By Nicholas Oddy – Nicholas Oddy Consulting

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. – Carl Gustav Jung

While positive development can yield tangible results and help organizations to foster more effective leaders, a complete developmental picture also requires a focus on the negative side. As the earlier quotation by Jung suggests, full development only occurs when we are able to release that which has a hold on us and limits our potential to grow.

One of the most powerful tools that I use to overcome personal barriers to change is Robert Kegan’s “Immunity to Change” process. Kegan is the Professor of Adult Development at Harvard University who – based upon his research exploring people’s capacity to change – developed a process he calls ‘the immunity map’. While Kegan encountered stories of personal resilience and rejuvenation, he was exposed to numerous examples of the inability many of us have to change.

Kegan looked at people with major health concerns who were told by their doctors “if you don’t make dramatic changes to your lifestyle in the next twelve months you will most likely die.” To his astonishment, only one in seven patients who were delivered such an ultimatum were able to make the significant lifestyle changes required.

Kegan contends what creates our immunity to change is a core belief we have that resides in our unconscious (or subconscious). He calls these limiting beliefs our “Big Assumptions”. While we may not all have big assumptions that stop us overcoming something like a major health crisis; we are all challenged by big assumptions which hinder our development.

Typically, we are unaware of our big assumptions. An example of a big assumption is: ‘I’m not worthy of success, I’m a fraud and one day people are going to discover this’. Many CEO’s and highly successful business people have assumptions like these eroding their confidence. Kegan’s work suggests the big assumption is often incorrect and inaccurate; however, the assumptions are so engrained and powerful that they alter behaviors. Here are a few examples of big assumptions:

  • I need to be unique and different in order to be loved
  • It’s not safe to be honest and authentic in the world
  • If I’m not successful people will abandon me
  • I need to take control in order to be safe and happy
  • It’s not OK for me to speak up and voice my opinion

The immunity map Kegan developed provides a pathway to uncover personal big assumptions. Recognizing these assumptions increases our ability to change. Here are the four-steps to identifying your big assumptions:

  1. Identify a personal (or leadership) commitment that is highly important and has been challenging to realize.
  2. Document the barriers to this commitment. What are you doing or not doing that is stopping you from achieving your goal?
  3. Recognize why these barriers have been getting in the way and confront the truth about  what is really worrying you.
  4. Identify what you are subconsciously committed to based upon your worries and fear and define what you believe your ‘big assumption’ to be.

The big assumptions that people uncover are often primal in nature. Many have developed during the formative stages of our lives. The important thing to recognize is that they are just stories that we have been telling ourselves.

The immunity to change model may not be suitable to everyone. Most healthy adults live full and meaningful lives without having to confront the shadows within the recesses of their minds. For those of us willing to take the journey, the immunity map can help overcome self-limiting beliefs that stop us from becoming who we truly want to be.