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Change – What Is It Good for?

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It doesn’t really seem to matter whether you’re at a TED talk or scrolling through the tweets, everyone seems to want to tell you to embrace something called “change”.

‘During change, there’s one thing you can definitely influence …’ says Sonia Sparkles, in a tweet. Spoiler alert: it’s ‘your behaviour’. Michael Nulty, a motivational writer with a large Twitter following, agrees: ‘When change comes your way allow it to enter your life even if it feels scary at first.’

Both seem to think ‘change’ is a static object or event. From the self-help shelf, Carol Dweck is peddling a reductive binary: the notion that people have either a ‘fixed mindset’ (change haters) or a ‘growth mindset’ (lovin’ all the change). As you may guess from the value judgement, everyone with a fixed mindset sucks and everyone with a growth mindset is amazing.

On the Naughty Step, losers with a ‘fixed mindset’ give up easily, hate the success of others, and take a deterministic view. This negativity results in a ‘sucky’ life, in which ‘growth’ will level off, which Dweck associates with failure. By whose measure, we are not told.

By contrast, the growth-mindset people can’t wait to face down every terrifying change with glee, go beyond all their limitations, ‘persist despite setbacks’ (except while trying to get a date, one hopes) and achieve more than they thought possible.

The argument is that a person’s mind is ‘set’ in one of these flat archetypes and that only a specific piece of hard work can change you from loser to winner.

It’s a neat – if jejune – repackaging of a 66-year-old concept: locus of control. The truth is, as Rotter could have told you back in the fifties, no one is wholly one of these types or the other. We’re sometimes a bit one way and sometimes a bit the other. Often on the same day. We might be overjoyed at our spouse’s promotion while despising the success of an old school bully. We may feel we have control over our career but feel powerless over geopolitics.

We can’t be reduced into two archetypes, any more than we can into 12 zodiac signs. We’re individual humans, full of mush, not numbers. Infinitely complex and vastly contradictory.

These articles, speeches, memes and soundbites all appear to serve the same message: that something called ‘change’ is actually a thing and that responsibility for handling it without being upset is down to the character of the individual. That is an error so momentous as to be fundamental.

In truth, there’s no such thing as ‘change’. There are only individual changes. The nature of discrete changes acting upon the life, environment and circumstances of a person will vary in the power those changes have over that person, the threat they pose to that person and the meaning that person gives to the change.

I’m not saying adaptability isn’t useful. The bus company switches up its timetable – it’s helpful if we can rapidly get past it. Some changes, though, like a divorce, a house repossession or the loss of a loved one – these changes are difficult to accept and will likely affect us deeply, over a long period of time. Changes of this type, especially when compounded one upon another, are likely to cause anyone severe suffering and grief.

To tell a grieving person to ’embrace change’ invalidates their legitimate distress. To tell someone who has lost their partner that they should re-evaluate their thinking to be less ‘fixed’ in their attachments is not only nonsensical, but feels overtly harmful.

The idea that ‘change’ is always helpful if you would only accentuate the positive, is also problematic. Not every change is the gateway to a new you or to a golden dawn. Some changes are terrifying, wrong-headed and dangerous and should be resisted with everything we have.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to handling unwanted change, nor should there be. People have a right to feel distressed when distressing things happen in their worlds. They have a right to their feelings and a right to be validated in those feelings. They have a right to be held while they try to process them, not told they are defective or disordered.

People in the helping professions, especially, should understand that distress happens from the outside in, not the reverse. A person’s distress, when faced with distressing things, is not a mental defect. Nor is it a disorder. To assert the opposite feels, to borrow a phrase, like a rather fixed mindset.

Richard Lewis is a clinical hypnotherapist, author and creator of the 30 Walks Project

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