My clients regularly ask the following question, "How many sessions will it take to fix this/me?" I wish there was a definitive answer to that question, but there are so many variables to consider in the therapy process that planning out an "all better" date is near impossible.
Yet, there are definitive steps to take to make the change process more tangible. The first step in the right direction is admitting that you have something you would like to improve upon…but guess what?! There is already a roadblock.
Change sucks. There really is no more eloquent way to put it. Knowing that change sucks, we naturally put up speedbumps in an attempt to save ourselves from discomfort, therefore making the change process an arduous one.
What else holds us back from change? For one thing, the phrase “people don’t change” is defeating and false. People DO change. The saying should be “people who don’t want to change, won’t.” Yet, when someone is finally ready to make the big leap, they will.
Another reason we avoid change is that we like to be able to predict the future. Even if we know that a particular behavior is detrimental to our health, we would rather continue that action for fear of not knowing what is on the other side of change. For example, perhaps you are suffering from an addiction. Your brain intuitively KNOWS that with every use you are hurting yourself and your loved ones. Yet, you don’t know what life looks like without the drugs or alcohol. In fact, the unknown can be so scary that you would rather risk death daily to avoid the discomfort of change. If you continue to use, you can predict what’s going to happen. Sobriety, and all that it holds is therefore branded as the scary unknown.
In order to make a change, we have to be willing to struggle with ourselves, and you can bet that the older version of ourselves will put up a valiant fight. The struggle will come in changing the narrative we tell ourselves about a certain interaction.
Here is an example: A woman is in a long-term relationship with her male partner. She makes a sexual advance and is turned down with him saying, “I have work to do.” Instead of listening to the reason, and taking it at face value, she starts to create an alternative story to rationalize what she has internalized as rejection. Her thoughts include, “He doesn’t think I’m sexy. He’s a man, so he should always want sex. I’m not good enough for him. He must be getting attention somewhere else. We are losing connection with each other.” With those thoughts, she goes into protection/shame mode and shuts down. No longer wanting to be close to him at all, she makes the choice to isolate in their bedroom all night, stewing in the rejection thought pattern.
In this example, the woman needs to change three things. First, when she feels rejected, she can say that to her partner: “I know you said you have to work tonight, and I believe you, but I feel sad that I am missing this connection time with you. Can we schedule some time for sex tomorrow?” Naming how she feels right away can potentially prevent her from going into the isolating behavior.
Secondly, she can stop the dramatic narrative that she is layering over what he’s said. There is a relief in taking things at face value. He said he has work to do. So, once again, she can repeat how she feels to him and she can do the work to ensure that what she is telling herself matches with what her partner is saying. “He has work to do, and it has nothing to do with his level of desire for me.”
Lastly, in being transparent with her feelings, and re-shaping her narrative, it will be easier for her to enact a new behavior. Just because she doesn’t get the intimacy she envisioned, she doesn’t have to isolate and continue to live out rejection. The chance for intimacy is still there and can be experienced in a different way, perhaps with a foot rub, or some snuggle time on the couch before bed.
With these three alterations to the scenario, the woman can start to implement true change in how she responds to these situations. Even though it will take time before she can short circuit her emotional responses, these steps will help to mitigate anxiety and halt the classic shame cycle.
Real change takes time, so allow yourself some grace as you integrate these techniques and hopefully entertain a new and less uncomfortable outcome.