Responding to Change

“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”
“I have to find safety. My home is disappearing!”

The Western world is in an uproar over the predicted-by-some, yet surprising-to-most, election win by Donald Trump. For me, the event and its aftermath is a fantastic example of what many experience as “unwanted change”, and the behaviours that manifest at such times. This is a fantastic public theatre of what occurs on a smaller, often ignored, scale within organisations undergoing change, planned or unplanned, welcomed by or imposed on the employees. This article highlights some of the more obvious behaviours being exhibited and highlights some considerations that may create a more positive outcome at an individual level.

We have seen significant grass-roots responses to unrecognised needs by those in power in the form of Brexit. Now a surprise (to some) Trump victory. As life giving as change can be, it is not always positive. Enough wars show change can be damaging. Fear is palpable now. For many groups, if Trump seeks to fulfil his intent stated in his campaign speeches, there are real threats to loss of rights and liberty. Some of his early choices suggest he intends honouring, as far as possible, what he promised during his campaign.

Based on some of the more obvious behaviours being demonstrated since the Trump election win, here are some ways people react to change:

  • Polarisation and strengthening of positions: Ardent fighters for and against a change strengthen their positions and fight it out. The fight may be peaceful, or might descend as low as individual human morality allows. There will be a mixture of those aggressively assailing others with a different point of view, whether physically, emotionally or through power over. Others will assert themselves, clearly identifying who they are and what they stand for, without imposing on others. Mahatma Gandhi and his followers’ non-violent protests of British rule is a good example of the latter.
  • Run away and hide: This may be observed as people and groups getting busy with something else, a way of distancing from the pain of loss and occupying themselves with something they have control over. It may be literally exiting the scene, leaving the country, becoming a hermit, or otherwise divorcing self from the challenge of being or staying engaged.
  • Filter reality: Notice how many proponents of each side argue, using only the information (often opinions of others rather than real facts) that supports their view, and ignore anything counter to their position. This also shows when others are accused of falsehood when citing something that is counter to the position held. The media are getting a lot of flak for beating up situations if they merely mention something that doesn’t support promoted views.
  • Normalisation: “Give him a chance”, “Wait and see” and in a practical sense, sitting on one’s hands. Then, almost as in a frozen state of numbness nothing is said or done as ongoing change initiatives bring into reality the worst nightmares of those who voiced fear of the worst. For example,
    • Steve Bannon, former head of alt-right nationalists’ recommended media source, Breitbart News, appointed as Chief Strategist
    • Myron Ebell, a global warming denier, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency
    • Trump’s own children being put forward for cabinet and advisory roles, and simultaneously running his and their own businesses, with a simple, “You can trust us.” Very basic ethical principles are trampled underfoot, and seems to be widely accepted as okay. Not if anyone else tried it!
  • Disavow any responsibility: “I don’t know”, “I didn’t realise this would happen?”, “How could I know?” Or as in Seth Meyer’s case, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, when challenged on calling Bannon ‘controversial’, he was unwilling to give an opinion because he had not met the fellow conservative. Seth Meyers, of the Closer Look program, called Meyers on this side-step well when he said, “I’ve never met John Wilkes Booth, but I let his past work inform my opinion of him.” It is as though many are running for cover and refusing to say anything that may impact their future position with the one in charge. They could do with taking Lucy Gennaro McClane’s advice to Matt Farrell in Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0), “You need to grow a bigger set of balls!”

When facing change, we each have choice. We can allow fear to overcome us and react to what is happening from that place. We rely on the fear-based survival reactions fight, flight, freeze and fabricate. Alternatively, we can function from our personal power, and manifest the power-based thrive responses assert, attend, act and authenticate. The former requires little consciousness from us, with our amygdala (or reptilian brain) reacting to threat. The latter requires conscious choice and self-intervention to assure we behave in a manner that is of our choosing. The thrive responses also require that we are clear about and are congruent with our values, not relinquishing them when the going gets a little tougher.

What I experienced as warm, heart-felt and assertive was the plea and invitation offered to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence by the cast of Hamilton at the end of their show. The play was themed around freedom,  the constitution and diversity. After the final curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon addressed Mr Pence, inviting him to listen, and said:

“We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

New York Times, 19 Nov. 2016 (link)

Debate is as polarised around whether this was appropriate as it is on many other issues related to the election and subsequent events. One of the bigger questions is how to voice disagreement in an environment that seems hostile to any opinion counter to the future Commander-In-Chief.

While I have used very public examples from the follow-on of the Trump election, these behaviours often occur in change situations. The choices you make in response determine your contribution to the outcome. When confronted with change, particularly change you do not welcome, what do you choose to do? Do you voice concerns you hold? Do you assert what matters to you? Do you shrink away and leave it to others to work through? Do you get overwhelmed and find it all too much, unable to find anything you can constructively do? Do you look for what you can do, stay engaged and take some action? Do you blame others for what has happened? Do you act from a place of personal responsibility and ownership and attempt to help shape next steps?

Embrace Change with Power and Purpose

Changing your mental context
Changes, a new mind-set required

According to James Baldwin, the American novelist, “Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”

Regardless of its nature, we need to embrace change with power and purpose. While there may be some change we do want, I also refer to those changes we do not want or seek. It is the challenge found in the unwanted and significant changes that truly tests our character.

Resilience, fear, and letting go are three factors we need to address when responding to change.

As humans, we have physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. Our emotional and mental bodies are similar to our physical in that without exercise and challenge they become flabby and lose tone. Our spiritual body does not so much get flabby. Rather we disconnect from it and lose sight of the being we are, or become aware we never have truly known who we are. It is our relationship with who we are that gets flabby. Change is the catalyst for encouraging and requiring “whole-of-being fitness”. How cleanly and powerfully are you able to respond to change? Does change throw you into a stressful place? Can you ride the wave of change and maintain your composure? The fitness of our whole being forms the basis of our resilience. Physical health, emotional intelligence, mental acuity and a powerful sense of who we are amidst change ensures we are internally resourced.

Fear is a natural reaction to change, even when we want the change. We fear losing the status quo, our current state. There is comfort in the familiar. We don’t KNOW what the end state will be like, even if the grass seems greener. There is the motivating force that pushes for change, and our reactive fear that retards our fluidity. If the reactive fear is greater than the motivational force, we are stuck.

When faced with fear we tend to be reactive and the four F’s come into play: FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE and FABRICATE. The first two are instinctual, reactions driven by the reptilian brain, the amygdala. Freeze is related to higher brain function becoming overwhelmed with information and decisions, and shutting down. We become stuck. Fabricate relates to creating or projecting a mask, a false image, like a chameleon changing colours, so we don’t have to fully face what we fear. It is a learned behaviour, often from our childhood, used to cover our fears. Whether belligerence, shyness, a whimpering “poor me”, these devices seek to control the actions of others in relation to us. We often use fabricate so fluently, these manufactured behaviours become confused with our personality, embedded patterns.

When I received the surprising news that I had a six cm benign tumour in my brain I left the specialists office and told my wife, Juanita, very matter-of-factly that I had a life threatening condition that needed urgent surgery. An observer could have misjudged me as being remarkably calm. I certainly portrayed calm. I was in fact overwhelmed, emotionally closed down. I coped by distancing myself from my emotional world. I was fabricating calmness. All natural, understandable, and in fact necessary. Time and space was needed for me to internally process and get my ducks in a row. However, I had to move past this initial reaction and connect with what was really going on for me to powerfully and purposefully work with the change.

To move forward powerfully, we need to bring the fullness of our being forward. We need to change our F’s to A’s. Fight, flight, freeze and fabricate need to transform to ASSERT, ATTEND, ACT and AUTHENTICATE. Assert who we are and what we need. Stay present. Take action. Be real and call on others to be as well, in themselves and in relationship with you. Then we are responding to change rather than reacting.

For the first few days I maintained my calm demeanour. There was also some overwhelm, self-pity and helplessness. I couldn’t be bothered looking for ways to be powerful or purposeful. Knowing the specialist was referring me to a surgeon, I was prepared to let the hospital process take its own natural course. My wife proactively followed up on it and found it was stuck in the system and would have never got to the surgeon without intervention. I would be dead without her efforts.

My overwhelm shifted. I took ownership of the process. I researched the tumour, and thoroughly understood its impacts and what the surgeon could do, and what the implications would be. By the time I saw the surgeon he was telling me what I already knew, apart from the date for surgery. A friend was a grief counsellor. In speaking with her, she suggested I actively enlist the support of friends as that would make the process easier for me and Juanita. I informed friends in various networks I was part of about my situation. I had been a facilitator of programmes for men for a number of years. I attended a meeting of men and shared my news, my terror and my uncertainty. I experienced a wonderful outpouring of love and support. That grew when the network of several thousand men were informed. We had friends from all around the world in a vigil while I was under anaesthetic, praying or otherwise actively sending positive energy in my direction. Over 120 people were on the update list who chose to be kept informed of my progress for the first few months. Many of those who were local visited me as I had strength to receive them. As shocking and frightening as the news was for me that I had a tumour, I never would have learned the power and support available in such time without it. It really was quite humbling. There was more good will available than I had the capacity to receive.

However, the surgery was only part of the journey. I found that as the post-surgical reality set in, I had enormous grief related to loss of function – primarily hearing, balance, and emotional composure. From time to time, uncontrollable grief welled up, and I would burst into tears for no apparent reason. I would have fits of rage, something entirely alien to me before surgery. These, among others, told me I was not functioning correctly, that I was broken. That is where the third major factor came into play. I had to let go of being who I had been and learn to accept my new self. Over time many of the extremes have disappeared, but my emotional world is much more volatile than it used to be, and some of the qualities I really liked about myself prior to surgery have been lost. Part of the process of letting go has been to reframe my new reality into something meaningful and workable for me. Reframing provides the brain with rationale for why the new situation is okay, positive, good. Once the brain becomes can then settle and find new and productive ways of working within the new context.

This experience has been a series of challenges for me. I have not always managed to embrace the change with power and purpose. In fact, sometimes I have struggled against my new reality, a thoroughly futile thing to do. However, I have never lost sight of the fact it is up to me, no one else, to create the life I want moving forward. While potently and patiently supported by my wife, who has been my rock, it has still been up to me to positively move forward, to assert myself, stay present, take action and be real.

What challenges are you currently facing? How could you strengthen your response to the changes so you claim and maintain your purpose and power? Whatever it is you face, I wish you potency and strength to face up to the challenges. May you find your resilience, your way to overcome your fears, and a means for letting go of what is no longer available in ways that work for you.

The Role of Rigidity and Flexibility in Adapting to Change

A gale rages. Grasses bend and allow the energy to pass by. A forest of tall trees copes by backing and supporting each other. The lone pine, finally worn by the buffeting, breaks. That is one analogy of the effects of rigidity and flexibility.

Have you noticed you judge some people as rigid and others as flexible? Which one is better? Where are you, if you assessed yourself as rigid or flexible? Why are you like this?

How does flexibility and rigidity affect your capacity to change?
How does flexibility and rigidity affect your capacity to change?

While these questions are interesting, I have realised they are too narrow and do not reflect the complex nature of what may constitute rigidity or flexibility. In fact, the question I find myself with is ‘What is the right balance of rigidity and flexibility?’ A person practising yoga, for instance, if too rigid cannot get into poses, needing greater flexibility, but if too flexible, without the requisite rigidity and they collapse.

Here are some contexts where we might assess people on their degree of rigidity and flexibility:

Principles and Values

People like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Adolf Hitler could be assessed as rigid to their principles and values. Each changed the world in their own way and refused to desist from their courses regardless of pressure. Their own lives were at stake, but they were firm (rigid) to the end.

You can probably think of people who change their principles and values to suit the situation. A victim of such flexibility is trust, any sense that the person has integrity. In ‘The Game of Thrones’ terminology they are ‘Sell-swords’, and their allegiance goes to the highest bidder, whatever the currency is for them, and past commitments only matter if it suits them.

Conserved or Spontaneous

In the area of change, conserve relates to our reliance on and application of established beliefs, practices, attitudes and behaviours. Someone bound to the conserve might say “But this is how we have always done it.” For example, the Corporate conserve may include formal processes, rewarded behaviours, and cultural folklore of ‘how we do things.’ The conserve makes us rigid to what has been, how we do it…

Spontaneity is the capacity to act or behave in a new and adequate manner (I.e. is not a perfect response but is suitable and productive ), whether it is new or pre-existing situation. Spontaneity builds on what is emerging now, rather than holding on to how it has been, flexibility in action.

Fear or Power

Fear causes contraction. What was flowing and easy becomes stifled, awkward and stiff. It robs us of the capacity to easily respond to what is present, and places us in a reactive state. Instinctual reactions of fight, flight, and higher brain reactions of freeze and fabricate, erode our capacity to take productive action. We might still do so, but it is not as easy as when free of the rigid and binding nature of fear. Many behaviours stem from fear. Examples include controlling behaviour (of self and others), micromanagement, denial, avoidance and biases/prejudices.

Power is our ability to do or affect something strongly. For us to exercise power we must expand, opposite to the effect of fear. Many confuse power with being able to MAKE yourself or others do your bidding. That is aggression, applying force, part of the fight reaction. Opposite to fear, power enables us to assert, attend (stay present), act and authenticate. I speak to these in my book ‘Appreciate the Fog’. It enables us to work with what is present now, take positive action, and develop and strengthen relationships. Fear makes us contract, rigid and reactive to what might be, while remaining in our power enables us to expand, be flexible and responsive to what is.

Attachment and Expectation

Attachments are those things we hold on to from the past. Expectations are our hopes, visions, dreams and aspirations of the future. In and of themselves they do not make us flexible or rigid. However, our inability to let them go when circumstances change does create the effect of rigidity as the individual pauses to process and adjust. At about the age of three one of my children threw a massive tantrum because they wanted something different from what was. Clinging to the pole of the clothesline in the middle of the backyard, screaming and crying, there was total refusal to let go of what they wanted. Not rigid in their body at all, they were stuck in place. Once the tantrum was over, their emotions fully expressed, the pole was released. Acceptance, then contentment and movement returned. Minutes later they had forgotten the tantrum. What we hold on to can make us rigid, especially when it is important to let go and move on.

I am very aware of how lightly I may hold on to things I consider safety-making, whether they are beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, or any number of other things, I often hold on beyond their use-by date and rob myself of my power.

Emotion

Many people, men particularly, are emotionally rigid, unable to connect with and express their feelings. Some cannot even discern what they feel. Childhood messaging such as “Boys don’t cry” served to teach a generation what previous generations had learned, that quashing the natural flow of emotion is important to control life and actions. Shame, embarrassment and fear are commonly associated with open expression of feeling, especially of grief and fear. Anger, in a man’s world, seems acceptable, though its link with violence is frowned on. Emotional rigidity has led to emotional illiteracy.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who are easily overwhelmed by their emotions, caught in a torrent of feeling, with little capacity to rein them in or manage them. That might be considered flexibility in the emotional world.

Healthy emotional expression lies between these extremes, with the capacity to recognise feelings, comprehend their significance, and express the needs that underpin the emotions. As we loosen emotional rigidity and gain access to and expression of our feelings, we gain a fuller, more authentic capacity to be ourselves. We are able to process what is happening to and within us more effectively, and adjust more easily to change. We are attuned to what is happening to us and the meaning we are making.

Conclusion

When it comes to adapting to change, your ability to adjust to the new situation depends on your beliefs, values, expectations, attachments, degree of fear, and your authenticity with yourself and others about what matters to you. These are part of what defines your personal power.

What gets in your way? What robs you of your capacity to be powerful? What robs you of fullness in relationships? What impedes you from responding to what is new and unexpected in a manner that serves you? How have over-rigid aspects of your being undermined your freedom to act? When have you been so flexible in a situation you lose track of what really matters to you? This is not about right or wrong. It is about the continuum of possible ways of being, and whether you are achieving what you want in a way that best serves you and those about you.

Do I Matter?

Diving into darkness
Willing to dive deep

I know I have asked myself the question ‘Do I matter?’ from time to time. I know of other’s who also find themselves struggling with that question. At such times it seems common to look outside for evidence, and when we actively look it seems that often the world conspires to assert that we indeed don’t matter. Hmm! What to do?

The best person, and only person capable of truly affirming your value, is you. Other people may help, may provide support, may be there at times to lift you when down, but no one other than you is always with you. The challenge is finding the truth of your value within yourself when all your learned behaviours and protective patterns support your fear that you do not matter. And when you do negatively judge yourself that is when you seem to draw negativity towards you like a massive, unrelenting magnet. Even more important then, it is crucial that you are able to connect with yourself, with your needs, and dive below the seaweed of fear and muddiness of hurt to the place of unencumbered beauty and light that does exist deep within you. First you must step into the apparent darkness to find it.

What do you identify with as defining your value? Do you refer to external feedback and measures such as popularity, praise from others, financial or other success, possessions, rivalry with and one-upmanship of others? Do you have access to your own inner voice that speaks to you of your value irrespective of the feedback from the outside world? Can you weather the buffeting of an unwelcoming or critical world that rips you down rather than builds you up? When the world does turn on you, how do you find your worth then? How do you remain connected with or reconnect with your worth and that you matter in those dark moments?

One key thing at such times is to truly love and accept yourself as you are. If you have hit a dark patch you may well be working really hard to do the right thing. You may find that lots of energy and activity is undertaken in an effort to save yourself from the abyss you secretly fear will swallow you? You may be using distraction and procrastination to avoid engaging with your fear of your circumstances. You may know you must work hard and then get annoyed as you get distracted by petty diversions you know do not help. You may work really hard to help others at your own expense (because there are things you need to be doing for yourself) so that even if you perish you know you’re a worthy being. Whatever your pattern, however you manifest your inability to apply yourself as effectively and productively as you know you should, love yourself for who you are. Accept yourself as you are. Forgive yourself for your shortcomings. Show true compassion to yourself. Open your heart to your own inner self, and drop any expectation of any particular performance. Reconnect with yourself, and recognise should, must and other such directive words are from your critic. They lack love, and will not support you as a person who is currently hurting. Own up to your pain, to the emptiness within, and pour the light of your own love into your soul. If you do have a friend who can support you in that moment all the better, but there is not greater gift that you can offer yourself than to love yourself in that moment when you do not feel worthy of it. Then you get to start learning how much you matter to yourself, and actually begin to demonstrate that it is true, attend to yourself and your needs in a gentle and authentic manner.

Stirring the Pot

I was chatting with my wife Juanita after she returned from a psychodrama training session. She had enjoyed playing the role of a dog. The dog loved their owner, but felt peaceful as it stayed outside the dramas occurring around it. I remember when I learned for myself that I habitually took an idea and stirred it up in my own mind. This had the effect of making my mind very busy, gave the false impression I was doing something useful, and it destroyed any possibility of peace. I realised that even when I could be peaceful I would habitually stir things up to keep my mind busy. Sometimes it felt like I was being dragged by a herd of wild horses, and they were in charge of my life.

Wild and untamed horses
Wild and untamed horses

This is the mechanism used when you worry, the endless and repetitive process of pouring over “what if” scenarios in a mind numbingly unproductive manner. The mind is busy but no new information is introduced. It eases when the mind gets bored with the process, though in true worry the mind moves on to a different topic, even if only subtly so. It is colloquial to say “I feel worried”. However, worry is a state of mind, a mental process, not a feeling. Feelings that underpin worry include scared, anxious, petrified and any number of other expressions of fear. And beneath all of that is a question the mind is attempting to answer. Similar processes occur with grief as the mind seeks to locate meaning from amidst the hurt. An element of relief occurs when some new and satisfying way of framing the pain is identified.

I learned I could step out of those processes, worry and grief, and bring myself some space and peace. The mind will still want to find its way out of the state, but introducing space, and watching the process from the outside, can provide a powerful way for reigning in the untamed mental energy. It can help if the question the mind seeks to answer can be identified. Often the driving question has absolutely no merit. Or from the sideline, and in a loving way, you make the observation to your mind that it is caught in a another fruitless pattern, and invite it to stop. Meditation is a useful tool for developing the capacity to observe the mind without buying into its story.

Another side to this is being able to recognise when someone else is working from a place of worry, grief or other form of mental drama, and making your own conscious choice to not participate. That does not mean you cannot support and assist them. In such moments you are able to retain your peace and objectivity, and often introduce a clarity that flees from the scene if you engage and join in with the other person’s process. As a project manager I have had a number of occasions where team members have told me that my calmness enabled them to feel calm, otherwise they would have been panicking and unable to work with the significant issue that needed resolution.

Find your way out of the places of fruitless ruminating. Tame your mind and learn to create more spaciousness and peace for yourself. Master the ability to not join others in their unproductive urgency. Learn to truly be the master navigator of your life. Become the loving, non-judgemental dog that loves and accepts without contributing to or joining the unnecessary drama. Allow your mind to settle, and peace to distil. Tame the wild horses that run wild through your mental space. It is a fantastic leadership capacity because from such a place you’re better placed to gather facts and objectively assess the situation and what it needs, and hold the space against unnecessary and often manufactured urgency. Someone else may be playing a drama. Someone else may be anxious and worked up. You choose what you engage with as an autonomous and self-responsible being!

Bubbles of History

Bubbles
Bubbles rising towards the surface

I have noticed that I can be having a really good day and be emotionally hijacked by something from my past arising within me and clouding my experience. It may result in minor negativity or cause total turmoil. It could even be a positive impact. The key point is that my current state is suddenly changed from within, not at all related to my external world. Sometimes the bubbles of emotion come in clusters, really upsetting my equilibrium; other times they occur singly. Each bubble arises with my awareness growing as it nears the surface, and then it reaches the surface and pops. Its contents then become part of my current experience. Like real bubbles that carry gas and scent from the bottom of a lake, the bubbles from within are more intense in their moment of bursting, erupting emotion linked to some past experience into our current world.

At such times I find it best to recognise and acknowledge that I am working with emotion from the past, and process the associated feelings through journalling, talking with my partner, or some other means that enables me to accept and release the emotional eruption. Even positive emotion bursting on the scene needs releasing otherwise we are losing our connection with the present and are being dragged back into the past. The most important thing is realising and accepting it is a natural part of life. The past does reinsert itself from time to time without provocation. It does not signify that we are stuck with an old issue or have some fault with our emotional world. Our psyche naturally lets go of it rubbish, its own cleaning process of our attachments to the past, and when it does we get to deal with it in our current state.

Survive vs. Thrive

When you are experiencing fear, even if unconscious of it, the tendency is to contract and strengthen protections around you. Much of this process is unconscious and the patterns so ingrained that you don’t even know it is happening. There are some broad categories of fear-based reaction, which I generically refer to as Survive Reactions, fight and flight are very instinctual, based in the amygdala of the brain. Freeze and fabricate are higher brain level reactions. These all carry a short-term focus, are reactionary and at best could be considered tactical. Thrive Responses are based on consciously making choices that are longer-term focused, are based on love rather than fear, and have the potential of creating positive results into the future. The individual thrive responses are assert, attend, act, and authenticate. By recognising when a survive reaction is being used, you can develop a capacity to intercede and choose a thrive response, and create different results. Through practice in developing awareness and owning your ability to choose your own actions, your quality of life can change and your personal power will increase.