Mastering Change

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

You may not have asked for it, but it happens anyway. Being a human being is to be in constant conversation with change. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus kind of said, our lives are like rivers. You never step in the same river twice. This reality, however, is fundamentally at odds with the stability most of us crave. When a “disruption event” -- a change not of our choosing or liking -- interrupts our lives we long to get back to the original order as soon as possible. We just want to get back to normal. If something is going to blow up, then order/ disorder/ order is the way we want it to resolve.
This pattern of order/ disorder/order reflects the underlying principle of homeostasis and is historically how society thought about approaching destabilizing events. According to Brad Stuhlberg, author of Master of Change, “It is only recently that the scientific community has realized this is not a great model for how thriving people, thriving organizations and even thriving cultures interact with change.”
Stuhlberg says a much better model is allostasis which follows the pattern: order/disorder/re-order. “Whereas homeostasis pits us against change, allostasis puts us in conversation with change. It says change is something we can participate in.” In other words, allostasis establishes that there will be some necessary creativity in re-establishing order. Looking at history, allostasis is also the pattern that accurately reflects life. Ultimately, it’s the process for coming through disorder successfully.
A good example of the allostatic model is chronic pain and the successful management of it. “Very rarely does a person with a chronic pain problem get rid of it entirely and return to the pain-free way they were,” says Stuhlberg. “But when patients are able re-order their lives and expectations, often their physical experience of pain also gets better.” A simple equation captures that dynamic, which is true whether we’re talking about physical pain or emotional pain:  Pain x Resistance = Suffering.
Saying no to change is always going to make it hurt more. Life tells us that. Lately, there is a lot we might want to say no to because major “disruption events” seem to be the new order. They spiral in on us from macro to micro, from the big world out there to our tiny worlds right here. You have no doubt been faced with a certain amount of creative re-ordering of some sort in the past few years at home. At Northern Light, there have also been a number of necessary and difficult changes just to keep the mission of healthcare operational after the devastation of the pandemic. It’s hard and often sad. Disruption events like the ones we have had is when Stuhlberg says we need to ask ourselves this question:
“Will you let change destabilize you or will you use change as the energetic means to growth, fundamentally shifting how you relate to yourself, your environment and those around you?”
Getting good at change
Allostasis says our best shot at surviving and ultimately thriving is to enter the river of change and participate in it. I don’t know about you, but I feel better about entering a river if I am well-equipped and have a clue about what I’m doing. This quick-read bulleted collection of a few of Stuhlberg’s research findings on how to get good at change is one easy piece of equipment. I’ve tinkered with my expectations many times since coming across Stuhlberg’s work. It really does change things.
To going with it,