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.