The Problem with Change
by John R. Mazurek, MSW
The problem with change is that it is uncomfortable. At first glance I suppose it is the unknown that accompanies change that makes it uncomfortable. If you do not change, while it may be boring or unpleasant, at least you know what is going to happen, and you know that you can handle it because you have been handling it. If you make a change, you can never really be sure what is going to happen next, that you can handle it, or that you will want to handle the consequences. However, as I look beyond this first glance, it seems to me that the bigger problem with change is not the unpredictable, but something very predictable. One of my clients, years ago, dubbed this problem the change-change-back routine. Murray Bowen, MD, who developed Bowen Family Systems Theory said we can expect those affected by our changes to have a three step reaction: "(1) 'You are wrong,' or some version of that; (2) 'Change back,' which can be communicated in many different ways; and (3) 'If you do not, these are the consequences.'" (1978, p. 495) Despite what the affected person may say, his or her reaction does not really tell you that your change is either good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. This effort to change you back is an automatic, emotional, without rational thought effort by the person your change has affected to maintain homeostasis, to reestablish an acceptable level of anxiety in the system. That acceptable level of anxiety would be no more or less anxiety than had existed shortly before you made your change. (Bowen believed that there is always a certain amount of anxiety present in every system.)
A system is defined in Bowen Family Systems Theory as a collection of individuals that live, work, play, or exist together deliberately or accidentally. The theory considers such a collection of people a system because those individuals affect one another directly and indirectly, knowingly and unknowingly. The more intense the emotional connection between the various members of a system, the more intense the effects each member will have on the others. If you have just fallen in love and your lover is not able to be with you tonight as you had hoped, you are apt to be greatly affected--you may become very sad and lonely, you may become angry or feel rejected, you may worry about the physical state of your lover or about the state of your new relationship. The emotional connection between a couple newly in love is very intense, and what happens to one has an immediate and intense impact on the emotional state of the other. That emotional connection between people is what creates the predictable problem with change. You have a much less intense relationship with the person who prepares and sells you your morning coffee at the local coffee shop, unless you have been having fantasies, positive or negative, about that person for the last several months. When you hear that that server isn't on the job today, it does not have the same impact on you as hearing that your new lover isn't available. There is no problem with changing who prepares your morning coffee at the local coffee shop.
This reaction to a change by another in your system who is affected by your change will occur without exception, it is predictable. If you make a change and do not witness an effort to change you back, either you have made a change that did not affect anyone in you system, or no one in your system is yet aware of your change. The effort to get you to change back may come in the form of the affected person simply saying, "What were you thinking of? You can't do that!" They may imply or say, "Something terrible is going to happen if you persist." Or, at the other extreme, the affected person may disown you. I know one person whose response to someone making a change that affects him is to make a point of ignoring the changer rather than say anything to him or her. In that way, he simultaneously lets the changer 1) know that he or she has made a change he does not want to have to deal with and 2) experience the terrible consequences of being ignored--similar to disowning him or her.
Regardless of how the affected individual reacts, the theory says that when this change-change-back routine happens, you have two obvious choices: you can either fold or hold. You can say, "I'm sorry. How thoughtless of me. I'll change back immediately." Bowen Family Systems Theory notes that if you change back in the face of pressure from the affected, usually, you will feel relief immediately because the affected stops trying to pressure you to change back. However, your relief is not likely to last very long, just until you realize that you gave up a part of yourself, a change that was important to you. If your initial change was very important to you, you will probably feel its loss immediately. With other, less important initial changes, you may not notice the importance of what you gave up right away. While some people will bring a sack lunch to work everyday and save their lunch money, others may not notice right away the impact that going out to lunch everyday has on their child's college fund or on what they have to invest for their own retirement. However, when you become aware of the consequences of giving up too much of yourself, you are very apt to become depressed unless you either find a way to correct the loss or go into denial. (Of course, denial does not really rid you of depression. It just interferes with your awareness of it.) Another consequence of changing back in response to pressure from those affected by your initial change is that you will undermine your own confidence in your ability to make changes, to stand up for yourself, to make reasonable or good decisions for yourself. Also, those affected by your change-change-back learn that you are easily swayed, that if they push on you a little bit, they can get you to do whatever they want. The combination of your depression and lack of confidence along with the increased confidence of those you gave into make it very difficult for you to stick with changes you might consider in the future. If you repeatedly fold in the face of pressure to change you back, those combined consequences eventually can make it difficult for you to even think about making a change. Think of the parent who always gives into the wishes of the child of whatever age. Eventually, that parent comes to believe that he or she can do nothing about the child's behavior.
This idea of giving up self becomes tricky when you consider that in all relationships there are circumstances under which it is acceptable, sometimes even necessary to give up some of yourself. You may not mind sitting on hard bleachers for two or more hours to hear you child perform for a few minutes in an all school music concert, or you may take your spouse to your least favorite restaurant which just happens to be your spouse's favorite to celebrate his or her birthday. You might be less inclined to do either of these activities if they involved someone else; but in a relationship system with your child or your spouse, you may not feel you are giving up too much of yourself. Then again, perhaps it is that what you are giving up is justified or compensated for in your mind by the benefits you receive from what you give up or from the pleasures that the other person experiences from your selflessness. In such situations, I would not consider your behavior as folding or giving up who you are in response to pressure from others to change you back. You simply made a decision about what is important to you.
Your second choice in the face of your system's effort to change you back is to hold your position. This is done not by fighting or digging your heals in and refusing to consider anything that the affected may say to you. Such behavior would be defensive. Instead, you need only say quite calmly, not defensively (After all, despite what it may sound like, you are not being attacked personally. The affected person is only reacting automatically to your change.), "I'm sorry that you're upset, but this is what I choose to do." Such a statement will not immediately calm the other down; indeed, it may result in the other increasing his or her efforts to get you to change back. If you are able to maintain your change calmly, Bowen Family Systems Theory says that eventually the affected one will stop hassling you. However, "eventually" can be anything from a minute to years, even generations.
The theory does not attempt to explain the motives for this change-change-back routine. However, I suspect that it occurs because when you make a change that affects someone in your system, they then must also change. Some benefit that they used to gain from you behaving in the old way is no longer available to them, and they must either give up that benefit or find some other way to get it. The problem with change is within the system. So, while the affected person may have wanted you to make the change that you did, they did not want to change too. I knew a man who had tried for a year to convince his wife that she should make a particular change, but when she did, her change affected how she related to him, which had been his stated goal all along. Nonetheless, he immediately tried to change her back. His efforts to change her back were predictable and purely emotional.
Keep in mind that one person in your system is always affected by any change that you make. That person is you. I believe the self doubts that we often experience when we make a deliberate or conscious change are part of the change-change-back routine. Whatever the old behavior was, it was familiar. It was predictable. Any conscious change that we make causes us to temporarily give that familiarity up, as noted earlier, and that loss will result in our feeling uncomfortable until we can adjust to the change. I find that the most effective way to get through this problem with change regardless of whether the pressure to change back comes from ourselves or from others is to have rationally considered the available facts regarding maintaining the status quo and changing and also being aware of the change-change-back routine.
Bowen, Murray. (1978). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Jason Aronson