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Just How Possible Is It To Change?

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

New Year, new you!

So goes the popular trope of every supermarket magazine as January 1st comes around again.

It is an appealing idea, but is it really possible to make meaningful change?

The Roman Emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, proposed that the law of life is change, and that everything eventually turns to atoms and vapour. He has a point, though I am not sure how helpful this is. Then again, after two years of lockdown, you could be forgiven for at least wanting a good shake up.

Sometimes, the smallest changes can have the biggest impact. Make your bed. Drink more water. Go for a walk everyday. These are the kind of adjustments that most of us can manage if we put our minds to it, and the results can be transformative.

But there are many paradoxes about change and this is where it starts getting a little complicated. The idea of change can be both empowering and overwhelming. Change everything and yet nothing changes; and of course the only constant is change.

At its most extreme, change can be terrifying. Change is often associated with loss and endings; grief and mourning will be part of the process. Change may be necessary, but there can be an understandable fear of letting go of things that have prevented psychological collapse. And then, there is the idea that we don’t need to change, rather it’s all about self-acceptance, but more of that later.

People usually come to psychotherapy because they want to change on some level. They may have asked themselves, 'what is going on here?' 'Why do I feel like this?' And, 'what can I do about it?' Expectation of change is hope. They may have worked out that changing house, partner or country changes nothing, or has unforeseen consequences. They may realise that their defenses and coping mechanisms cause more harm than good, and in the long term are not sustainable. For some, hitting rock bottom is the catalyst to change.

So what is needed to make meaningful change?

The answer may be reflected in our popular culture. Take the TV make-over show and how that has evolved over the past 20 years.

These shows used to be about extreme cosmetic surgery and bullying experts telling people what to do with their lives. But there was always the sneaking suspicion that deep down nothing had really changed. And now we have Queer Eye on Netflix, where the message of the make-over is, 'find your way back to yourself'. The snazzy new wardrobe and the home transformation courtesy of West Elm are just the icing on the cake. The experts meanwhile are there to listen, and to facilitate the development of self-autonomy.

This is known as the paradoxical theory of change, a proposition that was developed back in the 1970s, by the Boston Change Group, a team of psychologists who proposed that meaningful change occurs 'when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.’ This idea is not new, it is found throughout literature. Charles Dickens understood it well, and A Christmas Carol is perhaps a perfect example of this theory: Scrooge needs to find his way back to himself, to let go of his well-tuned defences. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a proto-psychoanalyst who facilitates the process.

Now we are into the deep stuff. ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I want?’ ‘What do I need?’

With this in mind, I am drawn to the idea of negative capability, which was first described by the poet John Keats. What this means, is that in our desire for change, we have to develop a tolerance for not knowing. We need to remain open and not to accept givens. In doing this, we create an environment where change is less about disowning parts of ourselves, or becoming something we are not, more about the integration and self-awareness of those things that make us a rounded human being.

Another way of looking at this is that humans have fluidity, which according to the existential writer Ernesto Spinelli, means that we have the ability to continually ‘develop, change and become’. I would add that fluidity facilitates choice. When we have choice, the need for change can feel less daunting.

Until quite recently, neuroscientists held the position that we are born with all the neurons we will ever possess, and that as we age, these begin to shut down, hence the expression, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks'.

A more contemporary perspective is that we have neural plasticity and regardless of how old we are, we always have the potential to change, even our attachment style, relationship patterns, personality and character.

Key to this is the understanding that our brains are not individual biological structures, rather, they are social organs, and it is through the interaction of nervous systems, which changes the shape of our neuronal structures, that we achieve the ability to change.

The psychologist Carl Rogers, whilst not a neuroscientist, explored this idea as a core condition for change. In psychotherapy, it is the relationship with a therapist, not the techniques or methodology, that facilitates change. On Queer Eye, as the person finds their way back to themselves, they are changed not only by the encounter with the experts, but by reconnecting with the people who are important them, bringing their 'whole self' to the relationship, sometimes for the first time.

So what about wanting to change someone?

If you have tried to make someone change, it will be because their behaviour or attitude is having a negative impact on you or them. But and as you have probably found out, the outcome rarely goes your way. The message seems to be, you cannot force someone to change. Any attempts to do so comes with all the associations of control and the dismissal of autonomy. But I would also propose, that when we change, other people change.

So, let's just recap here: we can't force people to change?

I have been watching the documentary Hating Peter Tatchell on Netflix. Here is someone who forces powerful people and political systems to change. There is no collusion, diplomacy or asking politely for acceptance. His approach is less pen, more sword. The personal cost has been high, but even his detractors and those who were targets of his campaigns, such as George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, acknowledge his bravery and radicalism. According to Carey, time will prove that Tatchell is on the right side of history.

In contrast, the theorist and writer Jordan Peterson holds the position that radicalism and revolution does not lead to Utopia. He has a point. Take Russia, it is a highly traumatised nation after a century of ideological change. But just look at what the French Revolution, the civil rights movement, the suffragettes, or individuals like Tatchell have achieved. They have proved that meaningful change happens when systems are forced to change.

In the documentary, it was fascinating to see a studio of audience of young people from the 90s, turn on Tatchell for being a provocateur. In their eyes, he was undermining the cause with his actions. Their fear was palpable, but so was their unconscious collusion with the system. No criticism meant here, change can be scary and there are many ways to make it happen.

Tatchell's legacy can be seen in the work of equalities boards and human rights legislature. These people have transformed the way we look at unconscious bias, gender, race, sexuality and difference. Like modern day alchemists they have taken the seemingly impossible and changed it. The UK is a very different place from 30 years ago. For now. We need to remember that change is not linear and progression can be undone.

Of course, we live in an age that is more 'sword and keyboard' where nuance is ignored and polarisation gets 100k 'likes'. As we navigate change, we need to learn to hold different opinions, step back from demonization, and be aware of our own biases.

I leave you with this, the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer. It is a powerful incantation if the idea of change feels both exciting and overwhelming:

’Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.'

Hating Peter Tatchell - on Netflix now.

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