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Tracy Shawn: How to Navigate the Challenges of Change

Since dealing with change can be both one of the most difficult and common challenges of being human, I decided to interview local therapist Anne Diamond about tips on how to cope with transformation. Please see below for the full interview.

Q: Andrea Simon, Ph.D., notes in an article for Forbes magazine on April 8 that research in the neuroscience and cognitive sciences shows how change is, indeed, quite difficult for humans. In your experience as a marriage and family therapist, what are some of the best ways to navigate through the difficulties that arise from life changes?

A: I always psycho-educate my clients about what they will encounter when seeking transformation. They will experience difficulty using a new skill set; they will find unfamiliarity uncomfortable and tend to regress (go back) even if that is very issue causing them to want to change. They might find resistance or lack of support from friends or family members, even if those very people desired the change.

If people know what to expect, and understand why the process is difficult, it arms them against self-defeating thoughts like, “It’s me. I am unable to change.”

Q: As a trained therapist, why do you think transformation is so challenging — even if change can often lead to such positive outcomes as increased healthfulness, happiness and awareness?

A: Systems theory, as advanced by Jay Haley and others, posits that an organism — in this case, a person who interacts within a sphere of influences, family, friends, community and culture — may find those forces working against change in a process called homeostasis. Homeostasis is the tendency to resist change. Therefore, changing a long-held view, behavioral pattern or relational dynamic is difficult and painful. It is like swimming upstream.

Q: In The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images (, edited by Ami Ronnberg and Kathleen Martin, transformation is listed under the soul and psyche section. Within the description of transformation is the idea that “the psyche also initiates its own transformation, and that capacity is a sine qua non of psychological health.” In turn, this passage states that pathology can be defined as the incapacity to initiate and respond to transformation.

As a working therapist, do you agree or disagree with these ideas about change and transformation?

A: Yes, I agree with that because inflexibility, in my view, is the basis for almost all psychopathology and certainly emotional pain. For example, families who can’t accept a gay child experience a misplaced sense of failure, which is clearly pathological and they inflict emotional pain upon their child. This is an example of inflexibility. Inflexibility impedes adaption and growth. It impedes intimacy and genuine connection in that it dictates conditional love.

I believe that one component of intrapersonal and societal inflexibility is fear and another component is greed. There may be others such as personality traits. I do want to differentiate between pathological inflexibility and healthy stability, which involves codes of behavior, and standards for education, work, etc.

Q: Recently, a friend exclaimed that her huge, life-changing transformations of going through a divorce, recovering from a debilitating illness and moving were, of course, all very painful — but worth it. In fact, she’s happier now than she was before she found out about her husband’s cheating on her — or her diagnosis!

Do you feel that most “transformational change” is usually painful? And if so, does this pain actually serve a purpose?

A: It’s really wonderful when transformation begins as a choice or as a result of positive influences, for instance through education or religious conversion. Though, other times transformation is a healing or growth process as a result of hurt. It can still be a choice, but it hurts to let go of old patterns and/or relationship. In the case of your friend, I am sure some of the pain was grief. Pain has a purpose, it signals something is wrong and serves a catalyst to seek relief.

People often adapt to painful situations because they fear change, feel hopeless, are too enmeshed (e.g. co-dependent in that they participate in the very thing that hurts them and other people). A downside of being human is to consciously or unconsciously rationalize stagnant, dysfunctional or even dangerous situations. When person wakes to the pain he or she is in, that person is already transforming.

This is the upside, the advantages of taking risks, then growing and evolving as a result, personally and culturally.

Q: What general advice would you give to someone who is afraid to change, yet is also aware that a major life transition is in order?

A: I try to make the idea of change less overwhelming and intimidating by inviting the person to experiment with one or two new behaviors just to learn and observe, rather than getting into a succeed/fail paradigm. I collaborate with my client to create strategies for change.

For instance, I have a young man who avoids contact with his elderly grandparents due to social phobia. This causes guilt with reinforces avoidance. So we created a strategy whereby he asked them to call him every Friday night. He feels really good about it. They are thrilled because they really love him. Now he is using boundary strategies to socialize more often. He learned that it does not have be “all or none,” (for instance, stuck at a dinner party for hours and hours; he can set a boundary by agreeing to show up for dessert). He can determine his comfort level. For him, this change has been transformational and is leading to more changes.

And my ultimate tool in creating the channel for change is hypnosis. In hypnosis, clients can experience change within themselves, explore possibilities to exert a new orientation and then tolerate the unfamiliar feelings of self determination, boundaries or whatever the transformative process is comfortably. I provide post-hypnotic suggestion to enhance this process. Hypnosis opens the door to an internalized sense of self-management.

— Tracy Shawn, M.A., lives and writes on the Central Coast of California. Her award-winning debut novel, The Grace of Crows, is about how an anxiety-ridden woman finds happiness through the most unexpected of ways — and characters. Dubbed a “stunning debut novel” by top 50 Hall of Fame reviewer Grady Harp, The Grace of Crows has also been hailed as an accurate portrayal of generalized anxiety disorder and a healing opportunity to the readers. Click here for more information about Shawn, or click here to visit her author page on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter: @TracyShawn. The opinions expressed are her own.

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