The Pursuit of Change

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Sometimes those of us who work in health care may feel like we’re professional nags and guilt-trippers. For the rest of us, all of the advice, recommendations, guidance and even threats we hear from our physicians and others undoubtedly are efforts to get us to do healthy things. Notice that a whole industry dedicated to our physical and emotional health has grown over recent years, providing all of the information, inspiration, guidance and guilt imaginable. Self-help books, Dr. Phil, the legion of experts on Oprah, and so many others speak to us about the benefits and relief that are just around the corner, if only we try. And here we are, in this article together right now, yet one more example.

Maybe this mass helping industry is popular simply because many of us find ourselves and other human beings fascinating. But more likely, this is because many of us are uncomfortable, even suffering, in many ways. And the suffering may be overwhelmingly vivid or just a notch from known, but it’s there. Even so, notice that the advice just keeps on coming, and that we keep coming back to browse the advice. Hands up those who have a personal library of self-help books.

I don’t know about you, but personally I couldn’t count the number of times that I’ve heard with great interest some healthy idea about what I might do or ingest, only to let the idea slip away. It’s pretty evident that we consume a lot of written and televised material that is directed to getting us to eat better, exercise more, love more and live well. We’re very interested in feeling better than we are. If we cleanse our colons and mental floss our minds, life will be better. The advice can be great, but “just doing it” is the problem.

Putting the ideas and advice from shows and books and each other into real and sustained action is incredibly difficult for us. There’s a great felt need to change, but doing it is tough. In this regard, the business of change hasn’t changed much.

One stumbling point in the pursuit of change comes from what we might call embedded problems. Nested like Russian Dolls, these are problems that began in the service of another problem. Huh? What I mean here is that one problem, like booze or eating too much or getting angry all the time, may have started because there was some quality of the drinking or eating or anger that was softening temporarily some other problem, such as being stressed out by (quick, what came to mind?). It’s hard to deal with one problem when you’re paying attention to something else.

What to practice? Well, for starters it makes sense to get a hold of what it is that is most important to you. Ask yourself, “What is it that I really want? Why?” I’m deeply serious here. No one can answer those questions for you but you. But here’s the twist. I’m suggesting that you continue asking those questions at different times, over and over again, for many days. Keep drifting back to the questions. Let the questions ‘bug you’. It’ll get complicated and the “answers” will shift and change, but the point is to know more about your patterns of feeling and reaction, the stuff that our stress is usually made up of in the first place.