Stop Trying To Change The World!

Disclaimer: In a series of articles I’m going to talk about how I think ‘people’ go about making, or avoiding, change in their lives. I realise that the word ‘people’ is a huge generalisation because we are all unique (just like everyone else). But I hope you will forgive me for casting my net wide if you recognise yourself in these articles then you are one of the ‘people’ … just as I am.

People would rather rearrange the universe than change themselves.

Changing The WorldIf you have a stone in your shoe the solution to the problem is quite easy: stop, take off your shoe, take out the stone, put your shoe back on – problem solved. Making a simple change in your environment will solve the problem. It couldn’t be easier.

However some problems are not so straightforward: For example: if your partner unreasonably criticises you (again) and you feel bad, resentful, guilty and so forth. What are you going to do?

You could have them bumped off! – This is Mafia style self-help. It’s been done before, but it’s a drastic solution with all sorts of complications. Prisons are full of people who have tried this approach and may be regretting it.

Even if your critical partner were to be removed from the scene, the chances are that you are still very susceptible to criticism. Somebody else could come along and say the same kind of thing and you are back in the same predicament.

Needless to say, I don’t recommend this as a good approach to problem solving.

You could hope that they are going to change – This is the stance of battered wives and husbands. ‘If I hope hard enough, pray long enough, the other person will change and then everything will be alright and we will live happily ever after’. Sadly this approach doesn’t seem to work well either.

You could ask, beg or demand that they change – This is the response that gets lots of couples to Relate or into arguments. By cajoling or demanding the hope is that they will stop their bad habits and give you a break.

All these attempts have something in common: they are an attempt to change the circumstance so that you will be comfortable. If you could just organise the universe in just the right way everything will be alright and you will be happy. Even better – you won’t have to change in any way.

The big bonus to this way of thinking (and one of the reasons it’s so prevalent in my opinion) is that it lets you off the hook. You can blame everyone and everything else for your difficulty. All your problems become their fault and it’s their responsibility to change so that you can be happy. Even if experience shows you there is ‘not a cat in Hell’s chance’ of them obliging you.

‘The problem is not the problem, how we respond to the problem is the problem.’
Virginia Satir.

Life is full of situations, experiences and predicaments that challenge us. If you think about out a bad situation, it is not a situation that is bad, it is that we are in a situation that we respond badly to. * It’s quite possible that in a similar situation someone else would handle the predicament with skill and ease, it’s just that we are not that someone else.

If we start to think about situations in this way there are two parts to each problem.

The situation: The circumstances the problem – what is going on, who is doing or saying things that challenge us.

The situation:

  • Is often out of our control
  • Is often complex, involving other people who have their own ideas about what’s going on and what should happen.
  • Difficult to change.

The response: This is our response to this situation: the thoughts, feelings, actions and ideas we have when we are in this predicament.

The response is:

  • Often complex, involving our history, temperament, disposition etc.
  • Possible to influence or change completely if you know what to do.
  • Much easier to change than the reality that surrounds us.

When you are faced with a predicament does your response help or hinder you?

If the situation is a problem for you then the chances are that your response leaves you feeling:

  • helpless
  • overwhelmed
  • dis-empowered
  • … add your favourite dis-empowered response here

How would it be if your response to a situation was more resourceful?

If, in the same circumstances you felt

  • powerful
  • alert
  • capable
  • … add your favourite empowered response here

If you were to respond in these ways you are much more likely to get an outcome that satisfies you and would feel that you had done the best you could with the situation, even if it didn’t turn out the way that you wanted.

The ‘big problem’ with this alternative way of thinking, which is why it is less common, is that you have to take responsibility for your actions and reactions. Your responses become your responsibility.

Taking responsibility for our responses is an important step on the way out of being the victim of circumstances.

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.
Viktor Frankl

As a little thought experiment, think of a situation that gives you some difficulty.

  1. Describe the problem – the who, what, where and when of the situation.
  2. Describe your current reaction to this situation – what makes it a problem for you?
  3. Describe the kind of response you would prefer to have in this situation
  4. How would that response work out for you?

You may not be able to make these changes easily with your current resources. To develop the skills of responding you could take an learn EFT, take an NLP training or if your difficulties are deep and long-standing you could see a competent therapist to help you make these changes.

*This is not to say that there aren’t some really bad situations to find yourself in – bereaved, injured, assaulted, abused and so forth – these are indeed painful predicaments. However bad they are you, as an adult, still have the possibility to respond to them in a resourceful way.

If you read Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl you will see an heroic example of someone deciding to choose how to respond in the most dire conditions imaginable.

Image courtesy of woodleywonderworks

9 thoughts on “Stop Trying To Change The World!”

  1. I just have to admit , while reading first part of your post , I was feeling “yeah , he is totally right …” then you got me with the “we want to change the situation” then it light on my head , YES , we do tend to change everyone and everything in order not to change ourselves at all 🙂
    so comes down to the part of taking responsibility which I think 90% of people don’t really know that it’s their response to the situation which is causing them all sort of problems …

    Thank you for the insight.

  2. Thanks for the compliment. I think you are right about 90% of people not recognising that their response is a part of the ‘problem’ that is under their control and would make a huge difference to their experience.

    The ironic thing is that if the response is to the way someone else is behaving, changing your response seems to affect what the other person is doing in the first place. If one person changes a part of the dance, the other person has to change to accomodate that change.

    All the best

  3. Hi Andy,
    Thanks for this newsletter, I’ve been inspire to write again! :))

    To react or respond, that is the question.

    We’ve all been in a “situation”
    which required us to make a decision.
    Whether to respond or react,
    so from today, I’m making a pact.
    When it comes to making up my mind,
    I’ll consciously think of being kind!
    When listening to my inner voice,
    I’ll remind myself, I have a choice!
    I can react in a negative way,
    or, “think” about what I’m goig to say!

    So before taking charge of any task,
    the question that I’m going to ask!
    is, what’s the outcome I want from this?
    do I want to feel blissed or pissed?
    I’ll learn from lessons of the past,
    my new way of thinking will be a blast!
    I can’t change what’s gone on before,
    when my reactions left me feeling sore!
    Instead of feeling internal rage,
    I’ll respond with the dignity of a Sage!

    No longer will I dwell on past mistakes,
    which only left me with lots of headaches!
    So instead of worrying about social rules,
    I’m going to use my new found tools!
    Which is take responsibility for any decision,
    to respond positively is my new found mission!

    Margaret Button

  4. One thing I didn’t see mentioned was the effect of secondary gains. Sometimes people stay in a difficult situation because, no matter how bad it might be, it is giving them something else they want, perverted or not. It could be something like “Being in this relationship makes me feel like everyone told me I am, worthless!” or “I worked hard to get this house and lifestyle and I don’t want to give it up!” Until those secondary reinforcements are recognized and eliminated not much is going to shift.

    Love your Newsletters, Andy. I always learn from them.
    Blessings, PT

    • I agree, I didn’t mention secondary gain in this article although I know they form a large part of many difficulties. I was looking at it through the lens of our personal respond-ability rather than the full range of possible explanations.

      Perhaps the oversight could be repaired by adding a new question to the list

      2 a. Describe your current reaction to this situation – what makes it a problem for you?
      2 b. Describe your current reaction to this situation – what makes it a solution for you? (I suspect most people would struggle to think of a problem in those terms.)

      Glad you like the newsletters, a happy reader makes a happy writer 🙂

  5. I have had a Caribbean Cruise booked since end of Jfanuary 2011 for 5th January to 19th January 2012. On 4th January 2012 I could not find my passport and subsequently have lost the holiday which cost me a lot of money and I feel that I have missed the company of the friends I was going with, the winter sun etc. I am a person that generally takes responsibility in situations for my actions. I am skilled in NLP EFT etc. which often helps me to obtain better outcomes. After my initial emotional reaction which stopped me from seeing solutions e.g. like catching a later flight if a passport could be obtained I find that taking the responsibility for mislaying the passport (which still has not been found and I have applied for a replacement) I have identified the ‘real problem’. This is that I can’t forgive myself for not gathering my documents together sooner when the problem would have been identified and given me the time perhaps of effecting a solution e.g. obtaining a new passport in time to go on my holiday. I have taken the responsibility for causing the problem but what I find difficult is forgiving myself for not creating the time to effect a better solution. Reading your article has allowed me to reframe the problem and the emotional charge which is around losing the sun, sea and fun of the holiday is actually about forgiving myself for causing the loss of the passport. I was ‘blaming’ the run up to the holiday when for a few weeks I felt as if I had too much to do to get ready to go away … However, one of my sons said that it was a situation that could happen to anyone and I must now accept it has happened to me and move on. Thanks Andy always good learning from your articles.

    • Ouch, that must of hurt!

      Sorry about the holiday and congratulations about managing to reframe it. I would like to think I’d be able to be as philosophical in that situation, but I’m not sure.

      Good luck for the next one.


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