Not everyone has access to professional therapists or psychologists, but we all face life's difficulties and need to find ways to deal with them. With some simple therapeutic tactics and methods, you might be able to help yourself overcome your more manageable problems.
In fiction, change is sudden, romantic and powerful. A villain is confronted with the error of his ways, and he starts leading a better life. An addict hits rock bottom and has nowhere to go but up. But close your book or turn off the television, and you'll find that change is horribly sluggish, full of stops and starts. It's hard to create change in the real world.
Change is also expensive if you're shelling out $100-$200 every week to sit across from a therapist. If you're suffering from anxiety or self-doubt, or you've just been feeling down lately for no particular reason, here are a few simple tips to spark some real change and help yourself.
Remember You're Not The Problem
You were never the problem. The problem is the problem. When people take mistakes and label them as character flaws, it becomes almost impossible to bounce back when life hands them a rejection. A bad date all of sudden becomes "I'm going to die alone and be eaten by my cat".
One solution to labelling is to externalise the problem. This is just a fancy term for making your problem the "villain" of your story, and perhaps even giving it a name. When I first tried out this technique, I decided to label my negative thoughts Carl. For example, when I think, "I am never going to finish this article," I become anxious and reactive. But when I say, "Carl thinks I'm never going to finish," my response is "Well fuck Carl. Carl doesn't know what he's talking about." When you push the problem outside of you, it becomes a hurdle to leap over or a moron to avoid at a cocktail party rather than a permanent roadblock.
Practise Self-Compassion And Treat Yourself
A good portion of our problems can come from our inability to practise radical self-compassion. Being kind to yourself doesn't necessarily mean you eat cake for breakfast every morning or call in sick to work. It's about seeing healthy actions as self-care and evidence of your faith in your future. Treating yourself could look like turning off all screens at a decent hour so you can get some rest, or saying no to colleagues when you can't possibly take on another task.
Collect Data And Monitor Your Moods
Often I'm met with blank stares when I ask my counsellor trainees what makes people change. To be a good therapist, you have to have some theory about what motivates people. So to change your own habits, you have to put on your research goggles and be willing to collect some data. It's great to make a list of ways of healthy coping, but you won't know what works if you don't track your progress.
When curiosity about self-improvement can replace fear or doubt, then you're already halfway there. You need to be self-aware if you're trying to achieve real change. I have a self-improvement buddy, and every day we text our observations about our habits and compare notes. Collecting data is also about finding the exception to the rule. Maybe you felt like crap 364 days out of the year, but what about the day that was good? Study it, latch on to it, and try to replicate it like a good little scientist.
Ask The "Miracle Question"
If you could wake up tomorrow, and you were free of your problem, what would it look like? This is what is known in therapy as the Miracle Question. So often we get stuck in examining what's wrong with our lives that we don't have a clear picture of our goals or our values. And these are the markers that can often point us towards real change in our lives. You can use it for smaller changes as well. For example, if I'm never emotionally prepared for Mondays, I might ask myself, "What would it look like to wake up on a Monday and be ready to conquer the world?" And then I'm off to create that image piece by piece.
Consult, Consult, Consult
A good therapist is taking their work with you and running it by a supervisor. So there's no reason why you shouldn't share your work on yourself with friends, family, or even professionals. I'd rather spend a coffee date with a friend talking about our hopes for the future rather than what we hate about our jobs or school, and encouragement is contagious. You can share about your goals without asking for advice, and you might be surprised to find the more that you speak something out loud, the more likely it is to come true.
Therapy is unique because so rarely in our lives do we have the privilege of sitting in a space with an empathetic and non-judgmental listener. But there's no monopoly on the wisdom of how real change happens in people's lives. When you listen to yourself, practice kindness, take notes, and say what you want out loud, who knows what could happen?
Photo by JD Hancock (Flickr).