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The Art of Changing
I can’t say it enough: Change is a process. First, you identify what needs to be changed. Then you think about it a lot until you crave the willingness to change. When the willingness comes, you decide what has to be changed first. Then, like most of us, you will probably keep doing the same thing anyway. But now, you are fully aware (sometimes for the first time) of what you’re doing after you’ve done it. Then you are fully aware of what you’re doing as you are doing it. Then you are fully aware of what you’re about to do before you do it. Then, one magic day when you’re about to do something you don’t want to, somewhere, deep inside of you, you find the courage not to do it. This is it. You have changed your behavior, and in so doing, changed yourself, and the rest of your life from this moment on. Congratulations!
Until I was thirty-two years old, I was always unhappy, but I didn’t want to admit that I needed to change. I wanted the world to change, not me.
Eventually, after years of being addicted to relationships, food, and alcohol, I had a nervous breakdown and had to take a good hard look at myself. At the time, I was suicidal, but something deep within me struggled to survive. I think it was the part of me that had not yet been born and wanted a chance to live if only I could change.
When I was finally able to admit that I was the problem, not other people, I got stuck there for a while and just wallowed in self-pity. Fortunately, I had some wonderful people in my life who helped me understand that if I was the problem then I was also the solution. This was good news, because I had the power to change myself, whereas I couldn’t change other people.
Eventually, at the suggestion of a friend, I sat down and took stock of the things about myself that were getting in my way. I discovered a lot about myself by doing this task. I found out that at one time or another I was capable of being selfish, angry, dishonest, gluttonous, afraid, resentful, envious, vengeful, intolerant, codependent, mean, lazy, impatient, controlling, demanding, judgmental, blaming, and quick to attack people who disagreed with me.
When the truth was out, I immediately got depressed. But I did not give up. I wish I could explain why. I just know that some mysterious force from deep within pushed up from my unconscious and provided me with the willingness to at least dream about overcoming these problems. As Jim Manley puts it in his hymn “Spirit,” “from the bondage of sorrow, the captives dream dreams.”
When I was ready to change, the first action I took was to select one single thing from the list of things that I wanted to change about myself. Then I made a commitment to overcome this problem. What I chose to change was my bad temper.
I began by breaking down this huge problem into manageable pieces. I chose one manifestation of my temper and decided to work on that first. What I chose was my habit of yelling at my son. I chose this because at a therapy session with my son, the therapist said to him, “If you could change one thing about your mother, what would it be?” My son replied, “I’d like her to stop yelling at me when she gets upset.”
To begin trying to change this bad habit, I spent the next few weeks thinking a lot about yelling. I asked myself why I yelled. The answer was that I was frustrated when my son didn’t do what I asked him to do, and this was the only way I could get his attention Then I asked myself what other choices I had. I came up with a plan that I called “calm persistence.”
The day after committing to this plan, I screamed at my son. Afterward I was overwhelmed with a sense of how easy it was to do something that I had told myself I wouldn’t do. However, I didn’t give up. I kept trying, and after each failure I spent some time thinking about how the incident had gotten started and how it had escalated.
A few weeks into this great adventure of trying to change, I asked my son to do the dishes when he came home from school. I got home from work expecting a clean kitchen. When I saw the dirty dishes piled up everywhere, I turned red with anger. I was ready to pounce on my son. Fortunately, he wasn’t home so I had some time to think about the commitment I had made to calm persistence.
When my son came home, I began talking to him calmly. When he started getting defensive and making excuses, I suddenly found myself yelling at him again. However, this time, instead of feeling as if I was in some kind of trance with no control over the situation, I found myself observing myself as I was yelling. I also felt, for the first time, that I had a choice. I knew I could stop if I wanted to. I used this new sense control to change my behavior. I stopped yelling at my son in midscream and walked out of the room.
Later, despite my small victory, I still felt as if I had failed to reach my goal and I started crying about it. The sobs continued for quite a while and afterwards I felt as if a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Then I recognized that at least I was thinking about yelling at my son before and during the act not just afterward. I was making progress.
The next time my son forgot to do the dishes, I talked calmly to him about it and insisted that he do them before going out or turning on the television. He resisted and I persisted but I did not yell. Afterward, I felt so good about myself for not yelling. This victory lifted my self-esteem and later became a motivation to continue fighting my urge to yell.
From this point on, despite periodic relapses, I continued to have a sense of choice about my yelling rather than feeling powerless about it.
After a year had passed, the urge to yell at my son disappeared, and it seemed normal to handle things without losing control. I still got angry, but I had gotten control over my behavior and I felt better about myself. Most of all, in changing my behavior I had improved my relationship with my son. We were closer and he respected me more. Because he respected me more, he was more cooperative.
Over the years, I have continued to change many things about myself from hurtful behaviors to small vices. I give myself all the time I need to change, and I never give up. I do something even if it’s just thinking about the problem and keeping the goal of change firmly entrenched in my conscious mind.
All this has boosted my self-esteem and improved my life in many ways. I now have more friends and a successful career based on helping others Change.
Excerpt from The Art of Changing.
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