Skill # 30 What’s the Core Issue? How to Actually Change

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At some point in our lives we have all tried to make a change. Perhaps it was a new diet or exercise routine. Maybe we set a goal to stop yelling at our kids or to be kinder to our spouse. With some of these changes we have been successful, but often our attempts to change our behavior don’t work in the long run. We go back to eating impulsively or yelling at our kids. Why is that? 

In this segment we are going to explore how we can improve our chances of creating lasting change. 

Just “stopping it” often doesn’t work, and it has negative side effects.

If “just stop it” worked for every problem, then you wouldn’t be taking this course and no one would ever come to therapy. If we could just willpower our way to change, then none of us would feel stuck or need help to grow. 

What is a problem that you’ve been having that keeps coming back? That you’ve made multiple attempts to change, but so far nothing has worked? What have you tried? Take a minute and write it down. 

Almost everyone who comes to me for therapy has already tried “just stop it,” and it’s not working. Nothing they are trying is working. One way of looking at that is they just haven’t tried the “right” behavior yet. They need to try a different diet, a different way of forcing their kids to do stuff. But what if the solution is the problem? What if focusing on behavior change is at best a waste of energy and at worst makes things worse?

What Happens When You Just Switch Behavior?

When working with addicts in residential treatment, we have this term called “switch addictions,” which is basically used to describe the cycle of behaviors that occurs when we take away someone’s drug of choice. 

So for example, when we take in a client who is addicted to alcohol and they no longer have access to it, they will often start demonstrating other addictive behaviors, which depend on the circumstances. But it might be disordered eating/overeating, and when we crack down on the eating, they might switch to compulsive sex. 

And if we try to crack down on that, they might switch to creating drama in the community or reading or obsessing over schoolwork or self-harm — and the list goes on and on.

Just forcing someone to not use drugs is like chasing the behavior around the proverbial mulberry tree. For treatment to be effective, we have to create change on a deeper level. 

The goal of this course is to help you change behaviors, but not by suppressing, white-knuckling, or just switching out behaviors. This course will help you be different by changing your approach to your underlying drives, needs, and emotions.  

But to do this, you may need to shift your paradigm.

What Can You Do Instead?

One of the reasons that “just stop it” doesn’t work is that it is based on the worldview that we are bad people who do bad things. This allows for very few options — things like punish the behavior, shut down the behavior, suppress the behavior.   

If we see people as inherently good, as people who are generally doing the best they can with what they have, then there must be a reason they’re doing what they’re doing. This gives us a lot more flexibility to help them. Things like solving the underlying needs, trusting that our emotions have a purpose, and seeing an underlying function (albeit dysfunctional) to the behavior. 

When we see people as deeply good, we are more likely to help create lasting and sustainable change in self and others.

How do you see yourself? When you mess up, what do you say to yourself? Do you punish or berate yourself? Do you beat yourself up? Do you try to cover up your mistakes? Or do you shut down? What does that say about how your worldview and your approach to change?

What’s Beneath the Behavior?

Remember back when we talked about primary and secondary emotions? There’s an iceberg, and the part that pokes out of the water is the easily identifiable emotion. But underneath is so much more than that. 

The same thing is true of behaviors. Underneath behaviors we have emotions, thoughts, habits, paradigms, our way of being, and our instinctual drives. We also have physiological needs and attachment needs. 

A problem like an alcohol addiction is driven by a need to escape emotions like anxiety or despair. Or it could be an attempt to escape problems that we don’t know how to solve, things like abuse or poor life choices. Regardless, if we fail to treat and resolve the emotions beneath the alcoholism, then we are just going to play Whac-A-Mole with behaviors. 

To really solve problems and create lasting change, we really have to go back to the idea that every behavior serves some function. 

What Does This Look Like in Real Life?

Even the most self-defeating behaviors like alcoholism serve a function like making the anxiety go away, even briefly. Check out the following example.

Micah was a smart 4th-grader who was always getting into trouble. He was the class clown, frequently disrupting the lesson with his antics, jokes, and outbursts. The more his teacher, Ms. Kohler, worried about the impact this was having on class behavior, the harder she tried to shut it down. 

She started by asking him to stop, moved on to reprimands, began taking away recess and other rewards, and eventually began punishing him with trips to the principal’s office and calls to his mother. But his behavior continued to get worse. It seemed like everything she tried to make him behave just encouraged him. 

After consulting with some other teachers, Ms. Kohler began to wonder about why Micah seemed to want to get into trouble. One of the other teachers suggested that perhaps Micah just really wanted to be noticed, to feel important. And the only way he knew how to get that attention was through negative behavior. His underlying need was to feel like he mattered to someone. 

Ms. Kohler started to develop ways that Micah could get noticed every day. She put him in charge of cleaning the whiteboard. She asked him to run errands for her. She invited him to teach small parts of the lessons. Little by little his disruptions decreased and he began to be a more positive influence on his classmates. 

Our emotions and our motivations run much deeper than our thoughts and our actions. If we want to create deep and lasting change, we need to look beneath behaviors. 

How Can You Apply These Ideas to Your Life?

Take a look at the problem you wrote down earlier, the problem you’ve tried to solve without success. I’m going to ask you a series of questions to help you consider different ways you might approach your problem. Write down 1-2 of them that you would be willing to try with your difficult problem. 

  1. What emotions are under this behavior?
  2. What are your underlying needs (this include needs for physical survival, for attachment and connection, for safety, for love)?
  3.  Who are some people you could talk with? Are there books on your problem? Do you know of anyone who has overcome a similar difficulty? What community resources are available? 
  4. What do you keep trying to solve this problem? What have you never tried to solve this problem? Look at your toolbox of skills from this course. Is there one new skill you’d like to apply to your problem?
  5. Use your strengths instead of your weaknesses to create change. What are you really good at? How can you apply that to your problem? 
  6. What are your internal reasons for why you want to change? 

 

If you’re unsure about the last question, this example might help: with the desire to improve physical health, an external approach worries about numbers on the scale, counting calories, mind over body, and external pressure like shame about fat. 95% of diets fail. 

An internal approach would focus on how your mind and body feel each day when you work out, listening to the body’s cues for hunger and fullness, paying attention to your sensations when you overeat, etc. 

Behavioral change that comes with natural and intrinsic rewards is sustainable. Behavioral change that suppresses emotions needs to be constantly sustained by external rewards or willpower/white-knuckling it. 

Remember, all change takes work, but deep change gets easier and more rewarding over time. Behavior change based on suppression requires endless struggle for something that becomes less rewarding/motivating.

Conclusion

Often we just don’t know the answer to these questions, but asking the question opens us to look for more flexible solutions instead of just doing the same thing over and over. 

If you really want to create deep and lasting change in your life, you need to look underneath behaviors and into your thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and feelings. By getting creative and trying new things, you really can create lasting change in your life.

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