By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 52 and this week I’m talking about change – I’ll be discussing why we resist change and why embracing change is important for your wellbeing. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- Change is this kind-of weird and intangible thing that is all around us yet nowhere at the same time; each moment that passes creates change.
- Change is about recognising and accepting that today is completely different to yesterday, and tomorrow will be completely different to today.
- If we resist change, we stagnate and cause ourselves suffering.
- Resistance to change is often about fear of loss; we don’t want to lose the things that matter most to us, yet it’s inevitable that loss will occur because it is physically impossible for things to remain the same.
- People often like things to stay as they are because we prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar; the safe to the potentially-unsafe. But when you cling to the familiar, you miss out on all of the possibilities that the future holds.
In Ancient times, our ancestors had many different theories about what the stars were: from representing different gods or deities through to being their own ancestors watching down on them, many different belief systems evolved over thousands and thousands of years. Today, we know that they are balls of plasma far, far away from our planet, many with their own planetary systems. And even though that sound like a more clinical and scientific way of describing these points of light in the sky, it’s no less awe-inspiring when you consider that there are about 300 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone (source: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/space/universe/stars/). Our understanding of the world and our place in it might change, but the wonder of it all continues; it just simply goes and evolves into something new entirely…
And that’s the thing with change: it’s about evolution. It’s about recognising and accepting that today is completely different to yesterday, and tomorrow will be completely different to today. It’s about accepting that you cannot go backwards, no matter how hard you might try; even if you could go back, what you know now is more than what you knew then… which would very likely completely change the things you would do, say or feel in the past and so therefore it’s not going back; it’s creating another reality. I’m going a bit philosophical here (but what’s new?!) however it’s one of the more painful aspects of change that tends to affect all of us at some point or another in our lives: we cannot change what was, only what is.
Things evolve. If we resist change, we stagnate. Imagine if the world was still reliant on steam power and it took us days to get from one place to another instead of just hours? We often take all of our modern conveniences for granted but I can tell you that nearly every single one of them was resisted in some form or another by someone — protests about 5G are nothing new; I distinctly remember the complaints and hysterical news stories in the 90’s when the first analogue phone towers were going up, then again when we switched to digital, then 3G, then 4G… the changes happened, we didn’t turn into zombies and life continued on.
It’s why we’ve seen such a huge rise in populist politics over the past decade; many people are terrified and want to return to ‘the good old days’. But they ignore two important points: (1) Like I said before, you can’t go backwards; once a caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, you can’t stuff it back into its cocoon and expect it to revert into a caterpillar again — what’s done is done, and (2) the ‘good’ old days weren’t that good really; back in Episode 47 (Optimism) I talked about a whole bunch of metrics that demonstrate how much better we have it worldwide today in terms of life expectancy, literacy levels and gender equality. Today isn’t perfect, but neither was yesterday; we tend to look at the past with rose-coloured glasses and just focus on the great stuff while we ignore (or completely forget about) all the shitty stuff that happened and just how much has now changed for the better.
So let’s dive into some definitions around change…
What is change?
The simplest definition of change is to “make or become different”, and of course because it’s a word in the English language it can be both a verb and a noun (I love how we make it easy for people to learn this language…!). As a noun, it’s defined as “an act or process through which something becomes different” which is sort-of both vague and specific at the same time (all definitions from Oxford Dictionary via Apple).
Change is this kind-of weird and intangible thing which is all around us yet nowhere at the same time; each moment that passes creates change — clouds roll across the sky in new formations, some drop rain on the land, the clouds part and the sun returns, and all of that carries on in an endless cycle of moving forward where no two moments are identical. If that’s a bit too much in the way of philosophical musings then so be it, but I wanted to make the point up-front that change is all around us, all of the time. And yet, we so often find ourselves resisting change which can create unnecessary pain and suffering. I’m not suggesting that we just roll over and accept all change — you always have a choice what you do, say and feel, so you can always make your own choices about what you do with your life — but it’s about learning to recognise when resistance is futile (and yes, I’m aware I just quoted the Borg — hello, fellow Star Trek fans!).
Why do we resist change and why should we be embracing change?
So why do we resist? In a word: fear. We are creatures of habit (something I discussed back in Episode 29) and habits are driven by our basal ganglia, one of the most primal parts of our brain that is believed to be responsible for habit-forming among other things such as emotion and motor control (source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3064519/)
Things become automatic over time and so when there is a change we are forced to adapt, which can have varying degrees of difficulty depending on the size of the change. For example, if you’re used to driving the same way to work every day then suddenly you’re required to take a detour on an unfamiliar road because of construction, that can potentially cause frustration and uncertainty and even fear of the unknown. Think about work: often when things are changed at work it can be frustrating or disorienting, especially when we’ve worked hard to get our heads around what is required of us and then suddenly the rules are changed or we need to focus on something completely different. Our brains are hard-wired to do things that make us feel safe and comfortable, so that we can meet our need for security and safety and then focus on our higher-level needs. Change can often threaten our security, and so we respond to threats by treating them as things to be resisted and fought against.
According to Harvard Business Review (link in transcript, and I would highly recommend this article for anyone in the business world to better understand the impacts of change in the workplace – find it here: https://hbr.org/2012/09/ten-reasons-people-resist-chang) some of the reasons we resist change include:
- Loss of control (which I talked about in Episode 48 — suffice it to say, we really like being in control and we tend to go a bit feral when we feel like we’re no longer in control!)
- Excess uncertainty (i.e. The change is not clearly defined in terms of what needs to change and why, so people don’t get behind the change)
- Concerns about competence (it’s natural to worry about whether or not you can do whatever is being asked of you, especially if it involves learning new skills)
- Past resentments (the past may be in the past, but sometimes it just hasn’t passed enough for us to let it go… you know what I mean?! Letting go is tough. When changes have happened in the past that have burned us, we might have moved on but we may not have fully let go of the feelings of hurt, resentment etc. which is why being proactive about letting go (which I discussed at length in Episode 32) is so important
- “Sometimes the threat is real” — change can hurt. For example, technology can and does take away jobs; sure, it usually results in new jobs being created (just look at the renewable energy sector, which is expected to create significantly more employment in Australia than a business-as-usual model (source: Climate Council) but that still means job uncertainty and re-training and all of that uncertainty… the point is that, yes, change can and does negatively affect people — there certainly aren’t nearly as many chimney sweeps in business as there were 150 years ago, which has been a terrible thing for childhood employment compared to Victorian times and has meant that kids are now expected to go to school instead of scurrying up chimneys when they were just five years old…! (and yes I am being sarcastic here, just in case that wasn’t clear!)
Often what it all comes back to is that resistance to change is about fear of loss. We don’t want to lose the things that matter most to us: people, pets, places and more, yet it’s inevitable that loss will occur because it is physically impossible for things to remain the same. As one minute clocks over into the next, the present becomes the past and something new takes the place of what once was. Even on a natural level, where changes are often measured over millennia and eons rather than hours and minutes, change is happening all the time. Yes, we lose things along the way… yet we also gain so much.
Making changes can be hard for many people, and especially so if you’re dealing with a mental health challenge. Let me share this quote from an article in Psychology Today:
“People with mental disorders like depression can have difficulty changing their behaviors… because finding motivation to exercise and incorporate other positive changes can be difficult when experiencing a lack of interest in activities, which were at one time enjoyable. Symptoms such as these can make a change… difficult.”Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-truisms-wellness/201701/why-we-resist-change
And so that’s why it’s important to take a really long, hard look at our relationship with change. If we fight it, what does that say about us? What does that say about our willingness to grow and become the best version of ourselves possible? In the words of Marcus Aurelius all the way back in the 2nd century AD, “We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it?” Yes, change is tough… but it’s not impossible, and without change then nothing changes — and I don’t know about you, but I want to spend my time trying to make things better, no matter how big or how small of an impact I might have and no matter how hard the work might be. I firmly believe that it’s not enough simply to accept change; I think we need to chase after it and embrace it if we want good mental health.
So, why is embracing change important for our wellbeing?
There’s a saying that’s often attributed to Albert Einstein (however there’s no proof he actually said this, and it’s been linked to many different people over the years); “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Regardless of who said it, the meaning is an important one. Can you change? Can you adapt to different events and circumstances? Can you identify those relationships and situations and parts of your own life that aren’t working or aren’t healthy, and change them for healthy choices or walk away entirely if you need to? Because embracing change is about consciously choosing to grow; I know I’ve used the Karen Kaiser Clark quote (“Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.”) before and it’s one that I’ve been using in my work for a good two decades now (it’s from her 1993 book Life is Change: Growth is Optional)… change is constant, but whether or not you actually grow is your choice.
People often like things to stay as they are because we prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar; the safe to the potentially-unsafe. But when you cling to the familiar, you miss out on all of the possibilities that the future holds. Back in 1928, the American author and professor John A. Shedd wrote: “A ship in harbor [sic] is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” You weren’t born to be safe and stay the same; you were born to grow. You were born to learn all you can about the world and about yourself, and to use that knowledge to leave some type of mark, no matter how small.
Sometimes change happens in massive leaps and bounds, but more often than not it’s smaller and more incremental… consider the massive rise of technology and social media over the past 10-20 years and the impact that has had on our world as well as each of us individually; it wasn’t really all that long ago where there would have been no easy way for me to bring this podcast to you working independently out of my home office week after week, and it certainly would have been very unlikely that I would have been able to get this thing out so easily to people in more than 100 countries worldwide like it is now (thanks for that by the way — it still blows my mind every single time I look at my data and see all the countries where you wonderful people are listening from, so thank you!).
We can either choose to focus on what was, or we can explore what is and what will be so that we can discover new challenges to pursue without ever forgetting where we’ve come from; there’s a reason I so often insert a few historical references into this show (aside from the fact that History was always my favourite subject at school): because embracing change and letting go of the past is only effective if we learn from the past.
I have two pictures up side-by-side in my living room; one is a vintage map of Sydney, where I was born and lived until I was nearly 25, and one is a vintage map of Melbourne, where I lived for nearly 14 years. I have these up for two reasons: (1) To remind us of where we’ve come from (since my partner and I both grew up in Sydney, where we first met) and (2) to remind me that all things change; not only do I no longer live in either place, but the maps themselves are quite old (the Sydney one is from 1920’s, the Melbourne one is from the 1930’s) and so even though there are many elements of each map that are familiar, it’s not exactly as I knew it when I lived there which is what those places feel like for me now… Sydney feels similar yet alien whenever I have been there since leaving, because so much has changed. The point is that all things change, and what we tend to focus on is a specific moment in time. The challenge for each of us is to accept that and let it sit side-by-side with our focus on the now, so that we don’t get hung up on trying to recapture the past (since it’s gone).
So that feels like a nice transition into the how-to part of this episode…
How to deal with and embrace change
- Start by pursuing acceptance — be objective about what is within your control vs what is not… and so here I go with my weekly mantra: you can only control your own words, actions and feelings; everything else is at best something you might be able to influence a bit or, more likely, out of your control. You either resist that (and cause yourself suffering) or you accept that fundamental truth, which changes how you view the world (something I discussed extensively in Episode 36, Let’s Talk About… Acceptance). At least once every couple of weeks I have someone argue that bit about being able to control what you feel… so let me just address that quickly because I think we need to confront this head-on since it’s so closely aligned with change: yes you can control your feelings. Now, I’m a moody bastard who has anxiety and lived with both anxiety and depression for seven years, so I know first-hand the experience of waking up feeling horrendous or descending into a foul mood or a depressed mood… but no matter how bad those moods are, no matter how strong those feelings are of sadness or anxiety or fear, I can do something about it. It can be really hard to do (and I have openly admitted in this podcast a few times that I’m still struggling with a relapse into emotional eating at the moment because this year has been a real mongrel to deal with), but if I can shift my feelings even slightly (say by putting on my favourite show or doing something different) then I am the one in control. If you let yourself be controlled by your feelings, then you will be controlled by them. So, remind yourself daily that you are the one in the driver’s seat, not these feelings that try to hijack you when you least expect it… because that is the starting point of creating lasting, positive change. Which leads to…
- If something is within your control and you’re not happy with it, change it — there’s a quote by an unknown author that goes, “If you don’t like it, change it. If you don’t want to change it, it can’t be that bad.” For me, that sums up my attitude to pretty much everything in life — I don’t tolerate shit, and so if something negative is happening and it’s within my control I either change it or change my relationship with it by letting go. The choice is always yours (something I talked about extensively in Episode 50). And if it’s out of your control? Well, if the change you’re after is about doing no harm, being kind and giving more than you take then fight for what you believe in.
- Take some time to reflect on all the positive changes that have led you to where you are today — you are a product of every single change that has happened in your life so far, and so it’s worthwhile taking a moment to reflect on just how far you’ve come. If I hadn’t have thrown in the towel at my job just over a year ago and taken a risk on starting up this podcast, I wouldn’t be doing this thing that I love and which gets me excited each day to begin my work. I am a firm believer in regularly looking back in order to appreciate just how far we’ve come: check out Episode 12 for a more detailed guide to the art of reflection. I will say also that you might be tempted here to start thinking about all the negative changes you’ve experienced (or it might just pop into your head and refuse to leave), and if that happens then I’m going to tell you in no uncertain terms to make yourself stop and focus on what positives came out of those negatives. I talk all the time on this show about how devastated I was when our cat Pushka died in April, since we’d had her for 17 years, but without her passing we would never have adopted Igor who is just the sweetest and most adorable cat in his own unique way, so some positive did come out of that experience; like all things, it’s up to each of us to challenge ourselves to find the good.
- When something is out of your control, don’t just react; instead, reflect and consider your response — you’re still in control in terms of how you respond (words, actions, feelings), so what you do next is completely up to you (refer to Episode 48: Control)
- Be proactive about your mental health and your approach to change — how you feel about change often goes hand-in-hand with how you feel about yourself; if you’re in a good headspace then it can be easier to process change and deal with it as opposed to when you’re already struggling. I often share that “prevention is better than cure” quote that my friend told me years and years ago when she was studying nursing, and I’ve tried to make that a bit of a foundation for how I approach my day-to-day mental health (again, I don’t get it right all the time and I continue to have struggles or I wouldn’t be going through this emotional eating thing again… but you don’t have to be perfect to be right!). I’ve covered a lot of different topics over the past year that are about things you can focus on to improve your mental health and wellbeing bit by bit: self-care (Episode 6), resilience (Episode 23), feelings (Episode 28), mindset (Episode 31), letting go (Episode 32), optimism (Episode 47)… I mean, I could just about sit here and list nearly every episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health because this entire show is about giving you weekly bite-size chunks of how-to information that all come together to form a bigger-picture of good mental health and wellbeing… it’s up to you to take all of that stuff and find what matters to you and what works best for you, and then to challenge yourself to grow a little every day by putting in the work. I never said it was easy, but I’m pretty sure I said it was definitely worthwhile (and I stand by that statement!).
- And now for the ‘embrace’ bit: seek out change like your life depends on it (because it kind-of does!) — if you really want to improve your overall wellbeing, then embracing change will take you from being at the mercy of circumstances and events to being the driver of change. Why do some people flourish during times of crisis while others struggle to keep their heads above water? Because the difference is in how we look at the change: do we see it as happening to us, or do we ask ourselves what we can do to adapt to the new circumstances. When you do that, you start to look at the world differently and you realise that you can pretty much shape your life into whatever you want it to be by becoming proactive about chasing meaningful positive change. That means looking at all areas of your life and being objective about what is working well, what’s not working well, what you need to do more of, continue doing, do less of or stop doing all together, and then making the changes you need to make. And then once that’s done, going through that process again, and again, and again… going back to my past life in the corporate sector, that’s what the whole ‘continuous improvement’ philosophy is all about, because effective change isn’t just something you do once and then it’s finished; it’s something that you do over and over again, because nothing stays the same and there is always opportunity to grow. Don’t make changes for the sake of it and certainly don’t throw out things that are working well, but also don’t just rest on your laurels because before you know it you’ll be left behind. In the words of the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to change and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Nothing lasts forever, and although that can result in sadness and pain (especially when we lose those we love or find ourselves in difficult situations), the great news is that even pain and suffering will not last forever… provided we don’t give in to it. You are in control of what happens in your life, and so if you don’t like something within your direct control then you have the power to change it — you, and nobody but you. That doesn’t mean that change needs to be massive; in the words of Leo Tolstoy, “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.” Change can be scary because it pushes us out of our comfort zone and makes us head into the unknown, and so it requires patience, perseverance and courage to make changes for the better so that we can continue to grow and become the best version of ourselves possible.
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the American attorney and civil rights activist, Marian Wright Edelman, and it is:
“If you don’t like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.”Marian Wright Edelman
Next week I’ll be talking about boundaries. I’ve had a few people contact me and ask me to talk about setting and maintaining boundaries with other people (and with yourself), and even though I’ve touched on it in earlier episodes I felt it deserved a more in-depth discussion. So next week I’ll be talking about what boundaries are, why they matter, and how to set (and maintain) boundaries with others and with yourself for good mental health.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland, Europe and the Middle East; and Sunday afternoon in the US, Canada and the rest of the Americas.
You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.
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Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.