Is change possible for me? How much change can I realistically expect ? How can I change, particularly if lack of time or money is limiting what I have access to ? Can I do it on my own, or do I need professional help ? Is there hope for me ?
These are the questions I grappled with at the beginning of my recovery. I believe most of us do – wether we call it recovery from an addiction, from anxiety, from depression, from a traumatic past, from complex post traumatic disorder, or sexual violence (sometimes an unfortunate combination of all of the above).
In hindsight, I did change a lot, and I’m still changing. Some traits I believed were innate, like introversion, disappeared. Some traits, like assertiveness, emerged from the depths, together with this previously unknown feeling, anger. My self esteem shot up. Thanks to my new found self esteem and anger, relatively solid boundaries appeared.
Explaining how I changed, though, is a tough challenge. And some problematic aspects did not move at all. Why? I don’t know.
So I recruited help, as usual, this time in the form of a podcast : Why don’t we get better ? by Forrest & Rick Hanson. This podcast seems to be a very promising source of insights and reflexion by the way, so I subscribed. It may well be a nice addition to my very short list of useful podcasts. I’ll keep you posted.
But back to our topic of change: as a very experienced therapist and author, Rick Hanson’s thoughts are much richer and more structured than mine. However, I was glad to see I agree with a lot of what both father and son (isn’t that sweet ?) say here.
How much change is really possible for me?
Forrest and Rick Hanson think some of our character traits are woven into our DNA and that it would take a lot of effort to change them. But it is only a part of who we are, something like 30% of our personality, so it leaves a lot of room to change.
I’m not sure about the DNA thing, to be honest. I think for us survivors of trauma, a lot of what we think is our personality is in fact a consequence of our traumatic past. Forrest Hanson gives the example of him being a non aggressive guy, and that nothing changed on that front. I experienced the contrary. Admittedly, being into investment banking helped a lot on the assertiveness front. But revisiting my past did a lot more for my capacity of expressing aggressiveness when required (and yes, sometimes it is required if only for self preservation).
Anyway, the overall message here is that much more positive change is possible than what we usually envisage. I lived it, and so did Dr Hanson. He also saw it with many people in his practice. We can change dramatically, even aspects of our internal experience we think are part of us. We can really aim for great improvements. There is hope.
Now here come the caveats…
Nothing changes until we really want it to change
Sometimes, we believe we want to change, but deep down we really don’t. If I take an example from my own life, for years I thought I wanted to stop smoking, but I simply could not manage to do it. The truth is, the day I really wanted to stop, I did. But I did stop when the drawbacks of smoking were really more obvious to me than benefits. Before then, I wanted to want to stop. I knew intellectually it was not a good idea and I felt social pressure. But the real willingness was not here.
And that’s ok. Sometimes, we don’t want to change. People around us don’t want to change even though we believe they should. It can be for very good reasons. External pressure does not improve the situation. The willingness to change has to come from the inside. Sometimes, we have to wait a long time for us to be ready, even if the status quo is very painful. I kind of agree with Dr Hanson here : it is one of our basic freedom and we have to respect it.
What changes is not necessarily what we wanted to change (and still our life gets better)
For years I went to bed with very long to do lists about what I should do, think and be. I wanted to appear confident, to be outgoing and fun, to be competent and to impress the world with my intelligence. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to change because I wanted to impress people.
What happened instead is that I stopped being preoccupied by what other people thought. I completely changed the way I see myself instead. In fact, the day I really started to change was when I realized I could not go on living with my abysmal level of self esteem any longer.
In the podcast, these guys talk about a question from Gabor Mate that really struck a chord. He asked “were you called, or were you driven ?”. And like the Hanson’s, I though Dr Mate said it absolutely right (as usual). Being driven, with its load of shame, shoulds, image management, does not lead us very far in terms of well being. A call has a different feel to it. It does not need to be about saving the world, but it is us really wanting something, deep down. If I take my example of smoking, I stopped when I realized it was standing in the way of me falling pregnant. And I really, deeply wanted a child.
How can I change, then ? Especially when I tried and failed?
Rick Hanson’s advice is sound, so let’s summarise it. In order to really change something, we have to go in four directions : define what we want to change precisely, apply some effort and time, be persistent, and go for depth.
Defining what we want to change, improve or achieve
This one may seem easy, but it can take a long time to detect that something is wrong, and understand what it is. If our goal is to lose weight or build cooking skills, all we have to do in this step is roughly define to what level we want to go. Do I want to cook better, so that my son does not end up eating at the neighbours every evening (this one actually happened to me !), or do I want to make a living with it, or even be a renowned chef ? The amount of effort will obviously not be the same.
Sometimes, though, the issue is « I feel horrible and I want it to stop ». It is a perfectly honorable goal, and to tell the truth it was mine. But it is so broad it’s almost impossible to define a healing path, at least on our own. That’s where professional help comes in handy, and if not available, skills in the form of podcasts or books. With the help of my therapist, I was able to see that the most obvious objective was to feel better about myself – even if the were plenty of other problems, that I addressed later.
Really getting what needs to change is essential. For me, when I have understood what needs to change it is already half solved. Framing the issue right is the difficulty. « I want my relationships to be more intimate » did nothing for me for example. What really started the change process was « I need to build a capacity for connexion and intimacy ». The problem was not that by lack of luck I was picking people who did not know how to be intimate. It was that I chose these people, and they chose me, because we shared a common fear of intimacy.
Applying effort and time
We all want problems to go away quickly and with no effort at all. A lot of us translate this into a salvation fantasy: one day, someone will come and make everything all right. It is perfectly normal, and it perfectly does not work. Trust me, I’ve been there : that’s on us. Without our time and effort, nothing will change.
We can spend years resisting this painful truth, and resenting the work we have to do because of other peoples’ terrible behaviour. I did. But it’s like being hit by a car driven by a drunk driver: it is totally the driver ‘s fault. But we are the ones who have to go through surgeries, physical therapy and medication, because we are the ones who need healing.
When we learn a new language, it is far more efficient to do a bit of learning everyday, to repeat things, and to keep at it. If you go and live in a country without speaking its langage, it will be a daily, continuous effort for a few months at best. If you learn from your own country it will be even longer. But what never happens is instant learning. It takes persistence (I remember a young lady telling me one day « Oh you speak several languages, you are so lucky ! ». I was stunned. What does it have to do with luck ?)
Well, it is the same thing for any type of change. We need persistence to learn to live life differently. If we suffered from violence, especially when we were young, it will be a lifetime of change. We don’t need a lifetime to feel better, but once we get the ball rolling, it actually never stops.
Going for depth when the change is about ourselves (and not our cooking…)
Like onions, problems have layers. We can obsess for hours or days about things someone said and did (or didn’t say or do). That’s the outer layer. If we stay here, we will not be able to change much. A deeper level could be that this person does not love or respect us. The potential for change is already improving. Then we may realise that all our relationships look like this, and we are attracted to people who don’t treat us well. Now we’re talking. And with time and persistence, we may realise we are in fact reenacting something from our past and we need to heal from it. Once we are here, it means major changes. Then we may be able to have stable, loving relationships, but we realize that we lack the skills to be really intimate emotionally.
This process is what I went through for relationships. It did take several years of effort, persistence, and redefining the issue regularly to go to the next layer. It’s a bit like a descending spiral: we revisit issues regularly, but not at the same level. Each time we acquire more depth, and each time change takes place. And as I said, there may be more, the story goes on.
When nothing works
It can be that we really want something, but do not succeed in changing. We cannot find the time or motivation to do something we said we wanted to do. We are caught up in other things. Or we spend time and effort, but these efforts are inefficient.
As the Hansons are highlighting, what we need to do then is to look for benefits of not changing, if possible while avoiding blame or shame. We may have unconscious, but powerful reasons standing in the way. Sometimes, when unearthing them we realise they are perfectly reasonable.
To illustrate this here is another example from my own life: I used to admire girls and women who spent time on their appearance and looked stunning. I wanted to look good as well but all my (not consistent) efforts were falling flat.
I know now a part of me was terrified to look really good, and felt much safer if I did not attract male attention – or any attention at all for that matter. Given my traumatic past, it makes sense. I made sense. It’s sad, but it was really not useful to beat myself up about this or try to override my fear. Better work on the fear, or if the consequences are not heartbreaking, give up on the change (I actually did a bit of both).
We are still in January, a time for our traditional resolutions. Findings vary, but most state a percentage under 50% of success for these resolutions. I bet my pile of self help books most failures are due to unconscious benefits of not changing. If you are stuck, it is worth considering this issue about hidden benefits of not changing (and guess what ? spending time and effort on them. Persistently. With depth.)