“Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again, and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.” — Anais Nin
Change is one of life’s most difficult and feared processes because one cannot change without pain.
To grow, to become more whole, requires change. It is our desire for wholeness, our dreams of freedom and possibility, that call us to face what we don’t want to face. This may mean giving up an unhealthy behavior that gives us comfort. Or it can mean adopting a new behavior that will benefit our life.
Both require action. The action required is simple, though difficult: to practice staying with the uncomfortable feeling that arises when we are first changing. As we practice this over and over again, abstaining from the old behavior and reclaiming a new behavior becomes more comfortable and natural.
As we practice refraining from dysfunctional behavior we come face to face with the real issue. People use drugs, pills, alcohol, over-eating, over-working, shopping, lying, stealing, or other compulsive or addictive behaviors to avoid or solve a difficult feeling. Rarely is the presenting negative habit the problem. The problem is what the behavior tries to solve.
We usually don’t know what the true underlying problem is until we have begun forsaking the problem behavior. This is a very difficult thing to do. Accountability to a person or a program can help us keep our commitment to stay with the action and pain required to change. It can help us stay with the process when everything in us wants to run.
Accountability supports action.
And accountability can also help us as we try to incorporate a new behavior into our lives such as exercising, eating healthy, going to bed and getting up at a time that best supports our life, being on time, being more social, etc.
There are many types of accountability. Twelve Step programs give their members the opportunity to begin counting the days they have not engaged in their addiction. They also offer sponsors and support.
Weight Watchers is another example of a program that has built-in accountability through weekly weigh-ins and attending meetings where a person can learn new skills to avoid over-eating.
Religion can offer a person accountability and support through such practices as confession or partaking of a sacrament with commitment and clarity.
Seeing a coach or counselor, or finding a change partner (someone else committed to working on a problem where you can each report to each other) are other means of creating accountability in our lives.
Rarely does an individual instantly stop a negative behavior or consistently practice a new behavior. The inevitable relapse is an important part of the process of change. Relapses give us information. They help us to learn about our vulnerability and what types of protection we need to create to stay on course. What is important is our commitment to the process, knowing that a relapse is not an excuse to give up.
Clara was a woman who was valiantly trying to become free from a very difficult addiction that had owned her for years. At one point in her journey she decided to set up accountability for her behavior with God. She went to God in prayer and promised him that she would go 30 days without indulging in her addiction. She felt that was a period of abstinence she could achieve.
She was having success and had almost reached her goal when the cunning, mysterious, pull of the addictive behavior sunk its fangs into her once again. On midnight of the 28th day she relapsed. As she returned to her home and proceeded to go to bed, she felt utterly ashamed, discouraged, and worthless. “I can’t even keep a promise to God,” she lamented. She was anxious to just fall into the refuge of her bed, pull all the covers over her head, and hide.
“Who am I kidding,” she said to herself, “Do I really believe God doesn’t know I relapsed?”
And so instead she fell to her knees to confess. Before she could even completely whisper the words, “I broke my promise,” she felt surrounded by warmth and compassion and a phrase that she both felt and heard within her. “I am so proud of you — you made it for 28 days.”
She was overcome by the understanding and compassion she experienced in that moment. God had not given up on her. She decided not to give up on herself.
It took many more tries, much more practice to finally claim success. She created accountability by attending 12 step meetings five days a week for over a year. She also got a sponsor and worked with him. She now has nearly 18 years free from her addictive behavior. She was able to abstain for 28 days on her own — with accountability she adopted abstinence from addictive behavior as her new norm.
An important part of terminating a dysfunctional problem is replacing it with a healthy behavior. I encourage clients I meet with who have OCD to come up with two options of new behaviors they will immediately turn to when they feel the compulsion to engage in their compulsive behavior. Clients have picked replacement behaviors such as playing an instrument, reading, running, sketching, and others. As a person practices new behaviors, new neuro-pathways in the brain are created, supporting the healthy behavior.
Our brains, where all behavior originates, can change, but they need our help. Our task is to abstain and reclaim. Healthy brain function is aided by abstinence from what is harmful and replacing it with something not harmful. As we do so, our brains begin to rewire themselves. The book Brain Lock, by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, is one of many useful guides about how this works and how to practice abstaining and reclaiming.
There are some parts of our ego that cling to the safety of denial and delusion to avoid the challenging work of change. Truly seeing our shadow behavior and changing it is a sacrifice. But sacrifice is merely giving up something of lesser value for something of greater value. Creating change in our lives not only opens up new doors to us, but new worlds. We experience freedom and fulfillment, and empowerment and peace. As we change, we move from the narrow margins of our lives, to a landscape of possibility.
Join me next week for an exploration of relationships in the coming chapters on creating love!