“Each day we wake slightly altered and the person we were yesterday is dead”
– John Updike, On Being a Self Forever
In coaching, I work with clients on transformational change. On ridding yourself of self-beliefs that are no longer serving you and of changing the narrative of your life. But how does change actually happen?
In Metamorphosis: How and Why We Change, Polly Morland uses nineteen stories of personal change to discuss how the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly happens.
Read it if: you want to be inspired about your own metamorphosis, you like storytelling mixed with reference to scientific studies and philosophical tracts.
Don’t read it if: you are looking for a step by step guide to change, checklists and pragmatism.
Below are a couple of my key takeaways.
Part I Why Do We Want to Change?
Moreland discusses the need for a compelling positive vision of change coming from within the individual as a key trigger for “human agency”, a force of action she discusses frequently in the book.
According to one interviewee, resistance to change is really about loss aversion. In organisations we often think that people are resistant to change but actually they are thinking “Is this change good for me?” Once people can see it will have a positive impact on them, they will embrace the change. As witness to many botched roll outs, this highlights for me the need for a crystal clear communication plan as well as a focus on WIIFM from the employee perspective.
Part II How Much Can We Change?
Morland raises the idea of neuroplasticity, the changes that happen in our brains as our lives change in small or large ways. She contends that this plasticity stays with us all our lives and you can, in fact, teach a new dog old tricks. Which is why a married woman in her fifties falls in love with another woman and a 33-stone man lost half his body-weight.
Most interesting about the weight loss story is the imact that the external change had on his inner life:
“Mike made an extraordinary outward change and only then could the door be opened to an inner transformation that is still clearly under way”
Part III How Do We Change?
Morland raises the theory of Post-Traumatic Growth, that sometimes it can only be after huge tragedy that change can occur.
The interviewee H’Sein Hayward, who suffered the death of her brother aged nine and became a paraplegic aged 16 “…I have this fundamental belief in the power of change in the darkest of circumstances. I think for all people at all times there is hope, which is not to minimise anybody’s personal suffering. I just think that there is always the ability to change your state.”
Whilst few of us will go through such dramatic change in our life, the idea of embracing the situation and moving forwards with our new reality is an empowering one. In my coaching I focus on the power of choice and control. The need to respond mindfully rather than react.
Part IV Changed?
“Change is only meaningful in terms of identity because in part we also stay the same. The caterpillar and the butterfly are the same single creature.”
This idea of continuity in change can be seen in the Ship of Thesus or John Locke’s Socks. Violet K says of her drug addiction and recovery that is still part of her, despite being clean for several years “How is it separate from your life? Because it is not external. Your recovery is in you.The change is inside and goes on.”
Raymond Tallis says, “You are never one role. There’s never that luxury. You have a multiplicity of roles, a family of selves. So yes, there is an awful lot of change but also an awful lot of continuity.”
It is challenging to juggle all these different parts of ourselves and to understand what to give priority to. The Wheel of Life can be a useful exercise in coaching to discover balance. We are all in constant flow like the river of Heraclitus. Sometimes, we may not be happy with the way the river is flowing. Neuroplasticity and agency give us the power to change the direction. We can never dam the river. It will always find a way to flow!
Morland closes with the importance of metamorphosis as a metaphor of change and the power of imagination in bringing about change.
“It is less taxing on the mind to visit the past that to imagine the future. However, if we want to change or need to change, imagine the future we must.”