Our least-favorite negative emotions and behaviors often have an important story to tell us – if we know how to listen.
Practically all of us have some aspect of our behavior that we wish we could change.
For you it might be one of the common “New Year’s resolution” changes, like eating more healthily, exercising more, or getting more organized.
But for many people, there’s something darker, a secret or not-so-secret shame that doesn’t show up in the curated image they portray in their social media accounts. A drinking problem. A compulsive behavior. A recurring pattern of getting into bad relationships. You may try with all your might to gain control of this behavior, but somehow you can’t. If this is something you are struggling with, you are far from alone.
How Not to Change Your Behavior
Typically there are four ways people try to deal with behaviors they wish to change.
The first impulse for most of us is to resolve to have better self-discipline and self-control. “This time I’m really going to do it!” we say. But as it turns out, research has shown that self-discipline may in fact be a limited psychological resource within us. It takes valuable energy that gets depleted. By itself, it’s not sustainable as a way of promoting change.
When self-discipline fails us, the next most common strategy is to get angry at ourselves for what we’re doing. We may even start berating ourselves, calling ourselves “weak” and “lazy.” or think we must be “sabotaging” ourselves for some crazy unknown reason. We treat ourselves essentially like an obstinate, misbehaving child who “needs” or “deserves” to be scolded.
That method of self-improvement, though strangely popular, simply doesn’t work. In thirty years of practice, I’ve never seen it succeed even once at causing lasting positive change.
Having failed to stop or change a problematic behavior, people then commonly turn to two other strategies to deal with it. The first is giving up and giving in to the “troublemaker” within. “There’s nothing really wrong with what I’m doing, and I can’t stop it or control it anyway, so I just have to accept and resign myself to what I’m doing, and so must everyone around me.” Obviously that doesn’t lead to change.
The other is justifying the troublemaker’s behavior, feeling that it’s wrong, but that outside circumstances, or other people, are making you do it. This doesn’t lead to change either, because it’s putting all the control on something outside yourself.
The Path of Self-Compassion
There’s another way, a way that most people don’t know about, that can actually lead to change. It’s a specific form of self-compassion. It’s listening to the troublemaker part — not agreeing with it, or “becoming” it, but listening to it the way you’d listen to a very close friend who’s troubled and hurting, and letting it tell you its story. It’s listening openly, nonjudgmentally and with compassion.
Most of us think of self-compassion as simply saying nicer things to yourself. Instead of yelling at yourself and calling yourself “stupid” for being twenty minutes late to an important meeting, for example, you say to yourself, “I didn’t take into account how heavy traffic can be at that hour. It wasn’t a disaster. Next time I’m going to make sure to give myself a lot more time.”
But self-compassion can be so much more than that. Self-compassion can mean recognizing that we all have different parts of ourselves, including parts of ourselves that we don’t like, and that all parts of us, even or especially the ones we don’t like, deserve our compassion. We don’t have to think in either-or terms — that we are either the “good” us or the “bad” us. Rather, we can think that there’s a “troublemaker” within us who’s motivated by powerful emotions, emotions that have been mostly exiled from our consciousness but that take over our behavior when they get strong enough. Behind a secret shame can be a secret pain, and a deeply held story, often one with many important parts to it, that explain why you feel and do what you do.
But it’s not enough to “analyze” yourself and know intellectually those feelings and explanations. What’s needed is to listen, non-judgmentally and with compassion, to that troublemaker within you, until it feels that it’s been fully heard.
This idea may sound a bit confusing, so let me tell you about Dana.
Dana, a 37-year-old mother, had a secret shame: she got angry and yelled way too much at her three kids. As a therapist herself, she was painfully aware of what a harmful thing she was doing. 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 listen to the story behind her emotions, and give compassion to the 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, one that 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.
Recognizing that gave her some comfort, though deep inside it didn’t feel to her like a sufficient reason for why she “lost it” as much as she did. But she thought she was ready to stop, saying “I just have to be kinder to myself when I get that mad.”
Instead, I encouraged her to listen further, and continue to look at herself with compassionate rather than judgmental eyes, until the story had run its course. She pressed on until, just a few minutes before the end of our time, she reached a core element to the story, and finally, 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 before 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.
Self-Compassion Leads to Self-Control
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-five minutes of listening to her own story permanently changed the way she reacted to her children.
Many good therapists help their clients listen below the surface and discover the unconscious feelings and stories that cause them to do things they “don’t know why” they do. But if you take the time and make the intention, you can listen to the “troublemaker within” on your own, or perhaps in the company of a particularly empathic friend.
Putting it into Practice
If there is something about your behavior that you’re not happy with, try something new: Instead of lecturing yourself about your waywardness, try tuning into your body and listening deeply and caringly to the troublemaker within, inviting her or him to tell their story, like you would a very good friend, without any judgment. What is she or he trying to tell you? What part of you is hurting, and not “getting with the program” because it wants you to listen? Listen, and keep listening, until that hurt and suffering part of you feels fully heard and understood.
It’s not second nature for people to do this, but it works. In fact, I should warn you: You might actually find yourself changing.