. Obstacles may come in the form of people who are invested in our not changing, or a group culture that finds certain changes threatening. Some of these relationships can be remarkably sensitive and so recognizing and acknowledging the impacts of our changes on others can be a critical part of the process.
There are different approaches to how much change to undertake at once. Sometimes baby steps are a good way to try out something new; at other times jumping into the deep end is the way to go. Incremental change can be less threatening and less risky and therefore more acceptable to people resisting change, but the results can be lackluster in the near term. There is also a greater chance that intervening factors can throw the process off course. More radical and comprehensive change can result in a big shock to the system, but adaptation is sometimes faster and more complete. (However, you do have to be careful not to kill the patient in the process!) Ultimately, the best rate of change depends on the situation, along with personal preference and temperament. It is important to be aware of where you are on the change-junkie/stick-in-the-mud continuum and to create a process that is fast enough to keep you motivated, but not so fast as to make you to blow your emotional circuits.
One factor that may influence our change preferences is how we process grief. Grieving is the emotional process we experience with loss, and while it is most evident with involuntary loss such as the death of a loved one, even voluntary change can thrust us into the grief cycle. The stages of grief usually include shock, anger, denial, sadness, despair and letting go. It is getting to the point of letting go that provides the opportunity for new thoughts and other ways of being to enter our lives. On the transformation side of this cycle we can feel wonder, hope, inspiration, clarity, and empowerment as we begin to embrace the new. The exact order and duration of the different stages varies with circumstances and individuals, and most of us have places where we tend to get stuck as well as those stages we prefer. Change junkies often like the transformation side, but they may not be so comfortable with processing more negative emotions like anger and despair. Folks resisting change may have habitually gotten stuck in some of the negative emotions of grief and not experienced the transformational aspects of change enough to make voluntary change appealing.
In the end, change requires practice. One rule of thumb is that it takes 300 repetitions for a new habit to get into your muscle memory and 3,000 repetitions for you to fully embody it.
So whether it is fitting into a favorite pair of jeans, finding a career that is more fulfilling, or adopting climate friendly behaviors, there is no day like the present to begin your process of change and get in the first of your 300 repetitions.
What changes would you like to make to experience more of the good life in 2010?
Think about a few times you have made successful changes in your life
Letting Go (Not Knowing)
Wonder Hope Clarity Inspiration Empowerment
Choose something you would like to change for the better in your life and write it down. It is helpful if you are specific.
I would like to spend more time with my friends having fun, helping each other out, and talking about issues that are important to us.
What is the story that you currently hold about the situation?
I am very busy with work and keeping the house going, and if I spend more time with my friends I will fall farther behind in these areas.
What are some alternative stories that are emotionally meaningful and inspiring?
My friendships make important and meaningful contributions to my life both in my work and at home.
What support would help you to make this change?
What are some of the obstacles, and what can you do to address them?
Too many time commitments: Schedule-in friendship time.
Some friends may not want to become closer in this way; I may be disappointed by some of them.
You may want to look at our past newsletters for some guidelines for creating a simple plan or for the Good Life Assessment Flower to identify where you'd like to make a change. If you don't have time to change, there's a newsletter for that, too.
Best wishes for positive changes and the Good Life in the New Year!
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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