Three Steps to Creating Positive and Permanent Change
The one question I hear more than any other from my clients is, “is it possible to change”? I hear this question in every area of concern from communication habits to addictive behaviors to ways of relating to each other in relationships. Again and again I hear, “Well maybe this is just how I am, how can I change now?” Or, “I’ve always done things this way; this is the only way I know.”
Of course the answer is yes, anyone can change no matter how old they are or how long they’ve been responding in a certain way. Creating change takes awareness of other ways of handling a situation, many people learned a way to respond to situation from their family or community and have no idea there are other responses available to them.
Step one in creating change:
Understand that there are other ways of responding or being
The truth is that a successful person changes their habits to meet their goals; an unsuccessful person changes their goals to meet their habits. This is a profound idea and very true. A person who is addicted to say cigarettes may go so far as to give up a healthy relationship and settle for a less healthy one if the latter allows them to continue their habit. This sounds crazy but it happens every day.
I personally have always been capable of great change when I felt it was needed to meet my goals. I can remember an event from my early childhood that demonstrated my will and ability to create change in my life when it was needed to achieve my goals. I was 6 years old and deathly afraid of the dark. I was so afraid that I often had trouble sleeping and would cry myself to sleep. I imagined all kinds of monsters and killers coming from closets and out from under the bed. I hated sleep and the dark of my room. I can remember being fed up with this, I knew that others did not suffer from this debilitating fear and I wanted to change.
Step 2 in creating change:
Have a desire to change
After awareness of the problem, creating change means having a desire to change. Seems basic, but sometimes we really don’t want to give up old habits or behaviors even when they are holding us back. You may be sick of an outcome as I was sick and tired of being afraid. For you it could be any sort of outcome like getting into the same kinds of unhealthy relationships or having the same fight with your partner again and again. I think we’ve all said, “Why does this keep happening to me?” The reason is that every time life presents a certain scenario to you, you respond in the same way… the only way you know how. But now that you are aware of other options you have the ability and the responsibility to choose a different response that may offer a different outcome.
The summer of that year my family and I were visiting my paternal grandmother’s home for the week. I can remember being in her extra bathroom washing my hands for dinner. I looked around this tiny room; it was probably only 5’x3’, only big enough to fit the toilet and a mini sink. One could only use it and without moving their feet stand up and wash their hands. Even to tiny 6 year old me it felt cramped. I made a decision to come back to this room the following day when my parents were busy in the back yard with family; I made a secret plan to conquer my fear.
The following day I entered that little room, locked the door, sat on the closed toilet, and turned off the light. To this day I can remember the images that came towards me in that darkened room. I can remember a wolf reaching for my neck and an alien descending from the ceiling. The most important thing was, I also knew I was safe. I was alone, there was no way into this little room, and all of these images were only in my head. I intuitively used exposure therapy to conquer my fear of the dark. I was never again afraid, I had learned from experience these fears were only in my mind and harmless. I slept through the night that night and every night after.
Step 3 in creating change:
Try a something different and see if you get a better result
The final step in creating change of course is choosing to try a different behavior or response and seeing if the outcome changes in a way that is positive for you. In this story I tried something new, I tried facing my fears to see if it would it change my life for the better. And it did.
Until earlier this year I thought this was the end of this story. I thought it was a fun little anecdote from my childhood that I could use to illustrate the three steps of change. But sadly the story did not end here.
Many of my readers know that my father was an alcoholic that affected my life in both positive and negative ways. He was a hardworking, fun, and often a kind and generous man that was unable to confront many of the demons in his life. He was unable to change his behavior of using large amounts of alcohol to numb his feelings. He was not willing to do the work to cope with PTSD from the Vietnam War or from his abusive father. He was wounded and angry and rather than embark on the hard work it would take to heal and change, he numbed his pain with alcohol. This choice not to change lost him is marriage, his best job, and real relationships with the people he valued and loved most. This is often the cost of unwillingness to change our behaviors when they are creating painful negative outcomes.
In January, after years of emotional pain and now physical illness due to his life of drinking, my father shot himself in the head, his mind, and the real source of all of his pain. Just as my mind had been the source of all of my fears, his mind was the source of his torment. He was unable to change his mind, his way of relating to his trauma or his ability to cope in new and more healthful ways. And in the face of not being able to change his habits and ways of dealing with pain he chose death.
You may be wondering what this horrible event has to do with a little girl facing her fears in a spare bathroom. The room my father ended his life in was that same tiny bathroom that I learned of my power to effect change in my life. The very room that gave me the confidence to know that I was able to create the change I needed to achieve all of my goals was the same small space that he gave up on his ability to ever change.
After his death when the cleaning crew left I stood in that room and thanked the universe for the strength I had gained from this room. I fully understood the power of what I was being told about change, the message could not have been louder to me. In life when something is not working, we must change the way we relate to it. We must try something new, end a habit that is no longer serving us and ask for help when we’re at a loss. We must confront change, move forward towards our goals and be assured that even for the most stubborn among us; change is real and always possible.