Years ago, at the end of my last visit with my therapist at the time, she turned to me and said, “Susan, you have a great capacity to change.”
Then she gave me a hug and sent me on my way.
At the time, I thought: Is that it? Is that all she has to say at the end of a five-year relationship? Of course, later I came to realize that her comment was the highest compliment she could have paid me.
After all, the ability to change is something many people only dream about. It is a commodity often in short supply, and without it, life can be anything from boring to tragic.
Soon after this, I began reflecting on the origins of my ability to change. I have not always had this ability—perhaps this is why my therapist felt it was important to acknowledge it. Actually, for most of my life, I had been a slave to habit to the point of being addicted to relationships, food, and alcohol. Some people thought I was hopeless. Then, one day, something shifted inside of me, and I entered the world of the living.
I began to change. I began to carve out a better life for myself.
How did I go from resisting change to embracing it? In a nutshell, I finally realized that if I didn’t change, I’d continue being miserable for the rest of my life. Once I decided I wanted to be happy instead of miserable—a big step for me—I looked at what was standing in my way and what I could do about it.
I looked at the rewards of changing, and I faced my fears. I prayed, and I acted. Before I knew it, changing became a new habit to replace my old habit of resisting change. I have been on a roll ever since, and these days, change is my most cherished companion on this journey we call life.
Despite the importance of change, it is not always easy. There are countless stumbling blocks. Understanding these stumbling blocks is the first step in breaking them down and moving them out of the way.
Denial and Defense Mechanisms:
Many times, we can’t change, because we are in denial that there is anything about us that needs to be changed. Denial is usually a defense mechanism, which can be defined as anything we think, say, or do to manage the feelings we want to avoid. Sometimes, even our feelings are defense mechanisms against other feelings. For instance, I get angry, in order to avoid fear and I blame others for my problems to keep the fear at bay.
Breaking through denial happens when we are ready. Sometimes quietly, and sometimes in the middle of great chaos, we have a moment of clarity. Then we remember something that someone told us years before, but we were too afraid to acknowledge. This moment can occur when we wake up one random morning. Sadly, for some of us, this moment occurs in a more traumatic way, like when a judge issues a harsh sentence. But either way, when this moment comes, we open our eyes and acknowledge the truth about our situation.
We do not know if perfectionists are born or made. I know I have always been driven by some inner compulsion to do things over and over again until I get them “just right.” Something deep within me gets great satisfaction from this. On the other hand, I remember my mother saying, “If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.” Perhaps trying to please her is also a part of my perfectionism. Whether perfectionism is good or bad, I do know it can be a stumbling block to change if we can’t move forward because we are afraid of making mistakes.
If we struggle with perfectionism, it’s important to treat ourselves as we would a child who is eager to present us with her first drawing. Would we point out the flaws or praise her for the precious gift she has shared? Our efforts to change are just as precious and worthy of praise.
Fear is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to change because most of us are afraid of the unknown. Fear usually manifests itself as something else, like ambivalence or denial. Fear also sends us all kinds of negative messages like, “What if things get worse instead of better?” Or, “What if I fail?” Or, “What if I succeed and I can’t handle the responsibilities?”
To deal with our fear, we must make a decision and then take steps to move forward. Even if it is the wrong decision, it is better than doing nothing. Moving forward by trial and error is a legitimate way to change. There are several helpful expressions that I remind myself of when I notice fear creeping up: “Feel the fear, and do it anyway,” “Act as if,” and “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
We often bond with our bad habits. It’s hard to let go of the intimacy we create with the person we have always been. When it is time to change, we must grieve the loss of who we were yesterday. Many of us cannot bear any form of loss and the grief that goes with it. It is much easier to just remain the same and never change.
Grieve if you have to, but recognize when it’s time to move on.
Depression, shame, low self-esteem, and other emotional issues can act like a wet blanket smothering the desire to change. They make us tired and apathetic. They zap us of the enthusiasm and energy we need to change. All of these issues can be treated with therapy and support groups. I recommend both.
Nothing stands in the way of change as much as addiction. Addiction is all about holding on to mood-altering experiences and dangerous rituals at the expense of change, even when the changes are necessary to save our lives. If we hope to change, we must treat our addictions.
Whatever stumbling blocks stand between you and change, tackle them one by one. And remember this: “Change is to human life what the metamorphosis is to the caterpillar. It is the inevitable cycle of life. If there is not change, there is no life.”
Here are some more tips to help move us closer to change:
Recognize when you do something you don’t want to do. Dwell on this for as long as you need to—continued awareness is the beginning of change.
Then, break down the changes you want to make into manageable pieces. You can make a list if you want.
>> Identify and make a list of alternative behaviors.
>> Substitute a good habit for a bad one.
>> Give yourself encouragement. Use affirmations.
>> Seek advice and help from others.
>> Join a support group.
>> Make a commitment to a friend or group; verbalization can really help.
>> Disassociate from people who continue to tear you down instead of supporting you.
>> Find role models who exhibit the changes you want to make and observe them for as long as you need to.
>> Remember: action leads to motivation leads to more action.
>> Don’t forget that changing is a process. It takes time; be patient.
>> Work past negative attitudes that inhibit change. The glass is half full not half empty.
>> Visualize the results; become goal-oriented.
>> Work on building your self-esteem.
>> If you are a spiritual or religious person and believe in grace, divine intervention, or the power of prayer, then by all means, pray for the energy and willingness to take action.
Don’t give up, even if change is slow in coming. If you continue to incorporate these techniques into your life, they will help you changes
Author: Susan Peabody
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Leah Sugerman