A few years after returning from my mission, I transferred from my hometown university and moved to San Francisco. It didn't take long before I found myself acting differently, feeling differently, and in many ways becoming a different person. It seemed as if I had been born into a new life. But being a member of the Church, and not believing in reincarnation, I knew there must be some other explanation.
When I graduated a few years later and moved to Santa Clara to take a job in the computer industry, another big changed occurred. As I successfully met new challenges and earned the respect of coworkers, I found myself developing more self-confidence than I ever remembered having before. And yet, whenever I visited home, it was as if a great hand had reached out of my past and pulled me back into the same old feelings and patterns I'd grown up with.
Have you ever moved, changed schools, joined a new organization, or made some other major life change, and found yourself instantly becoming a different person? Have you ever wondered why it is so easy to change at these times, and often so difficult to change at others? Why do we sometimes make changes for good, and at other times, make changes for bad? And what is the force that sometimes reaches out of our past and tries to tug us back? Allow me to share with you a few of the answers I've found, and some ideas for how to use an understanding of change to promote good changes in our lives.
A few of the major forces that influence the way we act include who we believe we are, who we want to be, who others believe we are, and who we think others believe we are. Each of these forces has potential for good or ill. The better we understand them, the better we can harness them for our benefit.
Who we believe we are may be the single most powerful force in determining our choices and actions. I suspect that most of us live our lives doing things we believe we can do well, and avoiding the risk of failure on less familiar ground. When challenged, we often make choices based on our expectations of ourselves, doing the same things we've done when faced with similar challenges in the past. If we have always failed at a task in the past, many of us expect to fail again. And this expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. How tragic if we truly believe that who we are is someone incapable of meeting these challenges!
By contrast, if our self-image is one of a person capable of growth, meeting new challenges successfully, and succeeding in the future where we have failed before, then how powerful a force for change and growth that self-image becomes! In my first job after college, I was given a number of assignments that required me to do things I had never attempted before. As I successfully completed those assignments, I came to believe, through positive experiences, that I had the ability to learn whatever was necessary to handle virtually any computer-related task. When I left that job to work independently, that experience, and the self-image I had gained from it, gave me the confidence to leave the security of working for a large corporation, and tackle challenges in other unfamiliar areas.
So how can we develop a positive self-image that will help us in our quest for change and growth? If we are limiting our lives to the safety of familiar ground, we may need to take a few chances and try a few new things in order to gain the positive experiences which will form a foundation for believing in our ability to grow and progress. Reject the notion that you are doomed to react to old challenges the same way you have in the past. If you've always failed at some challenge in the same way before, think of a new way to approach it and try it once. Then the next time, you'll be able to look back and see that you did it differently once, so why not once more, and once more, and once more. Soon you'll find ways to succeed, and your old patterns will be a thing of the past.
When you feel doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, remember who it is that would have you believe that. Moses 4:3 teaches us that "...Satan...sought to destroy the agency of man...", and in verse 4, "...he became...the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will..." One of the ways he tries to take away our ability to choose is to convince us that we have no choice--that we will always make the same mistakes, because that is who we are.
Christ, on the other hand teaches us that we can change, and that he will help us. To Moroni he said, "...my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them." (Ether 12:27). Who you really are is a child of God. You have the potential to become perfect, like him. With his help, we can overcome many challenges in this lifetime, and eventually overcome all of our challenges.
Going back to the experiences I related at the beginning of this article, a change in environment can prompt us to try new things, giving us a chance to discover more about ourselves and see ourselves differently. Sometimes it can be helpful to explore new hobbies and activities, which will give us a chance to stretch our abilities. Church callings that challenge us can also be great opportunities for growth.
Finally, we should seek to see ourselves as God see us. Pray and ask God to help you learn who you really are, and then ponder and listen for his answer.
Who we want to be can be a great motivator for change. It gives us a target to aim at, a star to direct the individual steps of our course. If we believe that our dreams are attainable, they can motivate us to strive. On the other hand, if we don't believe that we can become who we want to be, our dreams can be a weight on our shoulders and a constant reminder of all the faults we see in ourselves. Understanding how to change can help us to have hope, and use our dreams as a positive force in our lives. Our faith in Christ--in his ability to help us in our quest for growth--can also help us to overcome feelings of self-doubt.
Who others believe we are has an indirect but powerful influence on our choices. The people we grew up with know a lot about who we are. They have seen how we act in many different situations, and have developed their own set of expectations of us and beliefs about our motivations. People who know us less well also make judgments about who we are (or to use a term less charged in the Christian vocabulary, they discern things about us and form expectations based on them). These may be based on our actions, appearance, racial, religious or other stereotypes, or what others have said about us. They interact with us based on who they believe we are, which may influence how we choose to act to some degree.
Of course, their perceptions of us may be incorrect, based on their own prejudices, misperceptions, misinformation, or observations from the past which are no longer true. I believe this is one of the reasons why we sometimes feel held back by those around us, or pulled back into the past when we meet people we knew long ago.
We should not deceive others to manipulate their perceptions of us, but educating them on who we really are and desire to be can be a powerful tool in using the power of their influence on us to help us grow.
Who we think others believe we are influences us similarly to who they really believe we are, but it is useful to make the distinction. If others have let go of the past, but we don't believe they have, we may be holding ourselves back by reacting to how they used to treat us. Also, if we do not correctly perceive their reasons for acting toward us as they do, we may react in ways that reflect not who they believe we our, but our own misunderstandings. It may be ourselves pulling us back into the past, even though we think the influence is coming form others.
Before discussing strategies for change, I'd like to relate one more example from my own life which integrates much of what has already been said. As a child, I was not particularly athletic. When teams were picked for kickball, I was generally among the last picked. I didn't consider myself athletic, and generally didn't go out of my way to participate in sports.
As I got a little older, I started playing soccer. Within the soccer context, I began to be recognized as having certain skills, and considered myself a fairly good player among my piers. In junior high, when we played volleyball in gym, I started to gain some good team volleyball skills too, and was pleased to see that some of my more athletic classmates started wanting me on their team.
After my mission, I recall one day playing kickball with my singles ward. In two times at the plate, I kicked two home runs, perhaps the only home runs of the game. Suddenly, a whole group of people thought I was a star athlete. At our age, we didn't play a lot of kick ball after that, but the change in my experience, the change in others' expectations of me, and my realization of the change in others' expectations, over time has drastically changed my expectations for myself and my attitude toward athletic participation. Now, rock climbing and roller hockey have spots near the top of my list of hobbies.
Strategies for change
Switching jobs, moving to another state, joining a new family, and getting a brain transplant every time we want to make a change in our lives would not be very practical, but there are things we can do to use the very forces that may have held us back in the past to move us forward in the future.
Consider who you really are and who you are right now. How much of who you are can be changed, and what can't? If you're 5 foot 5 and haven't grown in years, it's unlikely you'll be able to grow another foot. But if you're shy in front of groups, you can almost certainly change that. Don't be discouraged if you don't transform yourself overnight. You can't change the past, but the direction you take now can change the future. Always remember that you are a child of God, capable of becoming like him. Strengthen your testimony of this fact till it overpowers all doubts.
Ask yourself what the forces and attitudes are that influence your daily decisions. Awareness of these things is a good first step in building strategies for change where it is needed.
Think about who you want to be. Consider people you admire, whether people you know, famous persons, characters from literature, people from the scriptures, etc. What makes you admire them? Which of their attributes would you like to develop in yourself? Pick a few to work on. It is often easier to see the qualities we like by thinking of specific people than to think of those qualities in the abstract. Think about the person you are seeking to emulate to help you develop a clear picture of what it means to have that attribute. Visualize yourself displaying that same attribute. Then act like the you you have visualized. Preparing yourself in this way makes it easier to receive the gift of change that God gives to you. As we do what we can to change, we show our desires to God. He has promised to bless us according to our desires (See Alma 29:4).
You probably already have some of the attributes you admire in others. Do you display those attributes in a way that others can see them? If not, others may not know who you are, and may treat you as if you didn't have those qualities. And if you are hiding your talents, you may be missing an opportunity to inspire others who are watching you.
Consider the kinds of actions that would be typical of a person who exemplifies the characteristics you wish to develop. List some words that describe the general demeanor or attitude of someone who exemplifies the characteristics you wish to develop. Make some specific plans to integrate such actions and attitudes into your daily life. Such changes become integrated into our personalities over time, so remember to recognize your small successes and not become discouraged because you still have further to go.
Enlist the support of others in helping you change. When you set a goal, if it is not too personal, find someone to share it with. Ask them to expect you to change, and to be patient and supportive till you do. Ask them to treat you as if you already had changed. When you know that someone is watching you, expecting you to act a certain way, and best of all, supporting you in your efforts, that can be as strong an influence in helping you change as the influence of someone's expectation that you won't change. Working together with someone on change and seeing each other succeed can also enhance our relationships. Always remember to humbly seek God's help in changing. He has promised to give it.
If others know our goals and see us achieving them, we create a visible track record of success in growth which will teach them to expect us to grow, and help them to let go of their old notions of who we are.
Treat others as if they are better than you think they are. They may actually be, and if not, the way you act toward them may help them become so. All people are children of God, and have the potential to become like him. If we are not treating them this way, then however they may be acting, we are certainly in the wrong on this point.
I strongly suggest that we bring the idea of helping each other to change out into the open and make it an active part of our lives, rather than, by not thinking and talking about it, influencing each other to stay the same. Remember to be supportive and patient with others and yourself when change doesn't come all at once. Remember to make an effort. Nobody ever won greatness of character in the lottery. It will not simply fall info your lap. Finally, remember that wherever you are right now, if you keep moving toward your destination, you'll get there eventually.