Staying Loyal to the Process of Change, Not Just the Outcome

Something new is upon us,
And yet nothing is ever new….
The changes we dread most may contain our salvation.
— Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonders

Oh Change! Sometimes it’s too fast. Sometimes it’s too slow. It seems we never feel like it’s right. It almost never fits the time frame we imagine or the time frame that feels comfortable. And it’s everywhere. Change is everywhere.

I have a friend who is in high school and people are just torturing him with questions about his future—what he wants to study, where he wants to go to college, what classes he’s taking next year, what he wants to major in, what job he wants in the future. I mean, isn’t it enough that he just got his driver’s permit this week? How much change is a person supposed to tolerate? And in the organizations I work in, there are endless conversations about what people need to do to change—how whole divisions can make change, how teams can make change, and often—how can I get this person to change, or can people change anyway?

And sometimes I can feel like I have been knocking on the same door of change for a very long time. I can feel both overwhelmed by change and stuck in change at the same time. I am reminded especially of this feeling here in a very, very cold March in New England. We are desperate for the change of winter to spring. We are all looking for some hopeful sign that we aren’t doomed to an eternal March. But this change has been glacial. On every possible level. Yes, some changes are more like a long, slow thaw. Here in New England after our record breaking winter of snow, there is change happening. The snow is receding. But it is like a slow motion film, a slow motion film of a massive, frozen flood receding. Like a glacier receding.

We want this change, this thaw, our spring. But we have to endure a lot to get it. As the snow recedes—we see the damage. Fences, walls, sidewalks, driveways, downspouts—cracked, torn, broken. Broken bits of all manner of things, and trash reveal themselves as the snow piles melt. So many plastic and metal bits along the side of the road that I half expect a whole car to reveal itself in the melting snow. It looks like a tidal wave hit our community, but it did it VERY SLOWLY.

And this is the truth about change—it comes with work. And it comes with loss. It comes with holding the damage, and it requires a certain patience and perseverance. I once read that “The quickest way for a tadpole to become a frog is to live loyally each moment as a tadpole.”

If the changes we dread contain our salvation—then the antidote is our ability to stay loyal to the process. I don’t know about you, but that tadpole-ish  feeling is the one I run from the most. Discussion about change in the abstract is great—but to really sit there in that awkward phase where you literally have to grow legs? Really? How do they do it—those tadpoles? How can you live loyally this metamorphosis?

Tadpole really would be the perfect mascot for growth—wouldn’t it? It fits so much better, really, than caterpillar and butterfly—a metaphor I really like, but never feel like “it” has happened—that moment when you are all beautiful and colorful and the awkwardness is gone.

To live loyally as a tadpole would be a radical act of kindness—to yourself through change. Because I think what trips us up the most isn’t the change –the thing we want to be different. It’s the process we have to go through to get there. We want Spring. We don’t want a slow, cold March. We want to have legs, we just dread the process of growing them. It’s so uncomfortable this period of growth. Yes we want to be able to leap on those legs. We long for it, but we ignore metamorphosis as a stage in it own right. With its own beauty. With its own gifts. With the salvation it brings.

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD

Can people really change? How to Understand Growth for Adults and Kids.

When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

I work as a therapist. I work as a consultant. I work as an executive coach. And I have heard this question hundreds, if not thousands of times over the course of my career. "Can people really change?" And behind that question is actually the statement, "I mean, he’s always going to be that way right? I mean, there’s no point in even getting him help, if he can’t change.”

The psychologist Gordon Allport once said that the definition of personality was essentially that you know who you are when you wake up tomorrow. So yes, there is something enduring about each of us. Some thread that runs through all of our years and make each of us who we are—so there is something in us that feels unchangeable. And indeed when those things do change—typically because of brain injury or memory loss—then we know longer feel like ourselves and people feel like they lost ‘us.’

So what do we mean when we talk about change?  We don’t question whether babies and children can change. We pray that our teenagers will change. But somehow when we get to adulthood we believe in a fixed notion of a person.  That they will essentially be who they are. So why bother with change—either my own or supporting someone else.

One of the problems is that change is a big topic. I can change my behavior: I can stop smoking or start exercising. I can shift my mindset and way of making meaning in the world: I can start taking another person’s perspective in a new way, or see a situation from multiple viewpoints—which I might call growth, but growth is change. I might use a behavior change to trigger growth: I might use behavioral change to stop interrupting people so that I am a better listener and with this change I can better understand other people’s perspectives.

Neuroscience, as I wrote about in the Norman Doidge book review, states unequivocally that our brains can, and do, change. Brains are designed with neuroplasticity—and our brains will change based on what we do: they will shift to match their use. So at the neural level the answer is OF COURSE PEOPLE CAN CHANGE.

But all of us, every single one of us also knows that, it can be really difficult to make change. It is difficult to  shift something, to learn something new. This is why we find ourselves doing that same, frustrating thing, over and over again.

The question about whether people can change does make you want to take out the old joke about the light bulb. You know the one: How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb has to really want to change. And our motivation for change, our readiness for change and how change is connected to what matters to us most all impacts our capacity for change.

But today I want to highlight the way we support ourselves and the way we think about change at all.

When I think about change I always start with the gurus of change: children. Why? Because in the right environment children grow beautifully, on their own trajectory. Even kids who have some big struggles, if you get any of the obstacles even slightly out of their way, they shoot forward, back on track. I have to say that the human brain and spirit loves to grow. I have witnessed it over and over and it has made me a devout believer in growth. Thich Nhat Hanh described it perfectly. We don’t blame the lettuce for not growing. We must look at the conditions we are asking the lettuce to grow in.

And this is where I think we are terrible about growth in adulthood. In the best of circumstances children live in a world where they can safely lean on the adults around them—where the ‘soil’ of their lives is safe enough that they can spend their energy growing. The ‘dependence’ and security of their lives doesn’t make them helpless, it provides a safe platform from which to launch.

In psychological terms we call this safe platform a ‘secure base’ and it provides external stability and an internal sturdiness to weather the turmoil of growth and change. This is what change requires. A secure base—something that feels solid enough to lean on and leap from.

And my observations is that adults get all confused about needing support or stability. Either they get fixated on the idea of stability and security as the goal itself, and forget to let go and trust the internal sturdiness. Or, they are so frightened of leaning on anyone or anything else that they never feel safe enough to let go and try something new because they have to use all of their energy staying put and holding themselves together.

So much of the work I do isn’t getting people to change or making people change: it is getting them to create an environment that would allow them to grow or heal or change. My experience is that adults want to grow too. That just like the kids I have worked with, when you can clear obstacles they often shoot forward on their own power. So in many ways change is complicated for adults because they are both the creators of the soil of their garden, and the seeds they would plant.

For children, change is the constant. They are used to feeling off balance a lot, which explains a lot of the meltdowns we help them through. They use up a lot of energy managing the ups and downs of change and growth—and they often long for something familiar and stable. Which is why they always want to hear the same story over and over, or watch the same movie over and over.

Adults often notice that they go through big changes when life throws them a curve ball: when there is a death, or divorce, or a birth, or a change of job. It seems that adults often have to be thrown overboard from life in order to get back into the ocean of growth. So it seems so important to help people understand that the goal of stability in adulthood isn’t stillness or "having arrived." The purpose of stability is to create a springboard. If we thought of our ability to use our relationships, and supports and strengths less as a “safe house to live in” and more like ‘fixed ropes’ to climb with—we would have a different experience of adulthood and growth. Growth is the very definition of disequilibrium. And when we think of adulthood as this ‘solid, stable platform’ then when we feel off-balance, we think we are doing something wrong. But if we thought of adulthood as ‘great climbing gear’ then we would know that the experience of feeling off balance here and there was simply the experience of moving forward.

So this week—rather than thinking about what you want to change. Ask yourself what you can do to create better conditions in your life for growth and change. What can you do to make the ‘soil’ of your life better for your own growth? And ask yourself what your attitude about change is. How do you understand the days you are off balance? When your foot is on one ledge and your hand is reaching up toward a handhold? How can you help yourself enjoy the feeling of shifting from one spot to another?

© 2015 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD

A Healing Fog

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
— E.L. Doctorow, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

What they don’t tell you about healing from trauma or healing from grief is that there are long stretches where it isn’t at all clear what you are working on or where you are going. Lately, I feel like I am hiking through fog. A fog has descended and I can’t see a way forward, but I am slowly and cautiously putting one foot in front of the other. I can remember one particularly difficult drive in the fog 20 years ago with my friend Fran. We were leaving a training program in Western Mass and we had to get to Hartford—and as we headed east a thick fog rolled in as my little blue hatchback climbed a mountain. I couldn’t see anything at all ahead of me. I found that the only thing I could do to stay on the road was to open my car door and watch the yellow line below me as I drove to know I was still on the road. It’s dizzying even now to remember it. In fog you use anything you can to stay on the path.

Fog is soft. It takes away the edges of everything, so living in the fog right now isn’t emotionally intense, but it has me wondering where the emotional intensity went.  As much as emotional pain is hard, it feels like there is more clarity with it. It feels like it helps you see what you need to do or understand. Fog is different. I wonder what I can’t see because of the fog. I wonder what is out there that I am missing. I wonder what I am going to slam into without warning.

As a rower in college, we would slip our boats into the water into the morning fog and begin our workouts. It was easier then because someone was steering for me. It was my job to just keep myself focused on the act of rowing. I could happily just get lost in the fog, and ignore it. In many ways it was easier because there was literally nothing to distract you, you were in a cocoon of fog. And somewhere in the middle of the practice, the fog would begin to lift. Literally, it would rise so you could see just below it, the heads and shoulders of the people in front of you. The trunks of the trees on the shoreline. And then it would lift altogether and you would be rowing in the clear light of day. You would pull back in to the dock at the end of practice and see clearly what had been hidden before. I am heartened by this memory—that if you just get up in the morning and do your work, any work that is important to you, at some point, without you being completely aware of it, the fog will begin to lift.

In the fog, nothing stands out at all, except for the fog itself. There is nothing to orient off of—no landmarks pulling you. It is quiet and still.

Quite often in the summer in Maine there will be fog in the morning that will lift as the sun burns hotter toward noon. Sometimes there are whole days of fog, or even strings of days. Fog in Maine means a pause in the routine. It means you slow down, and take more time with breakfast. Tend to a chore that you hadn’t had time for. A whole foggy day means tea, reading and a fire. It is a wonderful forced day of rest.

And it may also be true that our experiential, emotionally foggy days are the same. That they come in hours or days or multiple days to have us slow down and rest. Not the rest of doing nothing, but a rest from the more sharp edged work of healing or grieving or growing. Fog doesn’t remove the struggles that we were working on, the difficult feelings, the difficult conversations. Fog just shrouds them for a little while. Softens their edges. Fog isn’t a rest from work. It signals a different kind of work.

I notice that this foggy feeling has me feeling more alone, and less hopeful that I could be found in this state. It’s harder to explain to others—I feel foggy and a bit lost. But perhaps this isolation is also necessary. The fog creates a boundary, it requires that we sit undistracted with our own experience. It feels like I can’t quite know where I am, but I am also not being pulled by the needs and wants of others. Fog requires that we reach out and speak out. We have to let others know where we are.

And then I remember hiking in the fog in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Thick fog. And you realize why all the cairns are there. For those who haven’t seen them—cairns are giant man made piles of stone and they line the trails in the Whites. The piles are probably 20-50 feet away from each other depending on the trail and in bright sunlight they almost look silly—so many stone piles lining the trail. The trail looks obvious—why would anyone need so many markers? But in fog, the next cairn is barely visible. In the fog, you see exactly why the cairns are there. You squint and find the next cairn and make your way towards it. And once you find it, you look for the next one.

Fog is the reminder to pay attention to the stretch of trail that you are on. To each footfall in front of you. What most people imagine about healing from trauma or from grieving is that you have whole conversations about it: that you simply tell a story or talk about what you experiencing. That you even know and understand what you are experiencing. But with healing it is often the case that the whole story just isn’t there. Or pieces are there, but you don’t yet feel enough trust to tell it, or even to know it, or hear it for yourself. So much of healing, I have found, isn’t so much stories, as simply one sentence at a time. Sometimes the same sentence over and over. Sometimes a word. Sometimes a metaphor. But those small words and simple sentences are cairns. They show you the path forward. You get one word. And then pause. And look out and find the next one. And it gets you through until the fog lifts.

© 2016 Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 

Go ahead risk it--meet your own voice and be brave, let your light shine.

For many years, there was a theory that play was an effective tool for learning for mammals because it was merely practice. The theory was that kittens practice play fighting because they are preparing for actual fighting or learning to catch prey. Or that young primates practiced caring for younger siblings as a way to learn child-rearing. But the people who researched play discovered that there was something bigger going on besides mere practice. Play fighting, as it turned out, was entirely different than actual fighting. Play fighting is reciprocal, and mammals that play fight go for different parts of the body than an animal would in actual attack. The researchers discovered that when juvenile animals were prohibited from playing—they were fearful and anxious of everyday activities. They were even fearful and anxious of social interactions. It turns out that play is about coming in to contact with the unknown. Play is not the practice of activity—play is the practice of being brave—of mastering the fear of whatever you are practicing. If play is a practice for anything—play is a practice of courage, of meeting what is unexplored, and learning to dance with it.

A few weeks ago I headed out to my alma mater to do some writing for the weekend. I was struggling with a section of a book, and decided some space away, in the company of students might inspire me to work through the challenge. But I didn’t get my best lesson that weekend in that beautiful library. Instead, my real learning came in the student center.

This past fall I had met a group of current students at a crew reunion, and they walked in to the student center the first night I was eating dinner and we greeted each other again—and then they joined me for dinner. When I asked what they were up to for the weekend, two of them offered that they were in an Acapella performance the next night and encouraged me to come, “We’ll save you a seat!” And so I showed up the next night, glad of something to look forward to, but thinking it was just going to be a lovely evening of entertainment—and not the education—and gift-- it turned out to be.

Their performance had a rhythm. One of the group members would come forward and introduce a fellow singer, and then that singer would sing a solo. And as they each began their solo, they would begin tentatively, their voice a bit softer, a bit timid. They looked somewhat surprised by their own voices, and as they kept singing they would soon hit a place in the song that seemed to feel like home, where they suddenly became bigger than themselves---where it seemed that light literally shined out of them.

And the moment they found their voice, the voice that was unmistakably theirs—they not only shined—the entire audience shined too. That moment was electric. And it happened in every single performance. Sometimes sooner, sometimes later—but in each song, the performer would find her voice—find that part of herself that was connected to everything—the song, herself, the audience.

It was a reminder that finding your voice isn’t a matter, really, as I had always thought—of knowing what you believe or knowing what you want. Though there is an element of that at times. Marianne Williamson famously said that “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”  And in watching each of these performers, this dynamic was perfectly visible. It wasn’t that they couldn’t find their voice, it’s that when it first showed up, they were frightened by it. They kept their distance from it—inching toward it slowly. And somewhere along the way, they found their courage, they lost their fear and connected with the voice that was truly theirs.

The beauty of this particular concert was that I got a chance to watch, and learn, this lesson over 20 times. It was true of every performer, and it never got less beautiful, and their connection with their voice, less perfect. And it was perhaps the richest reminder of what is missing when we are trying to do anything new, or anything that is important to us.

I sat stunned during the concert at the beautiful simplicity of being brave in the face of fear and awkwardness. Of trusting yourself to lean on your own passion and the group of people singing with you, and to keep going. Stepping off some wonderful edge and finding that your wings not only held—they were amazing. I sat there wishing that I could hold on to the sense of wonder, and goosebumps and awe that I had each time these women did it—became the biggest and most beautiful versions of themselves. It’s so hard to hard to remember that you have to risk it—risk meeting your voice, yourself, your light. It’s not so much about finding your voice—it’s more about being able to stay brave when you meet it.

And now it’s the season of New Year’s resolutions and year-plans and plans to change our behavior or goals—most often based on what we perceive to be our flaws or the things that we don’t like. But after watching this concert, I am convinced that Williamson was right—it’s our light where our biggest challenge is—not our flaws. So instead of a long list of goals and resolutions—let’s all step off the edge of our nests, with our voice, with our practices. Be brave with your off-key notes, and messy drafts and bumpy meetings. Speak up, speak out and leap from the nest that you know as familiar. Meet your voice, meet your light and stay. Stay and ride the waves. Let the wind push you, grab you and trust your wings. You will fly, you will shine, and because of it, we all shine.

© 2017 Gretchen l. Schmelzer, PhD