Over the past weeks I have been thinking a lot about the implications of change. Probably also because both from a personal and a professional standpoint I have been experiencing so many changes over the years that I really feel like I have always been in a change-mode. Sounds pretty obvious, isn’t it? I mean, as human beings we are all perpetually changing, from the very first second of our conception each and every single molecule of our body is renovating itself, and even an adult brain can create new synapses and neurons connections during our entire life. In fact scientific studies over the past decade have proved this point and wiped out the traditional belief that adult brain neurons are largely static and unable to change their structures in response to new experiences.
Though, human beings seem to struggle – some more than others – when it comes to change in their lives. And many adults think at their thought-processes and behavioral patterns as static and impossible to change after having reached a certain age.
The reality is that we all struggle with change (especially whit major changes) because we tend to hold on well-known patterns by habits, convenience, sometimes maybe also laziness and unwillingness to make the effort to change. When new situations and circumstances present themselves, our brain searches for those similar ones already experienced in the past and triggers the automatic pilot, which makes harder for us to consciously select and put in place different patterns. We have an inherent attitude to fear any change to our core system of thoughts and beliefs, and moreover in one of our deeply-rooted behavioral patterns, mostly because acting in a different manner from what we have always done before will have an impact on both our self-perception and on how others externally see us. Not to mention the fatigue to learn and implement new patterns. The fact is, it is absolutely normal that when the way we perceive ourselves as individuals is threaten, we become defensive, we tend to fight back. At times we may realize that old choices, behaviors, thoughts and beliefs will no longer work in the new situation, and we therefore feel unsure as to whether we will be able to manage the change. Otherwise we may realize that in the past those choices, behaviors, thoughts and beliefs have not really served us, that they were dysfunctional, and this new awareness could make us feel guilty and inadequate, or also angry with ourselves or ashamed. We move from denial (consciously or unconsciously our mind resists, pretending nothing has changed) to frustration once we acknowledge that actually the change has occurred / is occurring or will shortly occur. But this does not automatically mean that we are accepting the change, insomuch that we may also experience low mood, hanging for a while in a state of depression and lack of energy. Only when we move to the next step and start to accept and engage in the experimentation of new ways, reconsidering our beliefs, reviewing and adjusting our old well-known and automatic behavioral patterns, we became able to initiate changes. These changes start in our mind, in the way we look at things, in our thoughts. Sometimes at a conscious level, sometimes more subtly, beneath the surface of our consciousness. Finally we got to a point where we proactively decide to embrace the challenge and find new ways of dealing with the reality. We look for different solutions, we feel more positive about our possibility of successfully learning and implementing new behaviors. At first we will need to pay attention and consciously perform the new behavior – pretty much like when we learn how to drive: at the beginning we need to think at what to do as soon as we get into the car (seatbelt on, adjust the rear-view mirror, press the clutch, turn on the engine, etc.) but once driving become an habitual act we do it automatically, without even thinking at each single action to take. In my analogy that is when we have successfully integrated the change and the subsequent new behaviors. [The change curve model was originally developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s.]
But how come that some people seem to struggle less than others when facing change? What makes them more able to navigate the change curve? To me two things are key: previous experiences and state of mind. With respect to the former, the more you get used to change, the less you feel lost when a new change occurs. Basically we develop throughout direct experiences what I call “change agility”, which means that we become more flexible, and that we can move from one stage of the change curve to the other with greater fluidity. Regarding the latter (state of mind) people who are positive in nature – or that in any case have been able to develop and improve their positive thinking ability – feel less threaten in times of change, because they see opportunities and new possibilities where others see annoyances and hurdles. The more positive we feel the outcome will be, the more in control we feel and engaged in the change we become.
In both cases (change agility and state of mind) we can choose what to do: whether to stay still and pretend that nothing has changed, forget the many changes we have been able to successfully embrace in our experience so far and keep a negative outlook on the new situation, or vice-versa to leverage on previous successful change experiences and look at the infinite possibilities that any change brings with it.
Each person can do a lot to build-up new plastic neuropaths that will support a more effective and faster response to change. Easy said, but how to exercise our change agility and improve our positive thinking ability?
To me a lot has to do with willingness and determination: I start by clarifying the goal, I actually write down what I want to achieve in details, and in present tense as I have it already. Just as an example, when I relocated the first time in an English speaking country (the UK) I decided that I wanted to improve my English as much as it was possible to me at that time. Hence I wrote down at the left-hand corner of the mirror in my bathroom: “Speaking in English comes natural to me, I speak English daily and in any circumstance possible”. Then I defined what to do, which was speaking just in English every day from 8am to 8pm also with an Italian colleague who was in my office at that time, and with my business partner, despite our common native language was of course easier for us. Sure, in this case I had to get the buy-in of those involved, but thankfully they all committed to this change. I then took conversational lessons with a British teacher, and I stuck to my purpose until the change became embedded in my new routine.
This is just a simple real life example from my own personal experience, actually a pretty simple one. But believe me that as many of you have experienced, I too have had many harder ones, situations that were not driven by my decision to make a change but that were imposed by someone else or just unexpectedly and disruptively occurred in my life as a tornado.
How to then stick to change? It is said that it takes somewhere between 21 and 28 days to make or break a habit. However personally I can easily shift back to old behaviors if I don’t commit the new ones continuously over the following months. My commitment to perform the new behaviors and the subsequent coherent actions are crucial to my success. This is also how I build-up my change agility. And on top of it, I strive to keep it positive, I stick to a relentless “can do” attitude. I visualize the new condition as already occurred, I imagine each detail, I picture the final outcome in my mind and feel the sensations that the image gives me. How am I going to benefit from the change? What am I ready to let go? Who else will be impacted by the change? What other flipsides should I consider? And so on.
Exercising my change agility is what makes me who I am: I am never still, I am always moving and learning and adjusting my sails to the new winds. It is tiring at times but it is the only way I feel alive. And so far it has helped me face whatever life throws at me without losing sight of one fundamental truth: no matter what, I always have a choice. I can choose to complain, regret, blame and fight the change, or I can choose to accept what it is and embrace new ways.
A long ago I made a choice on how to go about change in my life. What is your choice?