Let’s examine what the process of transforming attitudes and behavior consists of, as well as the forces that can impede or facilitate the process.
Though many living things transform themselves, we don’t expect a caterpillar to become an eagle, a tadpole to become a fox, or an acorn to become an apple tree. Every life form has its own mature potential. Similarly, we cannot expect an individual to radically change her personality, but we can expect and encourage that individual to evolve to her full potential.
Each human being has a core personality. That personality is formed and held in place, at least in part, by certain “core ordering” processes. These include how we organize experience into our view of reality, how we form our sense of identity, how we rank our values, and how we try to control our environment. Because these processes form the core of “who we are,” they are very durable and not easily subject to change. They make us recognizable to our college classmates at our twentieth reunion, and to ourselves as we pass through the stages of our lives. But they are not immutable.
DISCOMFORT, THREAT, AND CRISIS
Human beings generally maintain a dynamic state of balance until faced with a dramatically new situation in the form of a novel opportunity, a unique challenge, or a crisis. Then we either accommodate to these events and achieve a new dynamic balance, or our framework for life begins to unravel.
When we experience too much threat to our core ordering processes we try even harder to use our old solutions. If these fail, we may experience a “breakdown”—physical, emotional, mental. The pain of the breakdown serves the function of demanding that we pay attention to our need to change.
It is completely usual to resist change even when we see change is desirable or necessary. We are fearful that we will lose important parts of ourselves that have made our lives work up to now. We can respect this resistance and its self-protecting purpose without succumbing to it. We can allow it to modulate the pace of change to a rate we can tolerate, without letting it sentence us to stagnation. We will find ourselves alternately opening and closing to the prospect of change. If we honor these natural fluctuations, we can use them to enter and retreat from new territory until we have surveyed it, chosen our preferred positions, and incorporated them into our core processes.
As we open to the need for change, we observe more about our relationship to ourselves and our relationships to others. We observe how we feel and what we do in a particular situation; and we observe the consequences of these feelings and actions.
Observation is the first step in reengineering a process. We need to know exactly what the current process is and exactly what needs it serves. Then we can consider how to change it, how to get legitimate needs met more efficiently and thoroughly. We must understand our current patterns, their depth and force, and how much we rely on them. Then we can do the hard work of transforming them.
WILLINGNESS TO EXPERIMENT
As we open to transformation, we realize that the way we have done things, which seemed to be the only way things could or should be done, is not in fact the only way. And it may not be the best way. We begin to explore the options open to us.
We may try doing the opposite of our ingrained response, testing what it feels like to use nonhabitual behavior. We may let our recessive traits come to the fore and see what effect they have. It can be a small behavior we do differently, like listening at a meeting rather than jumping in early with forcefully made arguments.
Usually, the sustainable options open to us are not those at the other end of the spectrum. They may be a few degrees further in the direction we would like to go. We may place a little more value on something we previously ignored and a little less value on something we previously held sacrosanct—for example, a little less value on a deadline and a little more value on the impact of the deadline on ourselves and our family. We experiment and evaluate the results.
We cannot form a clear vision of realistic and desirable outcomes before we begin a transformation process. Transformation takes us from the known to the unknown. As the process unfolds we begin to envision new, desirable states. Often they are more complex than we could articulate at the outset, involving the integration of different factors—the hard and soft, the dark and light sides of our personality. When we can visualize a realistic outcome we can use it to guide and measure our progress. We can refocus from what was “wrong” to what we are becoming
The process of personal transformation moves from disorienting, threatening beginnings, to sobering and eye-opening middles, to invigorating and rejuvenating outcomes. It requires courage to stay with this volatile process.