In the last post I suggested that everybody is sane – that is (usually) our behaviour makes sense to us and we have good reason for doing what we do. To another person it may seem futile or unnecessarily difficult – but usually not to us.
The question that arises from this is: How do we change?
If we have good reasons for our behaviour why change it? The most extreme form of this is: we can make reality over according to whatever we think / anything is possible – we just have to think about it enough and in the right way. I think this is seriously deluded and can’t account for us changing our thinking.
- One of the things that distinguishes us from the other critters is our ability to learn. We were born with few instincts – compared to say a foal. And so we learnt to do most of what they do –
- from walking to talking,
- to riding a bike,
- to driving,
- to relating to people in a particular workplace,
pretty much everything we do we have learnt.
Which is to say: it is part of being human to change. Learning is one kind of change.
I’m pointing this out to highlight how much change is part of all our experience. By the time we are adults we have learnt an incredibly range of things – which is to say we have changed hugely.
We usually behave according to the ideas we have about the world. Sometimes we find that those ideas don’t work.
- We may find that other parents have different rules to ours.
- When we change employers we find that a different ethos prevails in the new workplace.
- We may find that people in other cultures have different rules on touching (Anglo-Saxon cultures like mine seem to be particularly averse to people touching each other – especially men touching men – men holding hands with men: Qu’elle Horreur! It’s just not natural! – unless you come from another culture).
So we come to learn that our ideas aren’t in tune with a particular part of reality.
At which point there are a few options.
1. We can conclude that the other way of doing things is wrong.
- It just IS wrong for the new workplace to be different.
- Men should not hold hands!
- My parents way of doing things is best.
I do think this can be true.
- I do think some ways of parenting are better than others.
- I don’t think it is wrong for men to hold hands – however uncomfortable I am with it.
- I don’t think bullying is acceptable in any workplace – however much it is part of the culture.
However, this is often our default reaction. We don’t stop to consider the feelings and reasons we have for our reaction. And so our reaction, of, “That’s just wrong!”, keeps us from learning and improving our understanding of the world.
2. Accepting that we need to change our ideas in this one area.
“When in Rome do as the Romans do” has its place. And when we return from Rome we go back to our usual way of behaving.
- At work we may behave in ways we wouldn’t find acceptable at home.
- During a sporting contest different rules apply to normal life.
- We are more abrupt or aggressive with one group of friends than another.
I don’t think this is hypocritical or unhealthy, necessarily. It is just accepting that there are different ways of doing things and that there isn’t necessarily only one right way to do some things.
3. Extensive changes
Sometimes we come up against something that means major adjustment on our part.
I grew up believing that I wasn’t much good with my hands. Then in a drop-in-centre I discovered that I could produce acceptable looking stuff from leather stamping. This was quite a challenge. Over the years this has become a good reminder that my ideas about my limitations can just mean that I haven’t had the chance to find out if I can do something.
These sorts of extensive changes will often have to do with feelings-ideas-beliefs from our childhood – and which we are now unconscious of. Usually when we hit these kinds of things we have a very strong reaction.
- Feelings of disgust or vertigo,
- Intense anger or elation
- Quick judgements or feeling resolute.
It may be helpful to ask someone who is a good listener to sort through your reaction. It can be useful to employ a professional. It may be helpful to consider a change to this in one area.
Extensive changes can take time and change other areas of our lives.
- To change the way I plan my work schedule may lead to changes in planning my leisure as well and perhaps even to how I greet people.
- To learn that it is OK to relax and have fun with kids may affect my relationships with adults, and then how I plan my work day and perhaps eventually influence my life’s goals.
This kind of process can take weeks or occasionally even years.
Exercises For Reality Testing
1. Fill in the brackets in the following sentence:
All [a class of people] are [a quality].
Now find some exceptions – it is extremely likely there will be some.
2. What is your usual way of responding to difficulties?
When does this work well? When is it less helpful? What ways do others you know respond to difficulties? What are the strengths and weaknesses of their approach?
3. Choose a set of parents, other than your own, that you know well. Take a solid amount of time (at least five minutes) to imagine how you would be different and the same if you had been raised by this other set of parents instead of your own.
The reasons we change are not only the mismatch between our ideas and how they fit the world ‘out there’. Sometimes we realise that there is an internal disharmony that we don’t want.
- We may realise that a way of thinking badly about a group of people is inconsistent with our value of not being prejudiced
- We may realise that we treat women and men doing the same job differently (and need to decide how and if we wish to continue to do this).
- We may realise that we are quite rational in one area of our life and impulsive in another.
Our thoughts, emotions and values are somewhat different. And so they may be more or less in harmony with each other. This harmony can be quite usual:
E.g. doing the washing up in a way that makes sense, enjoying the sense of getting through a task, and that this contributes a little to a happy marriage.
All aspects are in harmony.
The harmony can also lead to quite intense moments of flow or delight.
E.g. Getting an artwork exactly right, or engaging at our deepest level with a conversation or our life partner’s desires.
That we have different ‘parts’ to us that can be somewhat at odds with each other can also lead to us changing.
Exercises for Internal Change
1. Which were the last five situations you were uncomfortable in?
Was there one thing these situations had in common that made you uncomfortable? Perhaps there were different things each time? Could the discomfort lead to changes you would like to consider?
2. In what areas of your life do you feel rational calculation is valid? In what areas of your life do you feel rational calculation is invalid? Can you think of reasons why these views might be wrong?
3. Have their been times in the last year when you have been surprised to hear the words coming out of your mouth? What was surprising? How do you evaluate this surprising part of you?
The Importance of Change
In our personal lives I think it is hard to underestimate the importance of how much we change and can change. We don’t need to be prisoners of our past – or of our thoughts (or feelings or values). (My own view is that the best way out of prison is in small and enjoyable steps.)
When have the changes you have made been due to reality ‘out there’ contradicting the ideas you had about it? When have the changes you have made been ‘internally’ driven. I would like to hear about what has lead to you changing in the comments.
To find out how to live authentically you can download my manifesto.
It has exercises that will help you experience what authenticity means for you and so experience a more satisfying life.
If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don’t hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave this anonymously if you wish.