Wednesday 13 December 2017

Change reaction

People can change, but only if we let them.

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

No doubt you've read that people are more likely to get a divorce than change their bank account. Likewise, we all know that couples are inclined to stay married even when their affections have waned.

We resist change because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Change means new environments, structures and rules. Change means leaving the comfort of the back seat to take the wheel up front. Change is hard.

It's so much easier to run on autopilot. Why change career when you've been working in the same company for 20 years? Why forge a new parenting style when you can just borrow the one passed down from generation to generation? Why upset mammy?

Establishing new patterns takes intense concentration, a complete cognitive overhaul and, more often than not, a reintroduction to our friends and family.

At a conscious level, we resist change and favour inertia to make life easier for ourselves. At an unconscious level, we resist change to make life easier for those around us - deep down we know that they can thwart our efforts.

Dieters will know this insidious phenomenon all too well. They can't just order a coffee when the waiter comes around to take dessert orders. Oh no, they'll have something small. Go on. We'll share a pudding.

Those who have tried to give up smoking will have encountered at least one person who simply cannot comprehend - or at least "always forgets" - that they are trying to quit.

Organisational psychologists study change in the workplace where entrenched structures can so often border on institutionalisation. Yes, we resist changing because we become comfortable with our remit and our hours and our pay packet, but we also resist changing because we don't want to upset the prevailing dynamic.

The upward progression of others can upset former counterparts who often start whispering "he's changed" even before the ink on the new contract has dried. It can be a lonely time for the person who has seen their title change - they are offered congratulations, yes, but very little in the line of real support.

This phenomenon occurs everywhere there is a hierarchy. Group dynamics create patterns that are impervious to change. We each have our role or identity in whatever group we engage with and we tend not to deviate from the norm. Organisers don't relax. Peacemakers don't scream. Jesters don't cry.

These roles are even more deep-rooted within the family dynamic, where the pecking order so often runs from golden child to scapegoat. Golden children can't mess up. They do, but their misdemeanours are generally ignored so as to maintain the dynamic. It's easier that way.

Scapegoats, meanwhile, are subtly ostracised. They are relentlessly told to change, yet they are ritually met with an attitude of exasperation.

There's a black sheep in every family fold and their position in the pecking order is as much due to their nonconformity as it is to the family's tacit agreement not to allow them to conform. Better the devil you know.

Sometimes we don't welcome change in our romantic partners as it threatens the comfort zone. We can confuse stasis with stability, hence, we feel vulnerable when our partner changes their career or outlook. If we allow them to spread their wings too far they could fly off...

Elsewhere, so many relationships end when one partner can't allow change after trust has been broken. You can't move on from infidelity if you continue to look for lipstick marks on collars.

I've noticed the most ugly examples of this phenomenon at parties where someone who was once the last to leave is the first to get their coat. It makes a certain breed of person very uncomfortable indeed.

"You're leaving now?" I've even seen these types turn their backs and raise their wine glasses a little higher in defiance.

They can't cope with this change because they can't bear the idea of a new benchmark. It's a sad truth that we don't always give those with drink and drug problems the support they need when their devil-may-care side makes us feel that little bit better about ourselves.

Ultimately, we don't like those around us changing because it highlights our own shortcomings and forces us to question our lifestyle choices.

And so we've created a culture where we salute the man who doesn't evolve. We have bought into the great fallacy that rigidity is a mark of integrity.

Politicians are hypocrites when they change their stance. Artists are sell-outs when they change their style. But, if we don't allow change in our leaders, how can we progress? In the words of Byron, "Opinions are made to be changed - or how is truth to be got at?"

Change is always going to be hard, but it is so much easier in a culture that easily adapts and where the group dynamic is fluid.

"Be the change you want to see in the world," said Gandhi. Perhaps he meant that real change involves being both proactive and reactive.

Our identities - old and new - are shaped by how others see us. So if you really want somebody to change, treat them like the person they could be. And if somebody really wants to change, don't treat them like the person you think they should be.

Personal change is a group effort.

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