How Do You Make Change Happen?
You feel stuck.
A big part of working in therapy is about making positive change happen. You’re feeling stuck in a place, in a relationship, or in a less than healthy behavior, and you want something different. Maybe you’ve tried changing things but it doesn’t stick, or you feel completely overwhelmed by the idea of changing anything.
What’s inside is the barrier.
The barrier to real and lasting change is often the internal experience we have that goes on whenever we approach or attempt something new. It could be negative thoughts, feelings, or memories that come up for you when you do something different. These negative internal experiences act as a barrier that keeps you from trying new behaviors and experiences. Sometimes, the urge to avoid any kind of negative internal experience means that you won’t try something new at all.
Let’s say that you have a difficult relationship with your partner and you would really like to improve it. Less fighting, more communication. Just reading that statement brings up feelings of overwhelm, sadness, anxiety, anger, or disappointment. You also have negative thoughts about how many times you’ve tried, how nothing has worked, and how hopeless the whole situation is now. Perhaps you have memories of all of the failures, fights and other unpleasant things that are now a part of your shared history. And finally, you may have urges to avoid your partner and the relationship, to do anything that can get your mind off of the reality of your situation.
Start small, but start committed.
If at this point I suggested that you walk into the room and try to have an honest conversation with your partner, or address some of the conflicts of your past, or do much of anything, you may experience resistance of some sort – resistance to experiencing the pain again, fear of experiencing new pain and more conflict, etc. Yet, you want a different relationship. Something needs to happen.
My suggested is to start with something small and manageable but something where you are willing to be present and open to all that comes up for you inside. So, maybe you start by sitting next to your partner, having a cup of coffee and being willing to listen to what he has to say for five minutes. And, at the same time, being willing to experience the anxiety that comes up. And willing to notice memories of past hurts but not get caught up in them. And experience the urge to start to fight back and notice what that is like but not act on it.
That's a lot of "ands"! But, by being present to these difficult internal experiences and not trying to avoid or change them, you are able to engage in a new, positive behavior - really listening to your partner. The reason this is important is twofold 1) you are acting in a way that is consistent with your value of wanting a healthy relationship with your partner and 2) your behavior could very well influence your partner’s behavior in a healthy and positive manner. While five minutes may not seem like a lot, it is very real change from your usual pattern of behavior and can spur even more positive changes.
A Metaphor to Commit to Action
One way to think of this is to consider being asked to jump off a cliff. If I said that something good would happen if you jumped off of a cliff, you would probably resist. And with good reason – you might be scared of the outcome, you could be hurt, there are unknowns. But what if I told you that the cliff was only one foot high? You probably would be more willing to take a risk. Approaching change in this way, making a change that is manageable but being willing to fully experience it, is likely to get your life moving in the direction that you want.