This post is intended for people who are experiencing longstanding discomfort (unhappiness, anxiety, loneliness, anger) and know they'd like to feel better, but they’re not sure what to do about it. Breaking out of these uncomfortable feeling patterns often requires a change and successful change involves a process. What follows are simplified suggestions for getting yourself into the change process.
When contemplating a change, the first thing to ask yourself is whether you are motivated. We often skip this step and dive right into looking for solutions, which can lead to setbacks and discouragement. To assess motivation for change, there are some questions you can consider:
Do I really want to make a change? What are the pros, cons, risks and benefits to change vs. keeping things the same?
Am I willing to do what it takes to make the change? Is it worth the effort?
Am I able to make the change at this time? Do I have the tools and resources I need?
If you determine you are indeed motivated to make a change at this time, you have four options to choose from. Ask yourself if you are willing and able to:
Change the situation
Change how you feel about the situation
Accept the situation
Keep everything the same
Changing the Situation
When you're ready to take action toward change, I find the best place to start is asking yourself if there is any way to change the situation. If you decide you are willing and able to change the situation you have several options:
Remove yourself from the situation
Assert yourself: Express your feelings and ask for or make a change
Negotiate a compromise
Weigh the pros and cons of each option. Many times, we have little control over a situation and are powerless to change it. If you decide that you cannot or will not change the situation, you can move to option #2, “Change how you feel about the situation”.
Changing How You Feel About the Situation
In order to change the way you feel about a situation, you have to understand that how you look at a situation influences how you feel and how you behave. Our perceptions determine our reality (and everyone’s reality is different). For example, if I perceive flying in an airplane to be dangerous, I will feel anxious about it and avoid it. If I perceive flying to be fun and exciting, I will be more willing to engage in it and might actually enjoy it.
The attributions we assign to things around us can be positive or negative and will impact how we feel about a situation. Negative attributions are generally:
Global vs. Specific (“That’s just the way it is” vs. “That’s how it is in this particular situation”)
Stable vs. Changing (“That’s the way it will always be” vs. “That’s how it is now”)
Internal or External (“It’s probably all my fault” or "I am at the mercy of circumstance" vs. “I’ll take some responsibility and I recognize there are also factors outside my control involved here”)
Sometimes our uncomfortable feelings are due to problematic thinking. This type of thinking involves automatic, distorted, and unhelpful messages we send ourselves that make us feel worse. To see some examples of problems in thinking that can lead to uncomfortable feelings, please visit PsychCentral's article by Sherrie Mcgregor, Ph.D. (2007).
Other times our uncomfortable feelings stem from deeper problematic beliefs we have about ourselves and the world. These beliefs are not necessarily true even though they may feel very real to us. Fortunately our problematic thoughts and beliefs can be challenged and replaced with more realistic and health promoting ones. This takes some hard work and practice; however, and may be best accomplished under the guidance of a mental health professional or at least a good self-help workbook.
If after learning what it takes to change how you feel about a situation, you decide you are unable or unwilling to do so, you can move to option #3, “Accepting and tolerating the situation”.
Accepting the Situation
Acceptance is allowing yourself to fully experience a situation in the present moment without distortion, judgment or intention to change. Finding acceptance is not easy. It involves an understanding that you are responsible for your own thoughts, feelings and actions and for the choices you make in your life and that these are the only things you really have control over.
Acceptance does not mean resigning yourself or giving up - rather, it means making peace with a situation that you cannot change or is better left unchanged. Acceptance can be the only healthy option available to people who find themselves in difficult situations they are powerless to change. It is an interesting fact that acceptance sometimes leads to unexpected change that is profound and lasting.
Keeping Everything the Same
After considering all your options, you may decide it makes more sense to keep everything the same and remain uncomfortable. Hardly anyone thinks this is a good choice from the outset, but it is important to acknowledge that change is a choice and everyone has a right to "stay miserable", as Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., ABPP would put it. Knowing you always have this option can sometimes give you the courage and freedom to move forward with another, more satisfying option.
If you would like help making a change in your life, a good place to start is by checking out or purchasing a reputable self-help book. I have some of my favorites listed in my "Required Reading List" in the right-hand panel of this blog. You can also find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.
Please also visit my website http://www.kctherapist.com/ for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.