What do things like asking loved ones for advice, reading stacks of self-help books, taking classes, searching for a good therapist, or hours of web-searching all have in common? You probably guessed it.
There is something the seeker wishes to change. As a family therapist, I am called on for help with many different types of problems but all with the same goal–making changes to find greater happiness, deeper love, greater success in life, or fewer failures in love or work.
Change is a great teacher, although certainly unpredictable–sometimes harsh, sometimes exciting, often frightening or overwhelming. What makes change so difficult? Why is it so hard to sustain? What is it about change that the very idea can put fear into the hearts of otherwise courageous folk?
The main reason that it can be so frightening to embark on the path of change is because it leads to an unknown destination. As creatures of habit, we get used to the way things are–even when the status quo is no longer very appealing. At least we know the trouble we are getting into. So remember…if you are inspired to make some changes in your family or in other relationships, even change for the better can be stressful and discombobulating.
Another reason that most of us make numerous attempts to change, but then revert to old behaviors, is because the new behaviors don’t always get the desired results fast enough. We live in a culture that likes quick fixes–crash diets, pills for pain, instant messages, everything short and sweet. Most important changes–like confronting dysfunctional patterns of relationship, emotional baggage, or life style habits–take a long time.
And even more off-putting, things often get worse before they get better. As Steinbeck so eloquently observed, progress can look and feel like destruction at the beginning. In a classic example, when parents decide it is time to set more limits, kids often act out even more than before. Similarly, when partners decide to be more assertive with one another about areas of disagreement, bigger conflicts are usually the first sign of change. As any change begins, old habits must die first.
5 Tips to Help You Embrace Change
That being said, change is inevitable. It is also the only way to reach our goals, improve our lives and relationships, and build a better world. How can we summon up the courage to move forward? Here are some helpful ways to approach the process of change:
First, think of change not just as a challenge but also as an opportunity. Have you ever read the timeless children’s classic, The Little Engine That Could? Instead of thinking about how difficult the task ahead was going to be (“I’m never going to be able to climb that steep mountain”), the engine begins chanting to himself, “I think I can, I think I can…” and slowly begins to tackle his feared goal. Cultivate hope and seek out others who will be your cheerleaders.
Second, think of yourself as an active participant in the process of change rather than a victim. Even if you were initially forced into change–like having to get up several times a night with a new baby or being told you have to stop eating sugar for medical reasons–appoint yourself the project manager of the problem you are now facing. How would you like to solve this challenge? What new growth or opportunities might come with it? Those who are proactive are more effective than those who drag their heels.
Third, be realistic about the changes you would like to make. Start small, and focus on easily reachable goals at first. It is far easier to build on small successes than to recover from a bad start. In a research project where participants were trying to shed excess pounds, the group who were instructed to start the new diet with the goal of maintaining their current weight for the first two weeks were able to sustain eventual weight loss better than those who tried to lose weight immediately.
Fourth, anticipate future roadblocks and plan for them. Almost any change that is difficult to undertake will progress slowly. As the adage goes, we move one step forward and three steps back. Count on it. If you don’t prepare for the worst, thinking that you are only being negative or pessimistic, then when you mess up, you will be inclined to judge yourself harshly or to quit. Have a plan for what you will do when you slip back into the negative behavior you are trying to change.
Fifth, design a system of accountability that works for you (remember, you are the project manager). If you are changing a habit, keep a chart or log. For example, if your goal is to stop yelling (or any other concrete behavior), put a rubber band around your wrist each time you yell and keep track on a calendar of how many bracelets you wore each day for at least a month.
If you want to say five positive appreciations to your wife or child each day, use your cell phone to send you reminders. Start your planned change with a buddy, even if you are changing different behaviors, and check in with one another. Kids love to make deals with their parents, so begin an exercise routine or change of eating habits together and put a chart on the refrigerator to record your progress as a family.
Finally, think about whatever changes you are going through or are currently contemplating or fearing, and then remember a difficult change you have already faced successfully. What lessons did you learn? As Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, says so eloquently,”The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”
If your goal is to create a happy family or have more fulfilling relationships, don’t wait for a crisis. Instead, start with small steps, and make tiny changes one day at a time.