Skip to content

Changes that Heal: How to Understand Your Past to Ensure a Healthier Future


Sometimes clarity comes in the most unlikely places. It’s often hard to realize how much impact having a clear understanding of who we are and what we believe in can have on our professional lives. As many of the book reviews lately have been about personal growth, I’m including a review of another book that I read for personal development that can be applied to business as well. Many of these book reviews are building to a post that is in my backlog that needs some foundational underpinning which is found in the references I’m now reviewing.

As the Train song Bruises says, “We’ve all got bruises.” We’ve all got things that have happened to us that we need to heal from. So when we’re talking from the perspective of Changes that Heal: How to Understand Your Past to Ensure a Healthier Future, we’re talking about things that we can do that will help us heal from the hurts of our past. Changes that Heal provides some specific, practical guidance on how to move past your hurts and reach a place of strength.

I’m constantly reminded in my consulting practice about how personal hurts, injuries to self-esteem, value, and appreciation, ripple through meetings as one person triggers another and a simple misstatement of words becomes a full-blown disagreement or a knock-down drag out fight; all for a misspoken word and an old wound.

Four keys

In Changes that HealHenry Cloud, who also co-authored Boundaries, says that as children of God we start out life incapable of doing the four things that God can do:

  • Bond with others – To connect in a meaningful way with other humans
  • Separate from others – Learn when and how to be apart from others
  • Sort out issues of good and bad – Identify what is good for us and bad for us
  • Take charge as an adult – Be in peer relationships where you have to take responsibility appropriately

In fact the book is laid out along the lines of these four things – after the topics of grace, truth, and time are covered.

Grace, Truth, and Love

There are enough songs about love and its power that you don’t have to read 1 Corinthians 13:13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”, to realize that love is what it’s all about. As I mentioned in How to Be an Adult in Relationships, however, in the ancient Greek in which the New Testament was written, there are three words for love. One of the challenges that we have in communicating in English is the lack of precision when we speak of love. We’re not clear what exactly we’re talking about. Love is one of those words, like trust (See Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life), that is difficult to define. In fact, many of us believe we know what the definition is – until we try to define it. Cloud’s approach to defining love (Agape) is to say that it comes from the components of grace and truth.

Grace itself is a particularly difficult word to explain. It’s difficult because it means so many different things to so many different people. Grace can be elegance in motion. Grace can also be a blessing that we do not deserve. It’s often used in conjunction with the word mercy, but mercy refers to (in terms of How to Be an Adult in Relationships) acceptance and allowance for someone or something that temporarily fails to meet a standard. Grace is, however, a blessing on top of mercy. Grace is free and unmerited favor. It empowers the person to make a change – a radical change. Cloud discusses grace as the relational aspect of God’s love. It’s how we’re connected to him.

According to Cloud, Truth is the structural component of God’s love. It is the structure that life hangs on. Truth is the definition, the standard, the boundary. Truth is fact. It gets past perceptions (in as much as we humans can) to define what is good and what is bad.

Both grace and truth are necessary. The structure needs to be malleable – it must allow for grace. If you’re required to be at work at 8AM but your car breaks down, you have both the truth that you weren’t there and the grace that you will keep your job – and perhaps not even be docked the time that you weren’t there. Only grace doesn’t have any standards. Truth has standards which no one can meet all the time.

Cloud asserts that the major barrier to growth is guilt and that grace and truth are so powerful because they help to address this barrier. Grace says that you don’t need to feel guilty because not only are you forgiven but you are blessed in spite of the transgression. Truth holds up the mirror so you can see clearly how your behavior isn’t right. I don’t agree with Cloud that guilt is the barrier, I think it is shame.

Sidebar: About Guilt and Shame

There’s a lot of confusion about guilt and its relationship to shame. Cloud doesn’t specifically address this relationship but because Cloud feels so strongly about how guilt is a barrier to growth, I’ll say that I don’t believe that guilt is the barrier to growth – I believe that the barrier to growth is shame. The distinction is that guilt is negative feelings about something you’ve done. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. One focuses on the action and the other on the actor. Guilt says that we wish we hadn’t done something. Shame says that we wish we weren’t the way that we are.

Guilt is normal. It’s expected. It’s changeable. You can change your future state by not doing the action again. Shame seems more permanent. Shame is about the character of the person and feels more condemning and harder to change. Of course, we learned from Mindset that we are changeable. However, shame makes you feel powerless.

It’s a Process and it Takes Time

More than any other part of Changes that Heal, the chapter on time seems like it’s the obvious thing that people miss. If you’ve ever seen the Selective Attention Test you’ll understand how sometimes we can get so focused on one thing that we can’t see the obvious. (I won’t give it away if you haven’t seen the video.) I feel like in my world I see people all the time that get so focused on their pain – and making it go away NOW(!) that they forget that getting into their problem took time and so will getting out of it.

I took a trip to Mt. Rushmore via private plane with my brother and a good friend of mine several years ago. When we took that trip, numerous things went wrong and we never got some of the end experiences we wanted – although throughout the trip we were constantly reminded that it was about the journey. Some of the feeling that it was about the journey was seeing a museum named Journey. Some of the belief that it wasn’t about the destination was hearing every Journey song known to man. However, the message was loud and clear that our schedule and our plans weren’t the only option. We learned that we couldn’t control our schedule. We couldn’t control the time aspect of our trip. Things were going to take what they’re going to take.

The trip was a flying trip, as I mentioned, so I think that a flying analogy may help to understand what Cloud is saying. He’s saying that change is a process – which you have to work on yourself before you can work on your relationship with others. So thinking of a plane, you have one source of power – the engine and the propeller it’s attached to. All you can do with the engine is make the aircraft go forward. You can’t generate lift directly.

When you’re on the runway cranking the engine up to full power and you let off the brake, the airplane starts to slowly move forward breaking the bonds of inertia. It takes a relative eternity as you accelerate towards the end of the runway. As more and more momentum builds there are a set of secondary forces that start to take over. Air over the wings starts to generate lift. You’re still applying power to go forward. More and more the plane gets lighter on the tires. Once the forward momentum gets high enough the lift force generated exceeds the force of gravity and the plane takes off.

The airplane didn’t generate lift directly. It generated forward motion and allowed the air – the invisible presence around us – to generate lift. The motor in the plane isn’t capable of lifting the plane directly. It doesn’t have the power to pick the plane up – it only has the ability to move it forward. It has to allow the air to do its job of creating lift.

The interaction of these forces is important because people want to soar – to escape the pull of their past. That isn’t what has to happen first. What has to happen first is you have to break free from the inertia. You have to work on yourself, on healing, and on growing. You have to generate forward momentum before you can fly.

Healing is a process. You don’t walk into a hospital and instantly get healed. Wounds heal over time. They may scab over. They may hurt every time you bend or move for a while. Eventually, over time, the wound may disappear completely or leave a permanent scar – a place where you are reminded of what has happened even if it doesn’t hurt any longer. We can’t short circuit the healing process. People who try to run or do activities before it is safe to do so often create more damage than the original injury. They’re trying to short-circuit time, and that doesn’t work.

I was watching a video series where James McDonald was delivering content from his book Lord, Change My Attitude: Before It’s Too Late. In that discussion he mentioned that people come up to him and tell him that they want his life. They as how they can be like him. How can they get the same things that he has? He relates his feelings as they say it. Did they want the years of struggling? Did they want the long hours of studying? Did they want the hardships? Clearly they wanted what he has now – success. However, he didn’t become a success overnight. You can’t become successful overnight either. You have to struggle through years of obscurity. You have to anguish over hard issues. You have to experience pain and growth. Cloud quotes an old proverb “The longest distance between any two points is the shortcut.”

One final, corporate example before we leave this critical section on time. Sometimes business pundits talk about Walmart‘s “overnight” success. The problem is that Walmart languished for years before the explosive growth began. Not to say that it wasn’t profitable or that it wasn’t growing – but the explosive growth, the real momentum, took time to get started. It took time to get the model right. It took time to get the right people on the bus. (a la Jim Collins’ Good to Great)

No matter what it is in life, it takes time to get it right. There are no shortcuts. There are no microwave ovens on life.

Emotional Attachments

As I’ve mentioned before, we’re social creatures – us humans. We’re designed to be connected to and connected with other humans. However, sometimes we forget this is a fundamental part of our human nature and it’s possible for people to isolate. Here are three stages of isolation:

  • Protest – We protest the lack of relationships (or appropriate relationships)
  • Depression and Despair – We feel like that we’re a fault somehow, as if we’ll never be connected to others
  • Detachment – We give up. We block out our needs for connection with others. We deny an essential part of ourselves

In our society, we have more and less acceptable forms of detachment. An alcoholic is not lauded for his love of alcohol. However the workaholic is praised for his productivity. Anything that keeps us from connecting to others is a barrier between us and ourselves.

Defense and Moving In

Sometimes the biggest challenge to working on an issue is getting past the defenses. Some of the defenses that we have against seeing our own limitations are so powerful that they deny reality. They prevent us from realizing that we’re using defenses. It becomes our greatest challenge to see ourselves with integrated self-images – to recognize ourselves for both our good and our bad qualities. Here’s a list of common defenses that we all use:

  • Denial – It’s not just a river in Egypt. We simply deny that we have any problems. We’re focused completely on the fact that we’re without fault – or at least this fault.
  • Devaluation – Yes but… The love and connection that is offered to me is devalued so that it doesn’t count. The emotional isolation I’m experiencing isn’t my fault because the connections that are being offered to me aren’t valuable.
  • Projection – This is the act of taking your feeling and ascribing it to someone else because you don’t want to own it. “I’m not angry; you’re angry – and it’s making me angry.”
  • Reaction Formation – This is saying that I’m the opposite of what I’m really feeling. Instead of saying I feel sad I say that I feel happy.
  • Mania – I’m hyperactive but disorganized.
  • Idealization – I visualize myself as perfect. I believe that it’s impossible to have a fault because I’m perfect.

By contrast, here are the things you do when you’re moving into the wound and the process of healing:

  • Realize the Need – I accept that I have a need be bonded and attached to others.
  • Move Towards Others – I recognize that I have to move towards others – not expect they will always move towards me.
  • Be Vulnerable – I must be vulnerable to get close to others. If I live behind impenetrable walls no one will ever be able to get close.
  • Challenge Distorted Thinking – I recognize that my perception is distorted and that some thoughts and feelings distort it further. (See Bonds that Make Us FreeLeadership and Self-Deception, and Anatomy of Peace for more information.)
  • Allow Dependent Feelings – I have to allow a level of attachment to another person to be connected to them. I must care about them.
  • Become Comfortable with Anger – As I mentioned during the review of Emotional Intelligence, Anger is disappointment directed. I can use anger as a tool to better understand my relationship to others.
  • Be Empathetic – I need to share (or mirror) others’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions to truly connect with them.
  • Rely on the Holy Spirit – I have insufficient power on my own, but through the Holy Spirit, I can do all things.
  • Say Yes to Life – I must internalize that to be fully alive is to be connected with God and others.

Don’t Think about Polar Bears

There’s a funny little trick that happens when we focus on not doing something. We end up reinforcing what we don’t want. We do it by keeping the very thing we want to avoid in our heads. The heading for this section tells you not to think about polar bears. You’re not supposed to remember that they’re big, white, and live at the North Pole. However, just by reading the words polar bear you thought of one. The more I tell you why you shouldn’t think about polar bears – because they’re evil, or they’ll make your toes turn white, or whatever, the more you’ll think about polar bears.

Jonathan Haidt discusses in The Happiness Hypothesis that holding on to a negative thought is a difficult process because the very act of monitoring what we’re thinking requires that we think about the thing we’re trying to prevent thinking about in the first place. A more effective strategy is the strategy discussed in numerous books including The Information DietIntroducing the Psychology of Success, and How Children Succeed — that is to think of something else. The research upon which all of these books draw was around delayed gratification and whether children could not eat one marshmallow for a few minutes so that they could have two marshmallows later. The most successful groups for the marshmallow test distracted themselves. They didn’t worry about thinking about the marshmallow, they simply focused on other things.

Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to not think about the past, to avoid the time and place that we were hurt, that we focus energy remembering the event we’re trying to not think about. You may find that focusing on healing and on other things can be therapeutic.

Fences with Gates

There’s an old saying in computer security that the most secure computer in the world is locked in a vault in Fort Knox, turned off, and unplugged. That’s true. It’s completely secure. And equally useless. You can’t be in a relationship with someone – and therefore learn from the experience – if there’s no way to get to you.

Relationships are a delicate balance between allowing people in to help you and allowing too much so that they will harm you. Cloud suggests that we need fences with gates. That is, we need to have boundaries and we need to know when the boundaries aren’t necessary. We need to know how to let the right things in – and keep the wrong things out. We have to have permeable boundaries.

The book Beyond Boundaries discussed protective boundaries and defining boundaries. Defining boundaries are the fences. Protective boundaries are the gates. Deciding when and where you need them is the key.

If you’re thinking that you can get by with only boundaries, and that you don’t need to know anything about permeability or gates, consider that the only sea in the world which has no outlets is called the Dead Sea.

Fail Small, Fail Often

I love Mythbusters for more than just the explosions. I appreciate that they frequently do their experiments in small scale before going to a large scale. This allows them to fail more often – which on the surface seems to be a bad thing. However, failing more often and quicker in the small scale means that the large scale experiments are more likely to be successful. That’s an important aspect of their success at testing myths.

For myself, I had a friend say to me that I never seem to fail. After the long pause followed by a roar of laughter, I commented that I fail all the time. They didn’t believe me, but from my perspective, I do fail all the time. Different marketing approaches fail. Different product ideas fail. Different development spikes fail. However, these all fail and I learn from each failure – and I don’t do it again. I believe my friend was trying to say that, like Edison, I keep at it until I get success.

In order to succeed you have to be willing to fail. You can’t know if you’re able to ride a bike until you take the training wheels off. You can’t know if you can do it on your own until you’ve had to do it on your own.

Skills for Becoming an Adult

I would be remiss to not share the 10 skills that the book calls out for becoming an adult. They are:

  • Reevaluate Beliefs – I reevaluate my beliefs based on what I know. Humans are lousy at reprocessing what we know when our awareness and values change.
  • Respectful Disagreement with Authority Figures – I acknowledge and accept my disagreements with authority figures – and choose healthy ways of dealing with them.
  • Make Your Own Decisions – I don’t allow others to make decisions for me – I own my own life.
  • Practice Disagreeing – I need to accept that disagreeing with others is natural and healthy.
  • Deal with Your Sexuality – “‘Children don’t talk about sex’, but adults can. Stop whispering!”
  • Recognize and Pursue Talents – I will practice the skills that I’ve been given – with acceptance that failure is a pathway to growth.
  • Discipline Yourself – I will be responsible for my own discipline.
  • Gain Authority Over Evil – I have the ability to resist evil and temptation.
  • Submit to Others out of Freedom – I will submit to others out of love and respect for them.
  • Appreciate Mystery and the Unknown – I recognize that I’ll never know everything. I’ll accept that there are things that I cannot know.

In Conclusion

We’ve all been bruised. We’ve all been hurt – and we’re all going to be hurt again. We must accept that we must take responsibility to create the Changes that Heal in our own lives.