LOUISE O'NEILL: We have a culture of people afraid to change but who secretly want to

I saw a cartoon recently in which a butterfly and a caterpillar (stay with me) are sitting at a table, having a drink together, when the caterpillar says to the butterfly, “you’ve changed”. To this, the butterfly responds “we’re supposed to”.

It caught my attention because recently I’ve seen, “you’ve changed” being levelled at people as the worst insult possible, as if no offence could be graver than daring to change.

We see this a lot with those in the public eye; as I mentioned in last week’s column, we demand a certain level of authenticity from our favourite celebrities, we watch them closely, looking for proof that they have remained ‘real’, that they are, beneath the expensive clothes and perfectly toned abs, ‘just like us’.

And while it goes without saying that celebrities are mere human beings and are no more special than any of us, (except for our saviour, Beyoncé), it seems almost ludicrous to demand that they remain completely unaffected by, say, performing in front of 100,000 people, screaming their name, or having their start-up valued at twenty billion dollars.

It doesn’t excuse someone turning into a tantrum-throwing monster but wealth and success on that kind of massive scale is such a rarefied occurrence, how could it not change you?

All major life changes have a similar impact — the unexpected death of a loved one, for example. A long-term chronic illness. Enduring a traumatic event such as sexual violence, abuse, or a near-death experience. Even with the help of a good therapist and the support of friends and family, how could you expect to emerge exactly the same as you had been before? Such incidents shape us, subtly shifting our futures, creating new selves in which to inhabit, and that doesn’t have to be a negative thing. It’s just different.

I find it interesting that people seem to be simultaneously terrified of change — viewing it as a disruption of their desire to see the world as something they can control, and disasters as something they can safeguard against if only they try hard enough —while still striving to become a New You, a Better You.

New Year’s Resolutions are predicated on the desire to change your life; to earn more money, to find a partner, to stop losing your temper with the kids, drink less, go to the gym more.

The dieting industry wouldn’t exist without stoking the fires of those desires, promising that if you lose weight and change your body, you will finally achieve that which, in the end, we are all seeking for —- happiness.

(As an aside, I don’t believe this to be true. True, sustainable happiness comes from within, it cannot be maintained from external markers such as your appearance.)

It appears to me that we have a culture of people who are afraid of change but who secretly want to change — and then, just to make matters more complicated, don’t actually believe that change is possible at all.

It takes a huge amount of cognitive dissonance to A) tell others they’ve changed, and mean it as an slight, B) write down ‘lose weight’ as your resolution every January 1st, and C) shrug your shoulders and say “a leopard never changes its spots” when someone repeats a certain pattern of behaviour, over and over again.

Of course, we are capable of real change. (Even on a physical level, we essentially become a new person every seven years because in that time, every cell in our bodies is replaced by a new cell. Isn’t that wild?!) I have seen this is in my own life.

The events that others might assume would have enacted the greatest change — books being published, film rights being sold, etc — have been lovely, but the shift in consciousness that has had the greatest impact on my day to day has been my recovery.

Sometimes I look at my life now and I am stunned by how different it is to even two years ago. I’ve reclaimed so much free time because I’m not using up hours of my day to engage in eating disorder behaviours, I have more energy, I am capable of radical honesty in my relationships because I’m don’t have to lie about my eating.

I go to the gym as a way of managing stress rather than burning fat, I eat dessert when I’m out for a meal with my boyfriend and think nothing of it afterwards except that it was delicious, I make a snack for myself when I am hungry and I move on with my day.

To most people reading this, what I’ve described will seem simple, every day. For me and for others who have suffered from disordered eating, they are acts of revolution. For the first time in my adult life, I feel free.

Yet, for all that, I am essentially the same person.

Before, I thought that recovery would mean a metamorphosis of the sort experienced by the aforementioned butterfly, a St Paul of the Road to conversion into someone entirely different. I have begun to wonder if, perhaps, real change happens when you become more of you really are, inhabiting fully who you were put on this planet to be. Maybe the only thing we need to do is take a deep breath and say, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”.

Louise Says

READ: The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary. Two strangers. Eye watering rental prices in London. A solution? Tiffy and Leon will share a bed — he has solo occupancy during the day, she has it while Leon is working the night shift — but they never meet. This is uplifting and joyous; I fell in love with Tiffy and Leon.

GO: The stage adaptation of Maeve Binchy’s seminal novel, Light A Penny Candle, comes to the Everyman Theatre from April 16 to April 20 (it plays at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre from April 23). Get tickets at everymancork.com


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