Are you mostly happy with the status quo, keen on making a shift or not really sure? Martha Beck helps you decide whether -- and how -- to alter your course.
By Martha Beck
From the moment we're born, we're programmed to believe that life should progress in a linear fashion: We start out weak, ignorant and unsure, then steadily become stronger, smarter and more confident. We accomplish this feat by deftly navigating the obstacles we encounter, knowing exactly when and how to adjust our trajectory or make a courageous leap. No backsliding, no repetitive blundering, no confusion whatsoever.
The reality is more like this: We sometimes have absolutely no idea what we're doing and whether our strategy is working for us. Our culture doesn't teach us these things; there is no Transformation 101 class in high school. We are asked to embark upon this wild ride called life with neither an instruction book nor any sense of when -- or how -- to change.
As you read this, should you be powering up to leap forward or pausing to appreciate what's here and now? If you're not sure, take heart: There are ways to figure it out, thereby turning a disorienting careen into an exhilarating adventure.
It all starts with paying attention. Where are you experiencing genuine curiosity in your life? Is there a person, a place, a creative endeavor that's captivated your imagination? That curiosity is a version of desire, and recognizing it is half the battle of knowing when, whether and how to change. (Spoiler alert: If you're feeling that pull, change is probably a good idea.) The other half is being able to recognize external necessity -- circumstances outside yourself that are forcing you to change whether you like it or not (the impending loss of a job, for instance, or the deterioration of a marriage) or people who are attempting to get you to change even if you don't want to (like your overbearing mother). To determine when you need a transition and how to manage it, you need to create a change matrix. Actually, wait, don't bother; I already made one. Here it is:
The Four Types of Change:
Wanted - Necessary
"I have to change, and I want to."
Use "passion" as your instrument of change.
Wanted - Not Necessary
"I don't have to change, but I want to."
Use "play" as your instrument of change.
Unwanted - Necessary
"I don't want to change, but I have to."
Use "purpose" as your instrument of change.
Unwanted - Not Necessary
"I don't want to change, and I don't have to."
Use "peace" as your instrument of change.
Every opportunity for change will fit into one of the four categories above. But deciding which quadrant each fits into isn't as easy as you might assume. When I ask my clients to identify their true desires and necessities, most of them display all the skillful ease of a chicken trying to play the trombone. The ability to articulate many of our wants and needs is vigorously socialized out of us early in our lives. Meanwhile, we're hypnotized into doing the "right," responsible thing, no matter what. (That's the reason there are more people in business school than clown college.) By adulthood, most of us are certain that we don't want things we really do want and that we absolutely must do things that are, in fact, useless social conventions.
A change master sees every fake "have to" for the mental interloper it is and invites every true desire into the warm light of conscious awareness. She realizes that even though no one is asking her to adopt a puppy or write a novel or love that certain someone, if every cell in her body wants to, that change should happen. But she also recognizes that when someone in her life ferociously calls for a change she doesn't believe in -- as people often do when they forget to let others live their own lives -- she doesn't have to listen.
So try something for me. Find a sheet of paper and write "Things I Have to Do." Make a list, as you probably do all the time. Now reread your list, asking with the impartiality of an insanely literal, practically robotic scientist: Is it absolutely true that you must do all these things? As in, would you meet an untimely end if you didn't do them? If you skipped work today, abandoned your dirty laundry or quit grad school, would the world implode? If the answer is no, you don't really have to do it. Scratch out every item that isn't absolutely, positively necessary. What remains is your list of actual have-tos.
Now make a second list, titled "Things I Really Want." Under that heading, write down every longing you've been hiding from the world -- and perhaps even from yourself. Don't get stuck editing ("Oh, mercy no, that would be too self-indulgent/expensive/inconvenient!"). Don't focus on things that will impress your parents, friends, coworkers, cell mates. Real wanting rises from deep in the body, heart and soul, so make this list from the core, ignoring your mind's criticisms and cautions.
After you've finished both lists -- thereby punching a few holes in your concepts of "have to" and flushing a few true "want tos" out of hiding -- you can begin mapping everything on those lists into the four quadrants of the change matrix. Once you've determined where each item fits, apply the following recommendations.
First, see if anything appears on both lists. These are situations in which you both want and have to change. With regard to these kinds of changes, I have one word for you: Go! With everything pushing toward transformation, access the energy of passion, fueled by both love and necessity. Many people think passion is a fuzzy feeling that makes taking action effortless. In fact, it's the gritty courage and tenacity to forge onward with your life's biggest, most important changes. Throw yourself into such changes with your whole being. You must.
My client Darla did this when she was diagnosed with diabetes. For years she'd wanted to plant vegetables and make healthy meals, but she always said she didn't have the time or energy -- and what would she feed her pizza-loving family? Darla's diagnosis finally gave her the impetus to put her own needs at the top of her priority list. Now she spends some time each day in the garden and the kitchen, growing and preparing food as delicious healing medicine. Her whole lifestyle has shifted; her symptoms have abated, and she's never felt better. Though her husband and kids aren't always thrilled with the change, Darla is, and she knows her health is worth the occasional struggle.
Perhaps there's a situation in your life where you want a transition that isn't strictly necessary. This is also a big green light for change. Seems like it would be easy to put such changes into effect, right? Not always. Our true desires can be scary -- what if we fail, falter, fumble? The key here is to take it easy. I've found that the most productive way to make a want-to-but-don't-have-to change is by accessing the energy of play. Redecorate your house, learn the banjo, travel the world -- but don't get too serious about it. Make messes, invite friends, laugh often. This change will enrich your life most if you make it a high priority while remembering that if it isn't fun, it shouldn't be done.
We all dread the next type of change: when circumstances force a transition we don't want to make. These changes are almost always driven by some kind of loss -- a love, a job, a home, a treasured pastime. You don't have to welcome these transitions, but accepting them is key. Resisting a change that's beyond your control saps energy and leaves you in a state of constant frustration, which will make your life (and personality) harsh and miserable. You'll navigate this type of transition much more easily if you are as kind to yourself as possible and tap into the unstoppable, courageous energy of purpose. Crisis shapes us, however painful it can be to withstand. March onward, and this hero's journey will leave you stronger, wiser, deeper.
Finally, if there's any situation in which you don't want or need to change, for goodness' sake don't. As Anne Lamott so cogently wrote, "Leave [it] lay where Jesus flang [it]." Ignore anyone who says you aren't making, doing or becoming enough. If anxiety tells you to seek greener pastures, remember that desire is your navigator, while anxiety is a witless liar. Repeat the phrase "Be still." Drop into the sweet energy of peace and let the next transformation come along in its own time. Savor. Bask. Delight. Embrace. Enjoy. And honey, remember to keep your seat belt fastened.
Martha Beck’s latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One.