As a counselor, I think the question I hear most frequently is, “Why can’t I just change?” In other words, why can’t I just stop drinking or using drugs? Why can’t I stop cheating on my partner? Why can’t I just be more responsible or less self-destructive?
Why can’t I just be the person I want myself to be?
Well, the short answer is you can. The long answer is: You caaaaaan, but it may take some time. Trouble is easy to get into. It is much harder to get out of, and it can take a while to set things right or to find a recovery path that is not only going to work for you but will also provide long-term wellness and success. The key to a successful recovery is quite simple:
Change because YOU want to change, not because somebody else is pressuring you to do so.
Likewise, if you are trying to get a loved one to change, you are likely to end up frustrated. I’ve seen over and over as parents, friends, and partners threaten with ultimatums, shouting, and even incentives for “good” behavior. We can’t change other people. The most we can do is influence them, whether through threats or through more positive means of motivation. When we use threats, behavior may improve for a while, but ultimately the person returns to doing the undesirable thing — or worse, a new undesirable thing — and we end up feeling hurt, angry, and lied to. It may sound like a tired cliché, but the truth is:
REAL change comes from WITHIN.
So, if you know you need to make some changes, but are struggling to do so (or if you are trying to motivate somebody else into safer habits), is there anything you can do?
Start by re-discovering purpose for your life.
This is where it gets tricky. When we are in a dark place, it rarely helps to have somebody else tell us we have purpose, because our spirit is in a place where it cannot receive the message. If it comes from somebody who has also been a critic – whether a parent, friend, or partner – then very often what we hear is a big “but” attached to their kind words. For instance, you mother may tell you, “You can find a new job if you just try” but what you hear is “You lay around every day like a deadbeat.”
You have a better chance at real change if you can summon up the mental energy to motivate yourself, and you CAN guide yourself towards it. Once you can remind yourself of your value (and you DO have value!), you will be more motivated to strive for positive change. Believe it or not, believing within yourself you can accomplish great things carries more weight than having other people say it, and here’s why: When our brain is in its depressive or anxious mode, the positive messages of other people will get filtered and distorted into negative messaging. (Remember the big “but”?)
Try playing the “Prove It” game. Challenge yourself to disprove your unhealthy thoughts. I recommend doing this on paper so you can go back later if you are feeling low and remind yourself why those negative thoughts are not facts. Make two columns and in the left column write the negative though, then use the right column to write your counterattack. Be sure to use a re-framing statement at the end. It might look something like this:
|I’m a complete failure.||What is my proof that I’m a complete failure?|
|I’ve been in jail three times||I’m not in jail now, which means even our correctional system feels I can change my life.|
|I lost a great job.||I did lose a great job, but I’ve found a new job. It’s maybe not as good and doesn’t pay as well, but I know I am still employable, which means I can find a better job in time.|
|I’ve been using drugs half my life.
|I am are 90 days sober, which means I can make tomorrow 91 days sober.|
|I am NOT a complete failure. I DO feel I’ve let myself down. I set high expectations for myself and I have fallen far short of them. It is time to set new goals and begin taking baby steps towards achieving them.|
Do you see how that works? Now there is something to build on — setting new, achievable goals. Don’t expect it to work like magic every time. Depression lies to us and tells us life can never get better … that WE can never get better. If you are in such a state, try doing this exercise with a trusted friend and see which counterattacks you are able and willing to accept. Then, try the exercise again then next day, and the next until you have countered all of your negative statements with a healthier, more motivating thought. Be gentle and patient with yourself, and if you are still struggling, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Sometimes it can be very useful to have an objective person – one who doesn’t know all our “dirt” – share their observations with us.