The Secret to Real Change

Excerpted from On Purpose Magazine

The Secret to Real Change

It seems to me that practically everyone wants to change at least one thing about themselves. After all, we all know we have areas that could use some improvement, and we have a sense that if only we changed this or that, we would feel better…or have a better life….or become a better person. And while the changes we hope to make may be significant, there’s tons of advice and support available right at our Googling little fingertips to help us make them, right?

Why then, does “change” often seem so difficult to achieve?

Maybe the problem is that we think we can order ourselves around. We think that in the areas of our lives we’re not satisfied with, we simply must not have had enough self-discipline or self-control, but that this year we really will get ourselves to stop doing the “wrong” things and finally do the “right” things.

Personally, I’m not much of a fan of this “boot camp” approach to change. Self-discipline, of course, has its place. Sometimes you really do have to push yourself to do what in your heart you want to do. But over twenty years of working with women in therapy, I’ve seen hundreds of women change dramatically–their relationships, their careers, their bodies and their sense of self. Yet rarely has it come from ordering themselves to change.

So what DOES work to cause change? I’ll give you the secret. Surprisingly enough, it’s self-compassion. It’s listening, deeply, to your own inner self. Discovering your own story. Listening to what really matters to you. Learning what you really do want–and also listening to the parts of yourself that get in the way of change.

Let me tell you about “Dana.” Dana was a social worker who participated in one of my Inner Voice Telegroups, and her secret shame was that she yelled way too much at her three kids. A therapist herself, she knew it was the wrong thing to do. Year after year for ten years she resolved to control her temper without any success. Yet the guiltier she felt, the more she yelled. So one day I suggested that instead of berating herself for yelling at her kids, she give compassion to that part of herself that yells at them.

You can imagine her reaction. “How can I be compassionate to THAT?” she said. “That’s just making excuses. I should just KNOW better and control myself.” But I told her that if she could suspend the self-criticism for just a little while, and listen to this part of her, it had a story to share a story she needed to hear.

Over the next twenty minutes, as she suspended the self-judgment and listened inside, she heard the “story” of how much she’d been running on deficit, how each subsequent child taxed her energy more, and how, when her youngest child was born with an abnormal gag reflex, she’d been up several times a night for eight years straight.

She continued to listen further, looking at herself with compassionate rather than judgmental eyes, until the story had run its course. And that’s when she fully understood. Shortly before her first child was born, her own mother had died. Oh, how Dana had wanted and needed, with every fiber of her being–her own mother there, helping her, advising her, reassuring her that she was doing okay as a mother! But fate had prevented her from ever having that. And that was at the source of her yelling.

Of course Dana had already mourned and grieved her mother many times before our session. She was well aware of how much she missed her presence in her life, and the pain she felt not having her there to guide her. But she had never connected those feelings to her yelling. Possibly she had made the connection before intellectually, but she had never “connected the dots” emotionally. Giving compassion, however, to this part of herself that caused her so much guilt and anguish changed that.

After doing this work, Dana’s children noticed an immediate difference. “You’re much nicer, Mom.” When she got angry, she found it easier to stay calm and try a number of ways of reacting besides yelling. And when she did sometimes still yell (and how many mothers don’t?), she found that she could, for the first time, easily stop. Those twenty minutes of listening to her own story permanently changed the way she reacted to her children.

If there is something about yourself or your life that you’re not happy with, try something new. Instead of lecturing yourself about your waywardness, try listening to yourself deeply and caringly. What is your heart trying to tell you? What part of you is hurting, and not “getting with the program” because it wants you to listen?

It’s not second nature to do this but it works. In fact, I should warn you–you might actually start changing.

Helene Brenner, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the author of I Know I’m in There Somewhere: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner Voice and Living a Life of Authenticity. She offers individual therapy, phone coaching and telegroups.

An Attitude of Self Compassion

women's counseling and psychotherapy in frederick mdMany people think they need to be tougher on themselves. They look at all the ways they fail to live up to their own expectations and think they don’t deserve self-compassion, that self-compassion is synonymous with self-pity. There’s a tendency to think that the failure to improve is a result of “laziness” or  “weakness,” a failure of character.

If only we could yell at ourselves more effectively, we would do the things that we know would make our life better or stop doing the things that make our life worse. How could self compassion work? Being “all nice” to ourselves would just let us off the hook.

But the truth is, though it may seem counter-intuitive, self-compassion is often the vital ingredient before any lasting change can occur.

Self-compassion is a very active process, and it’s a real effort for most of us. It means accepting who we are, accepting the challenges we face and the feelings we have, and how difficult it can be to change. It means being kind to ourselves.

Have you ever had a teacher, coach or mentor who wanted to help you improve but accepted you just the way you are? Someone who didn’t make you feel bad for what you did wrong, but patiently helped you to do better?

If you ever had a person like that in your life, you know that after spending time with them, you felt better – calm, relaxed, creative, empowered, capable of improving at whatever you were struggling with.

But have you ever had a boss who demanded a lot but never offered support, and got angry whenever something wasn’t good enough? We think we should be able to “rise to the challenge” of that kind of situation, but studies show that while some people improve their performance in that environment, far more people respond by hiding their mistakes, working less creatively and productively, having more headaches and getting sick more often.

The same principles apply in your relationship to yourself. Chronically looking at all of your faults sets the stage for a stress reaction that leads to anxiety, fatigue, defensiveness and more lapses in judgment.

But listening to yourself with compassion, accepting feelings that you don’t think you should have, understanding the parts of you that resist change and controlling the impulse to criticize yourself set the stage for feeling calmer, more relaxed and more able to move forward.

But what do you do when you’re feeling so frustrated with yourself that you can’t be compassionate?  At those moments it’s important to realize that your self-critical side isn’t “bad.” It only wants the best for you. It’s just going about it the wrong way.

See if you can be kind both to the part of you that wants you to do better (and feels frustrated) and the part of you that you think has “failed.” Both parts need and deserve compassion.

The more you treat yourself kindly, the more you create the optimum physiological conditions for change. Paradoxically, “self-acceptance” and “desire for change” are not opposites. They’re complementary.

So treat yourself with kindness and compassion while holding close the change you desire.  Accept on faith that whenever you get stuck, there’s a perfectly understandable reason for it. You will not only nurture your self-esteem, you will grow steadily forward from your true inner voice.

MentorCoach’s Super-Star Article Adaptation

mentorcoachInterview with Helene Brenner.


Background: Helene Brenner’s 2003 book, “I Know I’m in There Somewhere: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Your Inner Voice and Living a Life of Authenticity”, now released in paperback by Penguin USA, focuses on how people can “turn up the volume” of their inner voices so that they can overcome fears, doubts, nay-sayers (both inside and outside themselves), and other obstacles, to begin living the life they were meant to live.

Conceiving and creating the book was an Inner Voice Experience and journey all its own. A psychologist with a thriving twelve-year practice in a smaller metropolitan area, Helene began writing the book proposal in 2000 and sold the book for a six-figure advance in November 2001 – two months after 9/11. During the same period, she, her husband and daughter adopted a baby girl from China. Through it all, Helene used her own principles in dealing with her own doubts and limitations as she tackled the New York publishing world.

Having a limited speaking background before publishing her book, Helene has reached professional speaker status through many interviews with magazines, radio and television programs, as well as serving as both keynote speaker and conference presenter on numerous occasions.

BR: We all know that some of our clients still get caught in feeling inadequate – thinking they should be able to change, but not being able to. One of the messages that comes out of your work is that we don’t have to have it all together. In fact, we don’t have to change ourselves in any way to get going to making our dreams happen.

HB: That’s right. I have a saying: “You don’t have to clean out your closets to go for your dreams.” We don’t have to fix ourselves. We can still have all of what we think of as our faults. The paradox is that the deepest change comes from deep self-acceptance. What I’ve found, through all the
work I’ve done, is that when you go down deep into exactly how you are, that’s when you can change the most.

Think about it this way: You can’t start your car from down the road. You have to get in the car where you parked it. And you can’t start yourself except by first acknowledging exactly where you are right now. If you do that, rather than getting stuck there – which is what we all fear – many times that very act of acknowledging makes your state of being change within the next moment.

BR: Tell me a little bit about the inner voice. How does someone even know what that is? How do they find it?

HB: The inner voice is a very natural thing. It’s the wisdom of your entire self making itself known to you. And it speaks to us through a number of different ways – impulses, urges, body feelings, a sense of inner knowing, through our deepest wants, and through a spiritual awareness.

The inner voice directs us toward greater self-fulfillment. If we know how to listen to it, it shows us the next do-able step in our evolution. That may not be the linear step our heads or our flow charts tell us should come next, but it’s the right step. And it does this naturally, the way a flower turns toward the sun.

BR: But if it’s so natural, why do so many people feel like they can’t hear it?

HB: To begin with, it doesn’t usually come through like a megaphone.

BR: Sometimes I wish it did.

HB: I think we all do. I also think that over the years, most of us develop layers of noise, what I call “outside voices,” that muffle our inner voice. Often, I find the first thing people need to learn is to distinguish what is “me” from what is “not-me,” because we all take in so many messages
about who, and how, we are supposed to be. It sounds elementary, but I’ve found that people need to learn that they have voices coming from all around them, and inside them, that don’t match who they really are, and must consciously learn to label those “outside voices” for what they are.

BR: Does that make them go away?

HB: Unfortunately, no. At least, not most of them. You’re never going to stop having those voices that pull you away from following your inner truth. I know that I’m probably never going to stop struggling with shyness, for example. But once I know how to identify my own inner voice, I can learn how to turn toward it. I can raise the volume of my inner voice so that it’s louder and more compelling than everything else inside me or around me.
And the more I listen to it, the louder it becomes.

BR: How do people do this?

HB: Of course it’s a process. For one thing, I developed twenty-seven exercises, or “innercizes”, I call them, to go through discovering your inner voice and applying it to your life.

I also talk about five pathways that are messengers of the inner voice. The first one is Knowing. People know a whole lot more, deep down in their bones, than they think they do! They know what is true for them – it’s just hard for them to admit it.

The next is Sensing, following the subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – sensations in your body. We actually have this amazingly sensitive instrument of a body, that’s been evolving for millions of years, but we totally ignore it and listen just to our brains.

The third is Feeling. Many people are afraid of their negative feelings and think they should only listen to their positive ones. But what I teach is that you can listen to your negative feelings, and get what they need to tell you, without actually becoming identified with them. Sometimes if you don’t
acknowledge them, they’re going to stop you. Sometimes they have something very important to teach you. But they don’t have to run your life.

BR: And then you talk about Wanting.

HB: That’s the fourth pathway. Americans are often thought of as being too self-centered, of wanting too much. But every coach should know that most people are actually terrified of wanting and manifesting what they truly want. Maybe everybody is, at least part of the time. So we all learn to create substitute wants, things that we think we’re allowed to have. Our job as coaches is to help people to dare to claim their true passions and desires. It’s not the people who have the most who live closest to their dreams, it’s the people who want the most.

Finally, there’s what I call the Voice of the Larger Self, the spiritual essence inside you. What I found is that people can get in touch with an  ineffable sense of peace and grace that’s very visceral.

BR: You also talk about the ABCs of the Inner Voice.

HB: Those are Acceptance, Being With and Compassion. This goes back to the paradox of change. We’re all very smart about what’s wrong with us. But ordering ourselves to change rarely works. Only when we allow ourselves to understand and experience how the parts of us that we may not like, or that we don’t think are optimal, serve a purpose and have a good reason for being there, do we create the room to deeply change. It’s change from the inside out, not outside in.

BR: It sounds so compassionate, but you’ve said that this is not a path for the faint of heart.

HB: I guess that’s another paradox. It’s still easier to go along with whatever’s familiar in your life, living from old expectations, dampening your deepest desires. We all have a big part of us that clings to safety, and what is known feels safe even when it isn’t. Ironically, taking the risk you’re
afraid of taking usually feels like a big relief. But daring to listen to who you really are and act accordingly means choosing to explore the unknown. It’s my favorite way to live, but it’s not easy, which is one reason I emphasize self-compassion. It’s also why I like the format of telegroups so much,
because people in my groups become so encouraging and supportive of one another in the process of following their inner voice.

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