Not long ago, The Shawshank Redemption starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman was on tv. It had been many years since I had last seen it and I realized there was a lesson in the movie that I didn’t notice the first time I saw it. The movie is told through Red’s point of view, Morgan Freeman’s character, and portrays his experience of serving a lifetime prison sentence. Toward the end of the film, Red, now in his sixties, is released on parole after being in prison since he was a teenager.
One scene, in particular, depicts his experience of his new life outside of prison. From an observer’s point of view, Red is a free man. He is no longer behind bars nor does he have to deal with the restrictions, monotony, and violence of prison life. Red works as a bagger at a local grocery store and lives in a modest apartment. However, internally Red is filled with anxiety and dread. He is so uncertain about how to manage life outside of prison that he contemplates what he can do to return to prison. He considers intentionally committing a crime to violate his parole and go back to jail. He even thinks about taking his own life as a way of escaping the crippling fear he is experiencing.
Some may wonder, “What is he thinking?” “Why can’t he just enjoy his freedom?” It may seem difficult to understand why he would want to return to prison and lose his freedom. However, he had been in prison for over 40 years—the majority of his life. This extreme experience of freedom after decades of imprisonment is not much different than the human experience in general. We are captivated by what is familiar; we cling to what we know, even if it does not serve us and may result in misery, illness, and even death.
WHAT IS CHANGE?
We can be consciously making the most positive change in our health, relationship, or finances and it is likely to result in uncertainty, fear, and cause us to retreat back to what we know—our old way of being and habits. Why is it that most New Year’s resolutions, diets, exercise programs, and changes we want to make in our life don’t succeed long-term? It isn’t because we are lazy, worthless, or inferior but rather we simply don’t understand the nature of change.
We lack an understanding of how our nervous system is designed to function—with survival in mind. This is the great paradox of change. If we try to change all at once, our nervous system will react, and we will experience a degree of panic, anxiety, and fear. Our body operates on the principle of homeostasis so that we can stay alive. By introducing a radical change, we are unknowingly telling our unconscious mind and our nervous system that we are in danger, even if the change we are intending is healthy and productive.
WHY IS CHANGE NECESSARY?
Simply put, change is a part of growth. Think about the natural progression of life or things we have adapted to over time: riding a bike with training wheels to eventually driving a car, landlines to cell phones that allow many forms of communication and the ability to learn about whatever we want to search, and going from a high school environment to, eventually, the workplace. All these scenarios require change, and all scenarios elevate you to something more significant.
If you remained the same, but your environment or situation changed, would you be able to thrive using the same methods? At some point, your comfort zone no longer brings you comfort. Without some flexibility, you are missing the opportunity to become better and develop.
It is okay to be anxious or uncertain about change; it’s different than what you are accustomed to. But remember, you have been malleable and adjusted to change your whole life, you are more resilient and capable than you may think.
Change not only provides a chance to grow, but it can bring new opportunities, help build resilience and reveal your own strengths, a chance to reevaluate the functionality of your daily life, and change can be exciting.
HOW TO INITIATE CHANGE
It is essential to introduce change slowly, so you can gradually become familiar with what is unfamiliar. As it is poetically stated in The Shawshank Redemption, “That's all it takes, really. Pressure and time.” In this case, time is the gradual exposure to something new and unfamiliar until it becomes familiar. Pressure is the emotional intensity of our learning rooted in our experience, emotions, and behavior.
While our conscious minds can theorize and imagine the drastic change we want in a matter of seconds, our bodies and unconscious mind must learn through experience, time, and adaptation. We can read every book on how to play basketball, but until we get out on the court and have the experience of dribbling, passing, and shooting, it will only be an idea. Change is tied to our experience, not just our intellect.
Learning is a process. It requires compassion for oneself, understanding, patience, and humility. It is not immediate nor is it a straight path. It requires the ability to manage discomfort and uncertainty. It demands the ability to bounce back when things don’t work the way we want or expect them to.
Author Portia Nelson wonderfully conveys this in a poem she wrote. When challenged to write her autobiography in five short chapters, she came up with the following:
Chapter 1: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter 2: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I'm in the same place, but it's still not my fault. It still takes a long time getting out.
Chapter 3: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there, but I still fall in. It's a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
Chapter 4: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
Chapter 5: I walk down a different street. Dealing with change can be challenging.
Of course, there are difficult changes when you don’t have the time to adjust slowly, but I would bet that you eventually figured out how to manage or adjust to it. Change starts with your perspective and then it begins to take effect with small, manageable, realistic, and specific steps to achieve a bigger goal.
For instance, an individual decides to begin losing weight quickly, so they start exercising 5 days a week. However, they soon experience a loss in motivation, fatigue, and difficulty keeping up, so they stop working out completely. Instead, the individual is more likely to be successful by starting with working out 1 or 2 days a week to get their body adjusted to a new routine and habit then increase as they determine they can handle the new schedule, their body is adjusting, and they become consistent.
Overall, you know when it’s time for a change when you are not functioning from day-to-day how you have in the past, you are struggling to get through your days, or are not meeting your goals. If you need help adjusting to any kind of change in your life, reach out for support as you are not alone. Click here to book a session with a therapist who can help you navigate these changes.
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Sam offers therapy in Cincinnati and Cincinnati Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety.
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