A recent comment by ‘TB’ on my post about my inner brat, along with this piece on resentment forwarded to me by Marla Estes, got me thinking about authentic change and how to describe it. As I discussed in my earlier post about change, most people want to believe that insight and understanding produce a transformation that can make you
into a different person. The language current in the self-help field uses words such as “triumphing” over this problem, or “conquering” that issue. As the author of the linked article makes clear, however, self-knowledge really means you have a choice about whether to express or inhibit certain tendencies that will always be with you.
It’s difficult to describe what this choice involves, but I’ve come up with two examples that demonstrate the real, in-the-moment process of putting self-knowledge to work in a way that transforms emotional experience. One comes from my own internal world, an everyday process for me; the other from one of my clients.
If you’ve read that post about my inner brat, you know that a spoiled, very demanding and unreasonable child lives inside of me. I have to deal with him most days in one way or another, unless I’m on vacation or everything just happens to be going my way. One of the worst days of the week is housecleaning day. Let me perfectly clear about this: I HATE CLEANING THE HOUSE! If I lived alone, my house would probably be more or less tidy, but if you looked closely, you’d notice the dust and dirt everywhere. The toilets might gross you out. Since I don’t live alone, I have to participate in cleaning our house more thoroughly than I’d otherwise do. It’s usually Saturday mornings.
About a year ago, I tuned into my thoughts while mopping the kitchen floor. The brat was raging in there. The rant went on and on about how unfair it was that I had to clean my house, how unfair it was that the economic downturn meant we had to tighten our belts and let the once-every-two-weeks cleaning woman go, how unfair it was that other people could afford … you get the picture. I had worked myself into a terrible mood; it was fortunate that nobody in my family came near because I might have bitten someone’s head off.
(By the way, have you ever noticed that children often say, “That is so unfair!” when they really mean, “I hate that!” I stopped trying to reason with my kids when I understood this and starting responding with, “Gee, I’m sorry you feel that way.”)
I chose to keep this rage to myself — that was the first and easier choice to make. The harder choice was whether to stop destroying my own state of mind with this rant about so-called injustice. It was very repetitive and unrelenting; if I let it go on, my mental state would have deteriorated to the point where I’d be miserable and unhappy with everything around me. Or I could try to stop it.
“Shhh,” I told myself. “Just breathe.” I was able to silence the tirade … for about 5 seconds. Then it started up again. “Shh.” Over and over, imperfectly and with limited success, but I kept trying. By the time I’d finished with cleaning, I felt much calmer and less agitated. The rage was still there but no longer dominating me. It was very difficult and unremitting work; I felt better for having done it.
Every time Saturday rolls around, I have to confront the brat again. After years in treatment and continuing to do the work alone once my therapy ended, this is the change that is possible for me. It’s far from ideal, but I’m very grateful to have this ability.
With one my long-term clients, we’d done a lot of work over the years about her refusal to acknowledge her limitations. She’d come from a very disturbed background; as a result, disintegration anxiety was always a threat, and she needed to be careful not to overburden herself with commitments. There was a predictable cycle in her states of mind: as our sessions helped her emerge from fragmented, almost paranoid states of mind, she’d start to feel better. Soon, the pain and chaos of her prior state of mind would fade from memory. She used to be that way, she’d tell herself, but now she’d really changed. She could do so much more than before. In fact, she was truly amazing! Why, she could do just about anything if she put her mind to it! In this state of mind, she’d over-schedule herself, take on far more than she could manage and fall apart under the pressure. I’d been through the cycle with her many times, helped her see the point where she made bad choices that disregarded her limitations, driving herself into a state of collapse.
In a recent session, she was discussing all the commitments coming up — a physical therapy appointment for her daughter, her own professional meeting, an important dinner with her husband’s colleagues. She found herself wondering whether to schedule a trip to Costco later that afternoon (“It’s only a trip to Costco, what’s the big deal?”) and to fit in a yoga class (“After all, yoga’s good for you, right?”). She imagined what would happen to her if she did, chose to reject the lies she was telling herself, and opted not to do either of them. It wasn’t an easy choice. She was enraged at having to acknowledge her limitations because she so badly wanted to believe she was evolving into Ideal Janice, as we referred to her– that highly competent Winner who could take on the world. The lies kept right on, trying to persuade her that she really could do everything, — go to Costco, hit that yoga class and probably weed the backyard that afternoon as well, but she’d learned enough from her experience to recognize the lies. With great effort, she made a better choice for herself based on acknowledging her own damage.
That’s what real change looks like.
Finding Your Own Way:
I’ll bet you’ve got some similar processes going on. Maybe you have to struggle with your inner brat, too; if you do, find a situation that really sets him or her off and confront the tantrum. Listen for the complaints, or the lies you tell yourself; feel how incredibly hard it is to gain control of your thoughts. Strive for mental quiet and see just how difficult it is to achieve silence, even for a few seconds at a time.
That’s what change actually means: admitting who you really are, to begin with; then in the moment, struggling against the familiar childish and destructive forces within you to make a better choice. It isn’t a one-time event, either; you have to confront the same problems over and over. Each time you have to struggle once more to make a better choice. It does get easier over time as you grow stronger and more skilled, but you’ll never be finished with the job.
Sorry for the bad news. It’s far from ideal, but in my experience, it’s the only kind of change that’s possible.