Transformative change: from personal experience to societal value

What is the nature of societal transformative change? When are people willing to go along a transformative change process and when and why do they resist? These questions have been guiding me in my research journey thus far, aiming to better understand the ‘roots’ of transformative societal change towards a more sustainable world.

Looking back I feel I was initially guided by tiny clues and insights from personal experiences during a more difficult period in my life, classically located near the end of my university studies and the beginning of my ‘adult’ life. I suddenly experienced that in the wake of uncertainty, choices to be made, new beginnings and things coming to an end, I became anxious, overwhelmed and insecure. Looking back, this period of change was difficult and confronting: I had to face parts of myself that had been somehow safely tucked inside during my relatively smooth childhood and young adultery when life was relatively clear, simple, straightforward and protected. I went to see a therapist for a year or so and started ‘self-therapy’ (something Giddens recommends to every person living in ‘late-modernity’[1]). The lifelong process I started than, began with becoming aware or mindful; looking at my own thoughts, emotions and the bodily sensations accompanying them and questioning their origin. Then, I started to understand that these stories in my head and the current circumstances in my life do not need to define me. Following this initial becoming aware stage, I started to learn about self-compassion; a topic that has been thoroughly studied by Dr. Kristin Neff[2]. See for example for a ‘self-compassion test’.  Self-compassion, I have realized is crucial in any change process which will inevitably not always be easy. Lastly, I became inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s[3] work on creativity; her blogs, podcasts, TED talks and especially the book ‘Big Magic’. Through this, I understood that creative living is not about making paintings all day long, but is about creatively shaping every aspect of your life and actively create rather than accepting a life as a passive consumer. Creative living does require courage, coping with fear and uncertainties and the willingness to get in touch with your inner self[4].

A personal change process and a societal change process might require roughly the same capacities from people.

First of all, quite importantly, we cannot avoid looking at ourselves if we truly want to make any change in the world. This insight is commonly accepted in many of the ecovillages I have been to so far. If you want peace in the world, make peace with yourself and put it at the basis of every relationship you have with other people and your environment. This is for example a central theme in a theater play in a Finnish theosophical inspired community, Väinölä. The same holds for self-compassion: self-compassion has been shown to also increase other focused compassion and care[5]. Or love. As Brene Brown[6] rightly states, you can only love others so much as you love yourself.

Secondly, Giddens explains how people’s self-identity and self-worth in late modern societies depend upon ‘modern life securities’ including money, property, status, career and social contracts. In Eckhart Tolle’s words, it is a conceptual story that people create in their minds upon which their identity and self-worth is based. If we do not learn who we are and create a sense of worthiness independent of this story, ‘stiring up’ these modern life securities directly threatens our identity and self-worth. A reluctance to go along a change process that does that then becomes quite understandable. The problematic nature of these modern life securities in terms of sustainability and people’s wellbeing or happiness is very well explained in this short interview of the ‘poorest president of the world’, the president of Uruguay. It is part of the documentary HUMAN. Spending ten minutes of your time to watch it is absolutely worth it.

Thirdly, questioning the origin of our thoughts and thought patterns is especially important in order to get to transformative change. As Martin Winiecki from ‘Tamera’, an ecovillge and Peace research institute in southern Portugal explains: the link between mental conformity and political power is very close; ‘it is a political necessity to question the basic assumptions that we grow up with and are used to’. He continues by quoting Noam Chumsky[7] who argues that ‘the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion but allow very lively discussion within that spectrum’. Inspired by this reasoning, Tamera found the ‘Thinking School’ aimed at ‘learning to think again’.

Coming back to the value of creativity in a change process, arts-based creativity can enhance a change a process by broadening our minds, triggering new modes of thinking and reflecting upon our existing way thinking and perceiving the world, as can be seen in the above short video of the Thinking School as well. Furthermore, actively shaping one’s own life rather than having it shaped by others, requires critical thinking and the second type of creativity, self-actualizing creativity in Maslow’s terminology. Actively imagining and together shaping a desired future on a societal level is an inherently creative process as well. One that requires courage and the willingness in people to (re)connect and cultivate (self) compassion.


[1] A. Giddens 1991. ‘Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age’. Standford Press.
[2] Kristin Neff 2011. ‘Self-Compassion.The proven power of being kind to yourself’. William Morrow.
[3] Elizabeth Gilbert 2015. ‘Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear’. Cargo.
[4] Abraham Maslow 1968. ‘Creativity in self-actualizing people’ in Towards a Psychology of Being. John Wiley & Sons.
[5] Neff, KD and E. Pommier. 2013. “The Relationship between Self-Compassion and Other-Focused Concern among College Undergraduates, Community Adults, and Practicing Meditators.” Self and Identity 12(2):160–76.
[6] Brene Brown 2012. ‘Daring Greatly. How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead’. Penguin UK
[7] Noam Chumsky 1998. ‘The Common Good’. Odonian Press.