“So you go to therapy too huh?”
“Used to. I don’t now, just waiting for my friend.”
“I see. Why did you stop going?”
“I know what my problem is.”
“I like change too much.” (pauses) “And I’m too hard on myself.”
“Ah, learned that from the best didn’t you? Who was it, your mom? My dad loved to point out all my mistakes, I could never do anything right, I could never be good enough, no matter how much I tried. He would come to my baseball games and shout from the sidelines what he thought to be encouragement but I was mortified and embarrassed.”
“Ha. I can’t complain about my parents really. They would tell me all the time how proud they were of me and brag to all the family and friends about my accomplishments…I don’t think of those times though when I think back. I think of how one B in 4 years of straight As forever defined me as ALMOST perfect.”
“I wish I was good with change. I’m a creature of habit. I eat the same breakfast everyday, eat lunch and dinner at the same time everyday and I always have a salad with my meals. And a glass of milk before bed. I always wake up at the same time every morning, I like to watch traffic and weather. Be prepared, you know…My mother had Bipolar. She would do crazy things like wake us kids up at the crack of dawn, pack us up in her Impala like sardines and take a road trip to Atlantic City for no reason at all. Or I would come home and she’d be painting my room a bright turquoise. They fought a lot, my parents. You never knew what you were walking into.”
“When I was about 15 my parents were both abroad and my grandmother and brother were in charge. It was summer. I did not leave my house for a month and a half, didn’t talk much to anyone most days. I read a lot. And listened to music. A lot. I ate, slept, sat, stared out the window, you know the normal teenage stuff. For a month and a half in the summer I did not leave the house. And now, the house eats at me. I don’t like to be home. I hate routines too. And silence. I particularly hate silence.”
“That doesn’t really explain why you like change though.”
“Maybe I don’t really like change. Maybe I dislike sitting still.”
“I started drinking heavily after my wife left me. And it dawned on me, it was probably because the house was too quiet. But you see, me drinking wasn’t the problem. My drink was my companion. I could always rely on it. Problem was, I didn’t want to face things changing around me, didn’t want to adapt to losing my job after 15 years, admit to failing my marriage or watch my parents get old and sick. Drinking was the only steady thing. The only thing I could control. Even when everything was falling apart I could drink to perfection. How about that?”
“I hate feeling powerless. It makes me driven to change. Change gives me a goal, something to look forward to. But sometimes it messes with things that aren’t broken, ya know? I have a dilemma as a matter of fact. A puzzle. A problem without a solution. And I have absolutely no idea what to do about it. I mean, I can make the change. That’s easy, I know how to do that. Yet I’m paralyzed. What if this one doesn’t need fixing? What if this a puzzle that will reveal itself slowly, on it’s own time? Will my immobility cost me dearly?”
“There’s gotta be something in between, right? Change when you have to, sit the rest of it out. But then how do you know you’re just being lazy, coming up with excuses?”
“It’s knowing how to tell the difference that is particularly challenging.”
“So what will you do?”
(after a long pause) “I think I’ll sit this one out.”
…to be continued
Here’s some phrases I use a lot in therapy and how they can help you.
- “Don’t hop on that train.” Your thoughts and feelings are like trains at a train station. They come and go. They have a set destination and if you get on them they will take you there. Don’t get on the train. Stand tall and grounded on the platform, recognize your thought train and let it go. Another one will be arriving at the station shortly. And if for some reason you do get on the wrong train don’t take it all the way to the final station. What will your life look like when you no longer give in to your thoughts and feelings impulsively?
- “The universe will always seek balance.” If you have been doing too much of one thing, your body and mind will try to slow down or even change direction. This explains how people are able to change naturally, “grow out” of things or phase out of behaviors. This applies to unhealthy and healthy behaviors equally. Balance is the key to happiness. How would you feel if you had more balance in your life?
- “Well, that’s just irrational.” I’m sorry if that sounds blunt. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong or bad or crazy. We all have irrational thoughts. Some us give irrational thoughts more power than they should because they confuse thoughts for facts. “If I think it, it exists.” That can’t be further from the truth. You don’t have the power to make things happen with your thoughts. But irrational thoughts will dictate how you feel. If reality cannot be changed, changing your thoughts will change the way you feel. What do you see yourself accomplishing when you start getting control of your thoughts?
- “We don’t walk around with a thought bubble.” Just because you think something, does not mean you have to say it. Just because you have a weird fantasy, a terrifying thought, a morally despicable thought, fantastical hopes and wishes, that does not mean you have to make them public, all the time. Choose wisely who you confide in. Pick and choose the thoughts you want to share. Make sure they are persistent and not fleeting. If you share your thoughts, hopes wishes, dreams they are out there in the world suddenly more real than they will ever be in your own head. You can’t undo speech. Choose your words wisely. What will your relationships look like when you start choosing your words wisely?
- “Sit with it.” Humans tend to be self-absorbed and often fail to recognize that the world does not revolve around them. We can be impulsive and self-indulgent. We live in a society where instant gratification is a reality. There isn’t much we desire that we can’t procure. We tend to be spoiled, even ungrateful. There are books and articles and videos on cultivating patience. This is because we lack the opportunity to practice patience. What is required is a practice of sitting with an impulse for some time, until its power has dissipated. Time can be from counting to 10 to a couple of hours. Sitting with it means postponing. The two main weapons against impulsivity are time and intentionally delaying gratification. You possess more self-control than you think you do. How will patience and self-control empower you to achieve your goals?
- “Progress not perfection.” Are you setting yourself up to succeed? I am interested to know how you got to failure. Sure that’s an important story. But, I’m more interested in how you are going to move forward towards success and progress. I’m more interested in the solution. Perfectionism will work against you here. So we won’t need it. Leave it at the door with all your “shoulds”. If you look closely, there is a way to set yourself up to achieve success. That might require unpleasant things like, asking for help, quieting your Ego, changing your ways, letting go of need to control, stopping negative self-talk, etc. It also requires a plan, follow-through and accountability. Ask yourself “How will I feel when I achieve this goal? What would it mean? How will it make me feel about myself and others?
- “Think rational not positive” I don’t want to tell you your wife and your children will forgive your indiscretions. I don’t want to tell you that your marriage will work or that your father will stop drinking. I can’t tell you that everything will be OK and all will be right with the world. It’s simply not true. If you want to be optimistic go ahead. But keep your feet on the ground. If I sell you BS, you’ll know it. You are smart enough to not buy it. And you shouldn’t. Reality sucks sometimes. Often, there is nothing we can do about some realities other than get to a place of acceptance and surrender. But we can only do that if our thinking is rational and realistic.
What I have found from my experience, is that everyone has the ability and motivation to make the changes they want in life. You possess that wisdom within you, even if you have forgotten or ignored it. Explore your own solutions, use the right tools and get some support along the way.
What do people want? Mostly to be happy. And proud, accomplished, popular, the list goes on. Some people just want to change. Yesterday I talked about resisting change. But what if you weren’t resistant at all? What if you really wanted to change but didn’t know how? What if you want to change so badly but it’s so darn hard and you have no clue where to begin? You have been contemplating change for a long time, maybe years have gone by and you still have this nagging feeling that you should be doing something different with your life or simply conquer a fear?
If you have been reading my blog you know by now that I like to talk about myself. It’s not an egocentric thing. I want everyone to know that being a therapist doesn’t exempt me from human suffering and struggles. May is the one year anniversary of one of the biggest changes I have made in my life in 32 years. And I like honoring anniversaries. This one is HUGE. I was so overcome with fear about making this change that I became paralyzed for years. I had put it off, made excuses about not changing, contemplated it but never thought I could do it, settled for the idea of never trying and even told myself and everybody else a pretty good story titled “I don’t drive”. Yes, you read it right. The change I had been wanting to make but wasn’t able to was to learn how to drive. Before you judge this as an insignificant matter, think of something that has been hard for you to accomplish. Further more try to imagine this. Imagine the fear, challenge and amount of adaptation it would take to move to a foreign country 6000 miles away from everyone and everything you know. Are you imagining? Are you there? Good. Now, multiply it by 100. That was the amount of fear and challenge learning how to drive represented for me. It’s been a year today since I got my driver’s license and I can say the story has changed significantly. The story now goes “I am a new driver”.
Before you go off reminiscing about old times when you learned how to drive, stop! This post isn’t about driving. It’s about how to conquer your fears and make significant changes in your life. My driving is just a story. And I like telling stories. So forgive me if I use it to illustrate the points I’m about to make. This post is about change. Real change. Change that transforms you in such a powerful way, that it sends waves to everyone around you. Change that redefines who you are, what you do, how you do things and what you are capable of. Change you have putting off for a while. There is no better time to change than now.
Believe it or not you have to start with giving up. Whenever you make a change you have to give up something old to make room for something new. This is how the universe works (I believe), constantly seeking balance and equilibrium. If you want to stop drinking or drugging you have to give up something you love or something that has been your friend for a long time. If you want to leave your partner, you have to give them up knowing you may lose them for life. If you want to change your job you have to give up on the feeling of safety and security and on the belief that dreaming big is foolish. If you want to learn how to drive at 31 you have to give up the false security that taking the bus will protect you from human’s common fate: dying. Give up. Whatever it is you’ve been holding on to isn’t working. It’s time to try something new.
Fear of failing
Do you remember failing when you were a kid? What was the reaction of the adults around you? How did your parents respond? How did you feel and what lessons did you learn? If you are like most people, you learned failing isn’t fun. Making mistakes means there is something wrong with us. So we try very hard to avoid failure. And sometimes this leads us to success. But sometimes this leads us to avoid trying anything new. So let me ask you this? Are you not failing already? I had to take 2 buses to get to work. A normally 20 min commute would take me an hour and a half, each way everyday. I did this for 3 years. And every day for 3 years, even in the face of justification and rationalization (“I’m doing something good for the environment”, “I like the bus, I can read” etc etc) there wasn’t a day I didn’t feel like a loser.
We are creatures of habit. We are slaves to habits and rituals. They provide us with a sense of structure, safety, security, control and predictability. We love our habits. They make us who we are. Until they get in the way of who REALLY are. When people asked me how did I do it, taking the bus everyday, I would say “I’m used to it”. Do we even know we’re doing something simply out of habit? Where did we pick up the habit? Why did it stick with us? We are amazing learning machines. Repetition is powerful for human learning. Do something often enough and it will become second nature. But is it really natural? And if you learned it somewhere, shouldn’t you be able to unlearn it? The answer is yes. If we put as much effort into unlearning a habit as we do into stubbornly repeating it, change happens. If you chase recovery with the same passion that you chase drugs, healing happens.
We need the right tools.
During tax season there was this H&R Block commercial where they were trying to demolish a brick building using a giant stuffed bunny. And a bystander says “That’s not gonna work”. Very funny. Brilliant too. You can not succeed in change using the wrong tools. In the mental health and addiction field we have a saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” If you want different results you have to employ a different strategy using different tools.
Befriend the change you want to make.
I know it’s scary. I know it’s hard. I know there are obstacles. One way to soothe your fears about something unknown is to familiarize yourself with it. They say you can’t learn to swim unless you go in the water. It turns out you can’t learn to drive from the passenger’s seat. I took 2 driver’s ed classes. The first teacher was OK but she didn’t challenge me. She catered to my fear by rarely taking me into high traffic areas. The second instructor tricked me into getting on the highway the second day. I freaked out completely. I thought I was going to have a panic attack. But he was very calm and confident. And against all odds, I survived. Nothing happened. Actually, something did happen. I became my fear’s friend. Wanting to get to know it better. My instructor taught me the laws of the road, helped me break things down so I could understand them better. When thing makes sense they are not so scary anymore.
The power of mental imagery
This is a little embarrassing but for the first 3 months after I started driving I would lay in bed and imagine my route to work the next morning. Granted a lot of this was fueled by worry and fear and some sort of obsessive thinking so I would caution you not to do this without some professional help. This is what a phobia expert would teach you in therapy. But I think imagining yourself changed, picturing the change, how it looks, how it feels, how it makes you feel, may actually be helpful. And the cool thing is it stays in your brain. No one ever has to know (unless of course you blog about it). Your brain is powerful. Use it.
Going from “I can’t” to “I can”
Our brain is powerful. But it is also a trickster. It is constantly thinking. And some of it’s thoughts are irrational. You can change these thoughts. A professional counselor using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can do this with you. If you want to try this on your own, do it to others first. Notice an irrational thought they have and challenge it. Then try doing it with your own thoughts. Thoughts are not facts. Take them with a grain of salt. You may think you can’t change, but that’s just a thought. It’s not a fact. Going from “can’t” to “can” needs to start in your head.
I apologize for the length of this post and I hope you’re still with me because I’m about to take it one step deeper. Stay with me!
Rewriting your story
Ultimately, change is about rewriting your story. Eric Berne didn’t say much about addiction but one thing he did say stayed with me. He said “Alcoholics need permission from their mothers to stop drinking.” How fascinating! I have found this to be true in my work, especially the need for permission part. The way I see it, everyone needs permission to be successful. Often from their parents but mostly, as adults, we need to give ourselves permission to succeed. Can we give ourselves permission to change the way the story goes? Can we rewrite the way the story ends? I gave myself permission to rewrite my story. My story was “I don’t drive. I can’t drive. I’m too scared to get in an accident and survive but be crippled for the rest of my life. I’m too scared to screw up”. I won’t get into where I learned that. But I will say I had to break it down and challenge it and rewrite it. So now my story goes like this: “I’m a new driver. I’m cautious when I’m on the road but I can drive. I have made silly mistakes since I started but I chose to see the humor in them. Driving has changed my career, my relationships and my beliefs about what I can accomplish.” Next year this story may be slightly different. Because change is a process not an event.
What will your new story say?
Can you remember the last time you went through life without much change? It’s been a long time for me. Sometimes, I miss the smooth sailing of stability and consistency. I’m definitely built for change, novelty. Rough sailing is where I thrive. Most people aren’t, understandably so. I have had my share of resistance to change. Here’s how I know I don’t want to change:
1. I procrastinate. I know change is coming. I know I need to implement a plan, a strategy to cope with change but I really just don’t want to. My body and my mind are refusing to accept the need for action. A lot of people do this. Many call this denial. I call it resistance. The problem with this is it creates more stress within you as you are battling between the need to act and the want to stay put.
The way to get out of the procrastinating is to make a decision and follow through with it.
2. I ignore consequences. I know procrastinating will have consequences. I know that staying put or digressing with catch up with me, but I simply ignore this fact. There is some magical thinking at play here. I don’t believe I will have any consequences regardless of previous experience that proves certain actions ALWAYS lead to certain consequences.
The way to get out of ignoring consequences is to assign accountability. If someone is keeping you accountable you’re less likely to continue with your behavior.
But what if nobody is keeping you accountable? This happens a lot with addictive behaviors. You know you need to change; you may have even experienced significant negative consequences from your addiction like relationship problems or performance issues at work or school. However, in the end you are the only one responsible and accountable for real change. People in your life may have tried to encourage you to change but after failed attempts, they have given up. If this hasn’t happened yet, it will.
So what do you do when you are the only one responsible to change but you don’t want to? This is one of the most difficult questions in addiction treatment.
What makes it even more complicated is the fact that you are conflicted. A part of you genuinely wants to change but then another part doesn’t. How long can you continue to be conflicted? It turns out, a long time. You’ll probably be miserable. But you’ll get by. What to do? Here are a few tips:
- When you feel conflicted don’t force yourself to make a move. Sit with your ambivalence and explore your fear of changing. Is it because you perceive it to be too hard? Is it scary and unknown? And if so, so what? What’s the worst that can happen? And has it not happen already? Can you think of another time in your life change turned out to be not so scary or hard? What helped you get through it?
- Befriend the part of you that wants to change. Listen to it. What does it want? Can you help him/her get it? How? List the positive aspects of change. What good will come out of it? How will you feel about yourself and your ability to accomplish things? How will you feel about yourself? Will it be worth it?
- Have a plan. Help yourself move into some sort of a preparation phase. Changing blind is harder and scarier than having a concrete plan. Think every step through. Break your goal down to small, achievable tasks and focus on one at a time. Be careful not to overwhelm yourself and give you an excuse to bail out on what you really want.
- Learn to keep yourself accountable. We all have a parent in us. Someone in our head who tells us what we should and shouldn’t do. Sometimes that parent stays in the way of progress but sometimes he knows what we need to do and can keep us on our toes.
- Remember, the PROCESS of change is more important than the end PRODUCT. You may decide that you don’t like the product at all but you will almost always find the process of change worth the trouble because you have learned some valuable lessons about yourself and others. And we never stop learning. What we learn through trying to change is invaluable. Pay attention to these life lessons even if the end result is not exactly what you hoped for. Also, focusing too much on the product tends to make us resentful (if disappointed) and/or provide only fleeting happiness (if we are content).
And most importantly, remind yourself that change gets easier only with practice.
In The strange life of Ivan Osokin written by P. D. Ouspensky, the hero is given a chance to find out the answer to a question many ask: “If a man had his life to live over again, knowing what he knows now, would he make the same mistakes?” The story opens at the Kursk station in Moscow on a bright April day in 1902. Osokin, a young man of 26, is seeing Zinaida and her mother off to the Crimea. Zinaida is piqued with Ivan because he will not go with her, but he is too poor to go and too stiff to tell her the reason. The train leaves; Ivan is left alone; he feels for a moment as if the event had happened before. In the next two months he gets three letters from Zinaida; then she stops writing. Soon he hears that she is going to be married.
Ivan goes to a magician, tells him bitterly of all the chances he has thrown away in his life. If he had only known beforehand the outcome of his actions, he says, he would not be such a failure. The magician laughs and tells him that nothing would be changed. Then, to Ivan’s amazement, he offers to prove it by sending him back twelve years. He may relive his life, and may even remember at every stage—if he wants to—what the consequences will be. Ivan gets to relive his adolescence and school years again. He makes the same choices as before. By the time he again meets Zinaida he has forgotten that he ever met her. The story repeats itself down to the last detail—until, once again, he finds himself visiting the magician. But when he reaches the point of asking the magician to send him back, he suddenly remembers everything.
“But this is simply turning round on a wheel!” says Osokin. “It is a trap!”
The old man smiles.
“My dear friend,” he says, “this trap is called life. . . . You must realize that you yourself can change nothing and that you must seek help. . . . And to live with this realization means to sacrifice something big for it. … A man can be given only what he can use; and he can use only that for which he has sacrificed something. . . . This is the law of human nature.”
Ouspensky attributes what happens to “the force of destiny”. This is exactly what Eric Berne calls “a life script” and storyteller David Austin Sky calls “an unheard story”. Same concept, different time-frame. The wheel is still a wheel. Our life is filled with stories we learned as children from our parents. They play out over and over again during the course of our lives, and we can’t change the story, even when we know how it ends.
Unless, you get a little help from my furry friend.
Meet the rabbit
Last week, I was at a conference called “Hearing the unheard story” by David Austin Sky. He’s amazing. I highly recommend him www.davesky.com. According to David, we tell the story before we hear it. We talk in layers, in metaphors. Most of the time, people hear the told story and fail to hear the unheard one that lies dormant underneath.
See the thing is, well the Thing is never the Thing! We tell stories about our lives in a safe time frame. If our present is painful we go to safe childhood memories to tell our story. And the other way around. But the story is just the same. All our stories have the same theme. We often don’t know what story we’re really telling. Until we know. As an experiment, I started looking at stories I have been telling all long not really knowing why. Here’s a story everyone who knows me has heard at least once.
“When I was a kid my family had a rabbit. I must have been little because I don’t remember much. Maybe 6 or 7. I don’t remember his name. In fact I don’t know if he had a name. But I remember him vividly. He was all white. Soft as silk and white as snow. He was fluffy and beautiful. He had ruby red eyes. My brother must have been 11 or 12. He took care of him. He loved that thing. This was communist Albania. My family was poor. My parents were simple working class folk with no money, struggling to feed their family. It was January 11th. Some holiday. Can’t remember. My parents had invited people for dinner and had decided the rabbit would be the meal. My brother cried and fussed with desperate objection to no avail. He loved that thing. But they killed it anyway. And ate him. My brother was depressed for days. He couldn’t eat anything. He mourned the little rabbit like it was his best friend. And we ate him for dinner. But I didn’t eat any. I didn’t. I didn’t eat any.”
I have no anxiety, sadness or guilt when I tell this story. In fact, I laugh when people, shocked, call my family rabbit killers. I think it’s funny. “It’s life” I say “Plus, I didn’t eat any”. Over the past couple of days I have been playing this story in my head trying to figure out what it means. The truth is my memory of it is hazy at best. I don’t even remember whether I ate it or not. I may very well have. But the point is I’m not going to find the secret in my childhood. That’s a safe time frame, believe it or not. The unheard story that’s being secretly told here is about my life now, as an adult. And it has something to do with my brother’s and I relationship now. In fact, it has something to do with EVERY single significant relationship of my adulthood. “Really? A rabbit???!!”
See the rabbit is not the rabbit. As much as the past ten years of my life have felt somewhat like a rabbit whole. The Thing is not the Thing. The key is in the title. The secret is in the theme. And the theme is the same no matter what the story.
Here it is “When powerless, be cruel”.
What this means for you.
Write down your story. Share it with someone you love. See if they can hear what you’re not saying. See if they can guess your theme. Ask them to title it. And if you’re trapped in the wheel of a story you didn’t chose, you can break out of it with a little bit of help and whole lot of insight.
What story will you tell your children then?