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 of it can put fear into the hearts of otherwise courageous folk?
Given that change is an inevitable part of life, it makes sense that each of us figure out how to increase our capacity to rebound or spring back from change and loss, a concept now called resiliency by social science researchers. Although some aspects of resiliency are inborn, other aspects can be learned and practiced.
Just as individuals go through stages of growth and development from infancy to adulthood, so does the family move through the various cycles of life, including sickness, death and other losses. At each stage, and especially in crises, the relationships of each member to others in the family need to adapt and change.
The demands of babies and toddlers are vastly different than when kids reach school age. At first dependent upon adults for their very survival, children seek for more and more independence as they grow and mature. All of our relationships–between child and parent, brother and sister, partner or mate, adult and aging parents–must keep being redesigned to meet rapidly changing circumstances if they are to remain helpful and healthy.
What are the lessons we can learn from change and teach our children throughout their lives?
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? How has the Great Teacher formed you into the person you have become or are becoming…