A common attitude I hear from my client’s is “I can’t change, these problems are perpetual?” Sometimes it may seem as if people never change, that they stay the same way forever. The manner in which we define mental health and behavioral problems provides the implication that people with these problems are inherently flawed and the flaw is permanent. This sends the message that people are not capable of change in their lives, which is far from the truth. The vast majority of people make changes to their behaviors over time, even without formal help. This holds true even for more problematic behaviors such as substance use, gambling, and eating disorders.
How we define meaningful change is also a critical aspect of change. For instance, a person may not abstain entirely from alcohol, but has moderated their drinking to where they no longer experience negative consequences. Even small changes can provide a meaningful impact on an individual’s quality of life. The process of change is likely to involve setbacks or minor lapses into the old problematic behavior. Setbacks are not signs the game is over, but critical aspects of the change process providing new learning opportunities. Change is neither quick nor sudden, but occurs slowly but surely over time. Two steps forward and one step back will have us moving in the right direction. The change process is full of struggle and the attitudes we hold during the change process are critical to success. Below are attitudes and qualities of successful changers.
Acceptance: Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a cognitive behavioral treatment targeting high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse and self-harm. DBT emphasizes dialectics, the integration of two opposing concepts or ideas, such as acceptance and change.Acceptance of what we cannot change allows us to refocus on our reactions to adversity rather than staying stuck in a time that has already passed.
Forgiveness: This attitude allows us to recognize we are all fallible and vulnerable to mistakes and failures. Forgiveness allows us to bounce back from setbacks instead of drowning in judgment, criticism, and hopelessness. An important aspect of resiliency, forgiveness helps relieve the burden of anger and resentment we may hold.
Openness: Openness to new ideas, new approaches, new living, new strategies, and new experiences provides us the opportunity to develop adaptive solutions to problems we will face. An open attitude allows us to learn from others, those who have achieved change themselves. Wisdom is the end result of overcoming suffering with openness to new learning.
Determination: Determination provides us the drive to continue despite the odds. When we take a stance of determination we allow ourselves to push forward despite the setbacks and obstacles. Determination protects us from succumbing to hopelessness and provides us the strength to face a challenges head on, no matter how difficult.
Receptivity: When we are receptive we are open to feedback, which is integral to our change goals. Being receptive may also involve a willingness to experience and accept challenges we face. A receptive attitude assumes all mistakes are learning opportunities and reflects our openness to others. We learn to live in the moment, accept adversity as part of the change process, and seek opportunities to grow.
Flexibility: Flexibility is a concept incorporating all the aforementioned attitudes. Flexibility provides us the freedom to respond based on the context of each unique challenge. When people are rigid they adhere to old beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors despite the context. They are no longer receptive and open to change but rather stuck in old patterns. The change process requires the flexibility to adapt; integral in learning which strategies will ultimately be effective.
“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”
― Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button screenplay