‘Change:  to make or become different’

Humans, in general, don’t love change.  We like patterns, closed loops, and control.  Many of us (about 2/3rds) see change as a negative thing.  Whilst you may be used to thinking about change in terms of circumstances or a physical change, change is fundamentally about feelings.

This is something I’ve been exploring lately in the context of food allergy.

For me, when Caleb was first diagnosed there was fear, a bit of grief, a hefty dose of overwhelm.  There certainly wasn’t calm acceptance. In hindsight, I think it is how we interpret and react to change that impacts our experience of it- not just the ‘event’ of change itself.

There is so much research done on change management in the corporate world.  Whilst I’m not comparing my family of five to a ‘Fortune 500’ company, there have been some absolute pearls of wisdom that i’ve come across that have helped me understand my reactions to change and move me forward- if not to embracing, at least sitting more comfortably with change.

One of my favourite analogies regarding change came from Jeanie Daniel Duck.  She describes the process of managing change as similar to trying to balance a child’s mobile. She draws the parallel that within change, it’s about connecting and balancing all the pieces- you can’t attend to pieces in isolation or the whole thing becomes destabilised.

This is so relevant to food allergy- you can omit allergens and learn a few new recipes, but without paying attention to the social, emotional and mental side of food allergy, everything is off-kilter and not functioning as it should.

For me, this has been a hard-won lesson.  I think the temptation in the early days is to focus almost entirely on the food.  To get control in that area, to establish certainty. Obviously that is vital, but it’s not the whole picture.  

Learning to balance food allergies in and out of the home, knowing to look after our own emotional and mental health, accepting that we have to at some point step back and allow our child to step up and take over their own health management- this ‘mobile’ is a complex one- and is in a state of flux.  

Because even with established food allergies, nothing stays the same!

Kids grown out of allergens, and trying to convince them to eat a previously forbidden food isn’t always easy.  Treatments change, and you might need to get brave to try something new and disrupt your status quo.

I always like to try and understand the why, not just the what, so here are two images that i’ve found really helpful.

In the 1970s, a professor of psychology, Chris Agyris published his ‘ladder of inference’.  One of the reasons change is so intensely personal is because we all view things differently.  This simple diagram has helped me understand why.

  1. The ladder of inference.

 

This is a representation of how we ‘are’ in the world.  Essentially there is a pool of data- that is anything that you can see, hear, smell, taste or touch.  Your brain can’t cope with all the data, so it selects a bit of that data to ‘notice’ or take in.

As a result of your past experiences you add interpretation onto that data.  This in turns leads you to draw a conclusion about the ‘data’ your brain took in and you then take action.

This is a brilliant explanation as to why 2 people can react so differently to the same set of circumstances (for example maybe your partner has a completely different reaction to your child’s diagnosis of food allergy).

It’s also a way of understanding the points at which we get stuck (which in turn allows us to get unstuck!).

Normally our brain races up this ladder before we’ve even registered what’s happening.  It’s why we keep telling ourselves the same stories over and over again- our brain likes to ‘prove itself right’ so it searches out the ‘raw data’ that does that, it then applies our biases in the interpretation of the data which means we are very often throwing up our hands and saying ‘yep- see it’s always that way’ or ‘I can never do …’.  

It’s why we repeat patterns of behaviour- the old maxim ‘thoughts become words and our words become actions’.

Even just knowing this about how our brains work can be powerful- if we are aware that our thoughts are just our own interpretation, not facts, we can challenge them.  We can change the stories we tell ourselves and therefore our actions and experiences.

It’s also possibly one of the reasons mindfulness helps- it keeps us ‘in the moment’, gathering data about the here and now while resisting the temptation to judge or race up that ladder.

 

  1. The Change Cycle

The Change Cycle (TM)  was developed by Salerno and Brock and is used to understand the personal response to change.

It describes 6 stages of a response to change: loss, doubt, discomfort, discovery, understanding, and integration.  At each stage, they use a colour code system to convey the similarities of those stages to the actions we take at traffic lights.  It describes the feelings thoughts and actions commonly experienced at each point of the change cycle.

Once again, in my mind, information is power.  Knowing what to expect of myself or how I might best manage my feelings is so helpful- it demystifies things and reminds me that everything changes (even change!) and I can and will move past the hard bits.  

So now we understand the process of change a little better, what does that mean?

The starting point is to understand our resistance and response to change.

One of the biggest causes of resistance to change for me, was the ‘unknown’. I like predictability- it’s just my personality.  Gaining the awareness that predictability is just a combination of intention and ground rules was a major shift for me.

It moved me from a state of ‘this is all happening to me and I have no control’ to feeling like I had control.  I set the ground rules (ie what food we would and wouldn’t have in our house) and I stated my intention- ‘to make sure that our family lives a rich and joyful life and that Caleb doesn’t miss out on things we take for granted’.  It’s a powerful thing to consciously challenge our stories and take some control back.

I’m also becoming more comfortable with the idea that we just can’t ‘know’ everything- sometimes we just have to sit with uncertainty and see what happens- we cannot control everything, no matter how organised or diligent or ’empowered’ we are.

This is definitely not a ‘won and done’ thing- I constantly have to check in, adjust, adapt- and it’s not done in isolation- I can only control myself, not anyone else, so how I might see things vs how my husband or the kids view them may not always be 100% aligned.

But we are open to talking things through and finding a way that works for us all.

I think the other aspect of understanding food allergy within the framework of change is that I have become kinder to myself.  I accept that with each new change, instead of running head first into action, it is ok to allow myself time to work out what this means- and if that means I am less productive for a window of time, that’s ok- there’s a season for everything, and I don’t need to have all the answers straight away.

And that lesson probably extends beyond the food allergy stuff to life in general.

Finally that kindness has allowed me to learn the value of mindfulness, slowing down, giving myself permission to be patient with myself as I adjust to the new status quo, trusting that I have the tools and strength to rise to the challenge- not just with food allergy but just all the things life throws at us.

There’s a quote by a British psychiatrist, Colin Murray-Parkes, that I absolutely love- ‘… every change involves a loss and a gain.’ It sums up pretty much everything I’ve learnt over the last 3 years- sometimes it can be hard to find the gain, but it is hiding in there somewhere- you just have to look.