A common reason why some people come to therapy is because there is something in their life or in themselves that they want to change. It should come to no surprise that change is hard, yet so many of my patients are baffled by this fact! In my last blog post, I addressed this, to some extent, in my discussion of how psychological attachments keep us from getting what we want out of life. In this post, I will touch on that more as well as share some other thoughts (and even some tips!) about the change process.
We are creatures of habit.
Being alive is complicated. It involves a making a lot of decisions every day, so we develop short cuts to respond to the varied demands of life. As a result, people typically come to do things in idiosyncratic ways. After enough repetition our ways of being become automatic and repeat in patterned ways. If we have been responding to a situation a certain way for a long time it is going to take some time and sustained effort to do something differently.
We do not fully understand the problem yet.
Sometimes we have a pretty good idea of the problem areas are in our life, but not always. And even when we do have a sense of what is going on, there is usually more to it underneath the surface. So how can we really expect to be able to tackle a problem and make a change when we don’t have a full grasp on it?
This is where therapy comes in. Working with a therapist helps us to discover aspects of ourselves and our life’s situations that we cannot easily see on our own. And sometimes it takes a little bit of time to sort stuff out. But once a person begins to get things sorted, they will be more capable of addressing their concerns.
Knowing where to start.
A very sensible question I encounter frequently in therapy is, “Ok, I get it. What am I supposed to do now?”
It is very easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of making a change because it can feel so big and daunting, which can become a major barrier. One thing I always emphasize is that a person should try to pick something, or an aspect of a bigger thing that is small and manageable. I like to think of it almost as a mantra. Small and manageable. Small and manageable. Let us not set ourselves up for failure here! I am reminded of how the character Bob in the movie, “What About Bob?” would always say, “Baby steps, baby steps.”
Change has meaning.
To me, the most interesting and important part about the change process is that it has a unique and complex meaning for everyone. The idea of change can provoke so many kinds of responses and associations, and opens a multitude of questions. For some people, change might be the wish to be perfect and the fear of failure. What might that be related to? What might that mean? Change might bring about a crisis of identity because the thought of changing might make one feel like it would mean becoming a different person, and that can feel threatening. What might that mean? Change can also pose challenges for one’s relationships. What might that mean? What might changing now mean in the context of past experiences of change? Change can have all sorts of meaning to people, and it serves us well to understand what is for us, as best we can.
Change is hard. We’ve been doing stuff the same way for a long time. We don’t always know what the problem is. We don’t always know where or how to start, and the whole process is layered with meaning that we don’t have immediate access to. And this, again, is where therapy comes in. The better we know ourselves, the better equipped we are to do something new with ourselves. The better we know ourselves, the more creative and free we can be to try something new that just might work. Or at least to find a place where there might be some movement when you are feeling stuck.
I’ll illustrate this with an example from a patient I have worked with who also gave me permission to share this story, but whose identity I will conceal by obscuring identifying details:
Laura had been feeling for a while that she was not living her life to the fullest because she had stopped making art, a practice that had once brought her much joy and fulfillment. Now, this was not the main focus of our work together, but it would come up at least every few sessions that she wanted to get back into developing her own creative projects, but was feeling like “a broken record” because she simply wasn’t doing anything about it. We worked together to understand what was keeping her from starting. We talked about starting small. That made sense to her as a suggestion, but she knew that wasn’t really the main problem. I wondered if she was reluctant to start because she needed her work to be perfect. After considering this thoughtfully, Laura concluded that perfectionism really was not a barrier here. She then noted that she didn’t really feel like she has much space in her home for her creative work. I agreed that having physical space outside of her home to make art did sound like a practical concern. As we continued to talk, we made connections between the change she wished to make and other things we came to understand about who Laura was. Namely, that helping people she cares about is very important to her, and is something she spends a lot of time thinking about and trying to do. Suddenly, an idea came to Laura in a flash and she became giddy with excitement, which I admit was contagious! Her idea was that she could rent a studio space for herself, but that she could also offer to share the space with a dear friend of hers who had fallen on hard times and who she believed would be thrilled by such a gift. And a bonus was that their shared love for creative work could motivate each other to use the space and that it would enhance the creative element she enjoys about their friendship.
Change may be hard. But talking about it in the context of a collaborative therapeutic relationship helps to open knowledge of oneself and brings about new ideas & ways of being that fit authentically to our unique selves, making it more possible to manifest the change we seek.