Why can’t you just change??

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Photo by Lachlan Donald on Unsplash

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.
RE-FRAMING STATEMENT
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.

 

 

 

Forgiveness vs. Second Chances

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Photo by Zach Reiner on Unsplash

Have you ever known somebody who said something like, “If you really forgive me, you’ll give me another chance”?  It’s such a powerful challenge. It simultaneously manipulates us while evoking guilt and self-doubt. For nearly my entire life, I was led to believe forgiveness meant giving second chances – and third, fourth, then infinite chances. I believed if I wrote somebody out of my life or burned bridges, it wasn’t because the other person was toxic, but because I was faulty.  Have you ever felt like you were a bad person simply because you wanted to protect your self-worth from a bad relationship?

Lately, I’ve come to understand the difference between forgiveness and second chances.  I’ve also learned failing to understand the difference often leads us to make decisions which not only have a lifelong impact, but can worsen or even cause chronic depression and anxiety.  In short, the difference is this:

Forgiveness is about us.  Second chances are about the other person.

Time may heal all wounds, but forgiveness keeps them from festering.  Have you ever heard the saying depression is anger turned inwardWe forgive others and ourselves because it frees US.  It allows us to remember whatever took place as an event and not a reflection of ourselves.  In other words, we don’t have to allow a mistake or another person’s behavior to define who we are.  Instead, we can learn from it, and even appreciate it as a valuable life lesson, then move on.

The movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman teaches some powerful lessons about forgiveness, but I especially loved this idea (paraphrased):  You know you’ve forgiven somebody when the opportunity to hurt them in some way becomes available … but you don’t take it.  Be careful here.  If you are experiencing depression and anxiety because somebody else is continuing with a behavior which you have told them is hurtful to you, you may not actually be forgiving them, but rather feeling guilt about your anger towards them.  We can unwittingly end up in a cycle of you said you were sorry, I said I forgive you, then you went and did the same thing again, unsure of how to get off the roller-coaster.

In reality, allowing somebody to hurt us again and again, whether it is a partner who cheats on us, or a boss who constantly belittles us, is not forgiveness and it’s not second chances — it is low self-worth.  When we don’t learn to love and respect ourselves, we frequently find ourselves in relationships with others who also do not love or respect us.  Some people just have a knack for tapping into our already-damaged self-image, and our brain’s filter translates the message for us:

This person said horrible things to me, so I must be a horrible person, which means I deserve for people to say horrible things to me.

Somehow our brain manages to completely disregard the fact the other person has lied to us, or humiliated us, or made us feel “less than”.  Because of faulty filtering, we stay in relationships with people who berate or bully us.  We stay in jobs with bosses who make us feel worthless.  The danger is not only in believing how others make us feel about ourselves is true, but in believing we have to let it continue because we have mistaken forgiveness for second chances.

Forgiving somebody doesn’t mean you have to allow them to keep hurting you, and only you can decide when “enough is enough”.  When you do reach that point, try not to allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into basically rewarding bad behavior.  I know … It is never as easy as just walking away.  We may be in a committed relationship, unable to change jobs, or have especially difficult parents.  In these types of situations, we have to accept we cannot change other people, but we CAN strengthen the part of our brain which absorbs those negative thoughts and feelings, and teach it to filter those messages out as garbage.  This takes time and practice, but IT CAN BE DONE!

Give this a try next time somebody hurts you. Get your notebook or journal and make two columns.  In one column, list the negative thoughts and feelings you are having about yourself.  In the second column, challenge each of these thoughts.  When our anxiety or depression is bad, it can be very difficult to find something good to say about ourselves, but keep trying.  Your challenging statements don’t have to be anything grand.  They can be as simple as, “I’m not stupid. I might have made a mistake when typing up that report, but now I know what to look for next time.”  Over time, your self-worth will strengthen to a point where those incoming hurtful messages can be processed realistically, allowing you to make changes where necessary, but also allowing you to avoid owning those faulty accusations.

Eruptors and Internalizers

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Photo by LBoatwright

Depression is frequently described as anger turned inward.  The opposite can also be true; anger is often depression turned outward.  We express anger in any number of ways, but when we don’t know how to handle our anger in a healthy, productive manner, we risk over-expressing or under-expressing ourselves, never really bringing issues which matter to light.  In both cases, there is an effort being made – whether consciously or not – to avoid dealing with something

We’ve probably all encountered somebody who is seemingly angry all the time.  They appear to erupt at the slightest thing, and we walk on eggshells in order to avoid a blast.  We may even attempt to help them get to the root of the problem.  As they swear and slam things we ask, “What are you angry about? Let’s talk about it.”  We receive a puzzling response as the angry person angrily yells, “I’M NOT ANGRY!”  Alrighty, then.

At the other end of the spectrum is the person who swallows their anger in an attempt to deny it.  Their behavior is more subtle as they wage a sort of passive-aggressive battle of neglecting little chores or errands, arguing with the target of their “non-anger” in their head, and/or frequently feeling unwell.  The truth is, they probably do feel unwell – repression is a known contributor to headaches, nausea, anxiety, and other maladies.  The truth is also this; this person is also angrily yelling “I’M NOT ANGRY!”…just not out loud.

People become eruptors or internalizers because of a perceived lack of control.  The eruptor regains control by instilling fear in others, thus enabling them to avoid – essentially — everything they want to avoid.  The internalizer regains control through omission, thinking, “You’ll get a little taste of what it would be like without me, then you’ll be sorry.”  Unfortunately, the other person is rarely sorry and even more rarely notices the internalizer is unhappy.

Anger isolates, whether it is us avoiding a volatile person or a person quietly isolating themselves to avoid becoming a volatile person.  Sadly, neither of these people has actually regained control.  They haven’t empowered themselves, but rather simply found a way to retreat to their corner without losing face.  The underlying issues are still out there, still not dealt with, and on top of them are daily fresh layers of anger and avoidance, wedging more divide in relationships and more despair to the psyche.

Some anger is healthy and warranted, but all too frequently it becomes a conditioned response for those who aren’t sure how to process or express certain emotions.  Anger provides the illusion of a “quick fix” much like drugs to an addict.  It abruptly ends an unwanted or uncomfortable conversation or situation, but wounds everyone in its path.

Angry YOU

Are you an eruptor?  An internalizer?  If so, you can learn healthier ways of dealing with your anger.  First, try tracking your angry feelings for a few weeks.  Rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “I totally flipped out!”  For each, write down the event which made you feel angry.  Next, begin listing healthier ways you could have dealt with each situation and begin putting these into practice.  For instance, many people need to unwind when they get home from work, which means this is a less-than-ideal time for serious conversations.  If someone approaches you as soon as you walk in the door, politely tell the other person, “This sounds important — give me an hour to decompress from work so I can give you my full attention.”  Then do it.  Be very present in that conversation in order to build trust and prove the value of grabbing a little downtime for yourself.  There is always a chance the other person won’t cooperate with this request, but the point is to monitor your own anger responses so that even when you are pressed, you can still conduct your side of the conversation in a productive manner.

Angry OTHERS

Living with an eruptor or internalizer can be difficult because anger frequently masks their real feelings, making honest communication difficult.  It is fruitless to try and change someone else’s behavior, particularly if they don’t actually want to change it.  Instead, you may have to change the way you process their behavior and try out different ways of communicating until you find ones which work.

Some people are not comfortable talking or even thinking about their feelings.  If you are committed to a relationship with such a person, it may be helpful to process for yourself which issues actually require their input.  For instance, if you are wanting to talk about your own feelings, you should be prepared for a bumpy ride – especially if the gist of the conversation is “you made me feel like this”.  When a person doesn’t understand their own feelings, they are equally unlikely to understand yours or how their actions played a role in the way you feel.  Your angry person may never be a great communicator, but you CAN be.  Learn to process your own anger in healthy ways to reduce your own stress levels, improve your physical health, and restore a little peace to the environment.