What do people want? Mostly to be happy. And proud, accomplished, popular, the list goes on. Some people just want to change. Yesterday I talked about resisting change. But what if you weren’t resistant at all? What if you really wanted to change but didn’t know how? What if you want to change so badly but it’s so darn hard and you have no clue where to begin? You have been contemplating change for a long time, maybe years have gone by and you still have this nagging feeling that you should be doing something different with your life or simply conquer a fear?
If you have been reading my blog you know by now that I like to talk about myself. It’s not an egocentric thing. I want everyone to know that being a therapist doesn’t exempt me from human suffering and struggles. May is the one year anniversary of one of the biggest changes I have made in my life in 32 years. And I like honoring anniversaries. This one is HUGE. I was so overcome with fear about making this change that I became paralyzed for years. I had put it off, made excuses about not changing, contemplated it but never thought I could do it, settled for the idea of never trying and even told myself and everybody else a pretty good story titled “I don’t drive”. Yes, you read it right. The change I had been wanting to make but wasn’t able to was to learn how to drive. Before you judge this as an insignificant matter, think of something that has been hard for you to accomplish. Further more try to imagine this. Imagine the fear, challenge and amount of adaptation it would take to move to a foreign country 6000 miles away from everyone and everything you know. Are you imagining? Are you there? Good. Now, multiply it by 100. That was the amount of fear and challenge learning how to drive represented for me. It’s been a year today since I got my driver’s license and I can say the story has changed significantly. The story now goes “I am a new driver”.
Before you go off reminiscing about old times when you learned how to drive, stop! This post isn’t about driving. It’s about how to conquer your fears and make significant changes in your life. My driving is just a story. And I like telling stories. So forgive me if I use it to illustrate the points I’m about to make. This post is about change. Real change. Change that transforms you in such a powerful way, that it sends waves to everyone around you. Change that redefines who you are, what you do, how you do things and what you are capable of. Change you have putting off for a while. There is no better time to change than now.
Believe it or not you have to start with giving up. Whenever you make a change you have to give up something old to make room for something new. This is how the universe works (I believe), constantly seeking balance and equilibrium. If you want to stop drinking or drugging you have to give up something you love or something that has been your friend for a long time. If you want to leave your partner, you have to give them up knowing you may lose them for life. If you want to change your job you have to give up on the feeling of safety and security and on the belief that dreaming big is foolish. If you want to learn how to drive at 31 you have to give up the false security that taking the bus will protect you from human’s common fate: dying. Give up. Whatever it is you’ve been holding on to isn’t working. It’s time to try something new.
Fear of failing
Do you remember failing when you were a kid? What was the reaction of the adults around you? How did your parents respond? How did you feel and what lessons did you learn? If you are like most people, you learned failing isn’t fun. Making mistakes means there is something wrong with us. So we try very hard to avoid failure. And sometimes this leads us to success. But sometimes this leads us to avoid trying anything new. So let me ask you this? Are you not failing already? I had to take 2 buses to get to work. A normally 20 min commute would take me an hour and a half, each way everyday. I did this for 3 years. And every day for 3 years, even in the face of justification and rationalization (“I’m doing something good for the environment”, “I like the bus, I can read” etc etc) there wasn’t a day I didn’t feel like a loser.
We are creatures of habit. We are slaves to habits and rituals. They provide us with a sense of structure, safety, security, control and predictability. We love our habits. They make us who we are. Until they get in the way of who REALLY are. When people asked me how did I do it, taking the bus everyday, I would say “I’m used to it”. Do we even know we’re doing something simply out of habit? Where did we pick up the habit? Why did it stick with us? We are amazing learning machines. Repetition is powerful for human learning. Do something often enough and it will become second nature. But is it really natural? And if you learned it somewhere, shouldn’t you be able to unlearn it? The answer is yes. If we put as much effort into unlearning a habit as we do into stubbornly repeating it, change happens. If you chase recovery with the same passion that you chase drugs, healing happens.
We need the right tools.
During tax season there was this H&R Block commercial where they were trying to demolish a brick building using a giant stuffed bunny. And a bystander says “That’s not gonna work”. Very funny. Brilliant too. You can not succeed in change using the wrong tools. In the mental health and addiction field we have a saying “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” If you want different results you have to employ a different strategy using different tools.
Befriend the change you want to make.
I know it’s scary. I know it’s hard. I know there are obstacles. One way to soothe your fears about something unknown is to familiarize yourself with it. They say you can’t learn to swim unless you go in the water. It turns out you can’t learn to drive from the passenger’s seat. I took 2 driver’s ed classes. The first teacher was OK but she didn’t challenge me. She catered to my fear by rarely taking me into high traffic areas. The second instructor tricked me into getting on the highway the second day. I freaked out completely. I thought I was going to have a panic attack. But he was very calm and confident. And against all odds, I survived. Nothing happened. Actually, something did happen. I became my fear’s friend. Wanting to get to know it better. My instructor taught me the laws of the road, helped me break things down so I could understand them better. When thing makes sense they are not so scary anymore.
The power of mental imagery
This is a little embarrassing but for the first 3 months after I started driving I would lay in bed and imagine my route to work the next morning. Granted a lot of this was fueled by worry and fear and some sort of obsessive thinking so I would caution you not to do this without some professional help. This is what a phobia expert would teach you in therapy. But I think imagining yourself changed, picturing the change, how it looks, how it feels, how it makes you feel, may actually be helpful. And the cool thing is it stays in your brain. No one ever has to know (unless of course you blog about it). Your brain is powerful. Use it.
Going from “I can’t” to “I can”
Our brain is powerful. But it is also a trickster. It is constantly thinking. And some of it’s thoughts are irrational. You can change these thoughts. A professional counselor using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can do this with you. If you want to try this on your own, do it to others first. Notice an irrational thought they have and challenge it. Then try doing it with your own thoughts. Thoughts are not facts. Take them with a grain of salt. You may think you can’t change, but that’s just a thought. It’s not a fact. Going from “can’t” to “can” needs to start in your head.
I apologize for the length of this post and I hope you’re still with me because I’m about to take it one step deeper. Stay with me!
Rewriting your story
Ultimately, change is about rewriting your story. Eric Berne didn’t say much about addiction but one thing he did say stayed with me. He said “Alcoholics need permission from their mothers to stop drinking.” How fascinating! I have found this to be true in my work, especially the need for permission part. The way I see it, everyone needs permission to be successful. Often from their parents but mostly, as adults, we need to give ourselves permission to succeed. Can we give ourselves permission to change the way the story goes? Can we rewrite the way the story ends? I gave myself permission to rewrite my story. My story was “I don’t drive. I can’t drive. I’m too scared to get in an accident and survive but be crippled for the rest of my life. I’m too scared to screw up”. I won’t get into where I learned that. But I will say I had to break it down and challenge it and rewrite it. So now my story goes like this: “I’m a new driver. I’m cautious when I’m on the road but I can drive. I have made silly mistakes since I started but I chose to see the humor in them. Driving has changed my career, my relationships and my beliefs about what I can accomplish.” Next year this story may be slightly different. Because change is a process not an event.
What will your new story say?