In my last post, I wrote about why individually-motivated goals for change are the difference between relational therapy that works and relational therapy that doesn’t. Relational therapy requires you to take a deep and possibly uncomfortable look at yourself—rather than simply hoping your partner will do all the changing. You can read it here.
This week, I’m discussing the next step: what to do once you have those individually-motivated goals. Once you know how you aspire to show up in your relationship, how do actually go about creating real change?
When I start work with a new client, my first question is “What do you want to change about yourself that will make a big difference in your life, or in your relationship?” The most important and meaningful changes we can make are changes involving ourselves.
But aspiring to change isn’t enough. You have to put that change into practice, over and over again. Our thoughts, feelings, automatic reactions, and ways of thinking about ourselves and others are shaped by repeated experience. They’re our emotional, mental, and relational habits.
In part, that’s simply due to the structure of our brains. In the same way that a path you walk down every day becomes well-trodden, a pathway that you activate over and over again in your brain and body becomes increasingly well-established, to the point that it feels difficult to choose another path. The more times you bring a particular thought, action, and emotion together, the stronger the linkage between becomes—embedded in the very physical structure of your neurons.
That means two things. First of all, it’s very easy to get stuck with bad mental habits. This is one reason why, if you’ve reinforced a negative belief over and over in your mind, it can be very hard to stop believing it, even if you know rationally that it’s not true.
“I’m not good enough.” “No one will ever truly care about me.” “I’m too selfish.” “I’m helpless in the face of events around me.” If you return to a negative belief frequently, you reinforce it in your mind, and it becomes a challenge to think something different. That’s true even if it is sometimes clear to you logically that the thought isn’t actually an expression of an eternal truth.
But there’s some very good news. The fact that we can accidentally build bad neural habits also means we can consciously build good ones. The physical structure of our brains can actually change for the better. We can remake our patterns of thinking, acting, and feeling. You have the power to decide what kind of person, or what kind of partner, you want to be—and by revisiting that idea, and linking it to emotion and action, bring it into reality.
The catch is that, when you’ve already built up one neural pathway like a four-lane highway, it takes lots of repeated effort to build a new one until it’s strong enough to compete. You have to be prepared to do, think, and feel something new over and over again. This might feel like “fake it till you make it.” In fact, it is: that strategy actually works. And it works much faster if you can add the emotions associated with the success of the mission.
For instance, you might want to be a partner who doesn’t overreact with anger and say mean things to your partner. Here are the steps you would have to take:
- Form the idea: “I want to be a person who doesn’t overreact with anger and say mean things to my partner.”
- Frame it in positive terms: “I want to be a person who manages my emotions, checks out any imagined slights, and communicates what is true for me in calm, loving ways.”
- Get clear on your “why”: “This is important to me because I don’t want to be a mean person, I don’t like myself when I act out, and my partner doesn’t react lovingly to me when I am mean.”
- Frame it in positive terms, as if it had already happened: “I am the kind of person who is respectful, loving, and communicative. I like how I feel about myself when I’m loving and calm, in touch with my best self, and honest about my desires, and I like how other people respond to me then, too.”
- Figure out what you will be thinking in the target situation that is different from what you had been thinking: write it all down so you can see it. “I used to think ______ about the situation, _________ about myself, and ___________ about my partner, and those thoughts created the anger and mean response. But now I’m going to think ________ about the situation, myself, and my partner instead.” These thoughts will be the ones you would like to think in this type of situation. That will lead to you having the experience you want (for instance, feeling calm and clear).
- Set your intention for exactly what you will do from now on, when the old feelings/responses arise: “When I feel my anger flare, I will take three deep breaths, and if I’m still not calm, I’ll go for a walk or take a shower. I will take the time to figure out what I’m thinking, feeling, and imagining that is creating my reaction. When I’m completely calm, I will approach my partner and check out any storylines I’m imagining/meanings I’m making, so I’m not reacting to something I’m just imagining. Once any misunderstanding or imaginary scenario is cleared up, I’ll take the time to figure out what I want and express it calmly. I’ll then listen to what my partner has to say about their feelings and desires.”
- Feel the feeling you will experience when you are living that life: Really let yourself imagine how amazing you will feel about yourself and others when you have totally achieved this goal, and have been living it for awhile. What will your life be like? How will you feel? Access that amazing feeling now. When you let yourself experience gratitude for all the amazing fruits of your labor, it will not only feel good right now, it will also help the new neural pathway form and strengthen. This is key. If you want the change to happen, take the time to feel the new feelings as well as thinking the new thoughts and doing the new actions.
- Rinse and repeat: Now you have the start of a new neural pathway. You need to use it…a LOT. The good news is that you can practice without waiting for the stressful situation to actually happen. You can build and strengthen that pathway in your imagination. Imagine the whole sequence. The thing happens. You think your new thoughts. You do your new actions. You feel the new feelings. You get the outcome you are shooting for. Imagine it as many times a day as you have time for, and don’t forget to feel the feelings that go with it because that is what makes the whole thing work.
- Celebrate: Delight in the new you, as you use your new neural pathway the next time the difficult situation arises.
- Don’t get stuck: It’s easy to fall back on old habits. Don’t let anything get in the way of you being the person you want to be; the person you know yourself to be! No matter how badly behaved the people around you are, you can still be the person you want to be. YOU be the change, and then see what happens around you.