The Secret to Lasting Change

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Custom has it, ringing in the new year also means making a resolution to change something about ourself we don’t particularly like. Problem is, resolutions are easily made, but rarely effective. Needless to say, change is not easy.

Be it good or bad, chosen or forced upon us, change is a challenging, inescapable part of life. Change is as perplexing as romantic love, baffling many an expert who’s studied it. Fighting it is futile, because as guru Ram Dass says, “The minute you start to try to live your life as if nothing will change, you become an enemy of the way of things.”

Transitioning from marriage to singledom is off the charts change-wise in many big, and little, ways. Simply taking off a wedding ring is daunting for many of the men and women I work with. Although it’s been years since I went through it myself, I still remember the ring removal as a dreaded, heroic act. I felt so vulnerable and devastated — certain my naked finger screamed failure to the world. I put it off as long as I could, but eventually I made the change and moved forward, as so many do.

It’s Complicated
Since change is inevitable, what’s the key to achieving a change we want or need to do? My dear friend Cheryl Woodruff, a therapist and change expert, gave me a new, fresh perspective about accomplishing lasting change. We were catching up by phone on New Year’s Eve and, when our conversation turned to resolution-making, I lamented how hard it is to stay focused on accomplishing a goal.

In her delightfully blunt, but insightful, way Cheryl said, “Sharon, we all know resolutions don’t work. It’s not about trouble focusing — it’s about self-love and acceptance. It’s the paradoxical theory of change, which is counterintuitive and hard for many people to grasp.”

What is this paradox?

The Problem
According to Cheryl, most of us approach change in a way that sets us up for failure. First, we usually decide to change something we dislike about ourself. This immediately starts the process off on a negative foot as we dredge up all our past shortcomings and our brain goes into overdrive flooding us with messages about what’s wrong with us.

Then, we push ourself to do something we don’t want to do, or maybe we do something that takes us out of our comfort zone, or we pressure ourself to give up something we like. And that’s a problem. Gestalt therapists say energy under pressure is a force for resistance- not a motivator for change.

Finally, when we stumble along the way, we berate ourselves, cluttering our brains with negative chatter (“Why can’t I do this? What is wrong with me?”). This negativity becomes self-defeating, even paralyzing, and we feel worse. Frustrated, we give up, hating ourself in the process.

The Secret to Lasting Change
How, then, can we achieve lasting change? As Cheryl observes, “The first step of change is to know yourself, to understand yourself and accept yourself as you are, even with the bad habit. Self-knowledge is really how you change.”

Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations can help you chart a path toward a change that is realistic, attainable, and lasting.

These 5 tips can help you realize the change you want:

  • Shift your focus from the problem (what you need/want to change) to the solutions and positive results the change (goal) will bring.
  • Identify small, realistic steps that will move you toward your goal.
  • Know what you can change and accept what you can’t change.
  • Understand yourself well enough to know what motivates you.
  • Believe in yourself enough to stick with it.

What if you slip along the way? Beating yourself up will only bind you to failure. Instead, treat yourself with compassion and empathy. Accept that you are human, remember you are strong, and move on. Cheer yourself onward (don’t bully yourself into change) and you’ll overcome obstacles. Tell yourself, even during setbacks, “Yes! I can do this! I am a good person. I have what it takes.”

So, back to removing the wedding ring. Should separation/divorce cause you to take it off, shift your perspective from “I’m a failure. My marriage didn’t work. No one will ever love me,” to “I’m a good person. I’m courageously charting a new course. I’m in such good company, it’s been called a mid-life rite of passage. And, I even get a second chance at creating a brilliant new, life!”

Best wishes for a 2016 filled with changes you want.

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