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.

 

 

 

Validate me, please!

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Photo by LBoatwright

Have you ever had your parking validated? Basically, in a place where you’d have to pay for parking – such as a shopping center – if you purchase a product or service therein, that store will sometimes offer to validate your parking. They stamp your parking ticket, and as you exit the garage, you no longer have to pay. In essence, you’re one of us now, so we share with you our benefit of free parking. Parking validation is a wonderful thing! On the flip side, losing your parking ticket or not having it validated can be stressful and costly.

It’s an amazingly accurate metaphor for real life. Personal validation is also a wonderful thing, the sense of belonging. It takes countless forms: people shake hands, or hold hands, hug, have meaningful conversations, get praise, get promotions – even something as seemingly insignificant as a quick “thank you” from a store clerk is a tiny affirmation: you belong.

When we are hurting, our emotional eyesight can easily become impaired. Rejection and failure are real, and they are survivable, but if our self-worth is already damaged, if we struggle with depression and negativity, setbacks such as these not only feel insurmountable – they can seem like an overwhelming condemnation of our entire person. We may be able to see the validation in the lives of others, but can no longer perceive it in our own. Losing our emotional parking ticket can leave us feeling as if we don’t even belong in our own lives. It’s a horrible place to be, and a difficult one to pull yourself out of, but it can be done.

Start by determining the source of most of your personal validation. For some, it comes from within – from their faith in a Higher Power, or from a positive self-image. For those with depressive disorders, validation is frequently sought from outside sources. We desperately want the people around us to say and do kind things which cancel out the critics in our life and in our brain.

The problem with the external approach is, although we may find somebody who validates us at first, at some point they will have a bad day or become critical. When we build our self-image on the opinions of others, that first unkind word – even if it was unintentional – can completely erase all of the previous positives in their entirety, leaving us desperate again to silence the inner critic. We begin to doubt the other person ever meant any of the nice things they said. If criticism is frequent — if a family member, friend, partner, or employer is constantly pointing out our flaws — over time we allow these to criticisms to become our truths.

Try to consider the opinions of others, whether good or bad, as “free parking” – a ticket which can be easily lost, but not a show-stopper. Remember, nobody has ever had to live in a parking garage because they lost their ticket. Likewise, you don’t have to remain lost in your own life because you’ve lost the validation of somebody else.

Spend time each day strengthening your internal validation. I mean, really give it a workout! Begin making a list of accomplishments and go back as far as you can remember. Any “A” on a school assignment, any raises or promotions, even any “thank you’s” – nothing is too small. You may be tempted to self-edit by sorting your accomplishments into buckets of “that didn’t really matter” or “it’s stupid to consider that an accomplishment.” DON’T! If you find yourself editing, recognize your brain has become wired to filter out the positives. Remind yourself the only way to fix your filter is to count every positive, no matter how small it may seem.

You can heal your brain, and you can learn to filter out unwarranted criticisms. You can get to a place in your life where, when somebody says something hurtful, you can recognize it as just a thing which was said and not a guilty verdict about who you are. It takes a lot of practice, and for many it will mean making conscious decisions throughout the day to filter out messaging which tears you down.

For every criticism you hear – whether internally or externally – remind yourself of three of your accomplishments or positive characteristics. Over time, this positive three-point counter-punch will become a habit. Your new way of thinking will allow you to be content within yourself, and to never again lose your sense of belonging.

 

 

 

Never for Nothing

This week I had a client tell me the people he used to get high with are harassing him, he’s having trouble finding work, and his relationships are falling apart.  He said, “I feel like I’m doing all this for nothing.”  Don’t we all feel like that sometimes?  No matter what goal we are working towards – saving a relationship, finding a job, losing weight – the journey can be two steps up and one step back for so long that we lose sight not only of our progress, but our purpose.

If we are honest with ourselves, it has taken us months, or even years to dig the hole we are in.  Just because today we decided to lose weight or get clean or be a better whatever, the hole will not magically fill itself in and gently ease us out.  In fact, the opposite is usually true – we are going to face resistance – from other people who aren’t ready to leave their holes, from those who don’t want to see us succeed (sadly), and from our own self-sabotaging brains.

I love watching old episodes of Dragnet, and admire the way Joe Friday handles resistance from people who complain about the police – he invites them to join the force.  When you make a decision to better yourself, you become the force.  You become a source of light, maybe weak at first but becoming stronger with each positive step you take.  Ever see a bunch of people coming out of a movie theater, shielding their eyes from the sun?  When you become the light, you may unintentionally expose the darkness in other’s lives, and they may not be ready to see it.  In most cases, this is where resistance comes from.

Resistance is never a reason to give up.

Stay focused on your progress and purpose.  Hang motivational signs and sayings where you can be reminded why you’ve chosen your goal.  It may feel as if you are only moving forward one inch at a time, but one inch at a time will still get you there.  A lifestyle change begins as a series of conscious choices, but these choices eventually become habits and will come naturally.  Let that one inch become two, then six, then a foot, then a yard, and so on.  Don’t dwell on your setbacks.  Just analyze them long enough to determine where the mistake was and how you might avoid it in the future.  Count each setback as a member of the resistance, and don’t allow them to convince you your efforts have all been for nothing.

It is NEVER for nothing, because YOU are not nothing.

Try taking a tip from the Borg (Star Trek).  Granted, they are an emotionless race and we are emotional beings, but they have an admirable singular-purpose mindset.  When you are working toward your life goals, stay on track.  If you go astray, shake the dirt off and get back on track as quickly as possible.  Be Borg-like and tell yourself,

Resistance may be brutal, but it is futile, because I WILL SUCCEED.

It is futile because you have a singular-purpose mindset.  Just keep going.  When you feel like you don’t want to do it for you, do it for the others who want to come out of their holes but don’t know where to begin.  Regardless of whether you have anybody supporting you in your own battle today, someday you may have the opportunity to join somebody else’s force and give them a hand up out of their hole.