There is a certain level of risk in buying a used car. You never know what you are getting. I recently purchased a used car, and it didn’t take long to realize I had made a mistake.
I began having problems with the accelerator pedal. I’d step on the gas, and sometimes the car would spurt forward and then stop. Sometimes it would accelerate but only to about 5 miles an hour. Sometimes at higher speeds, the throttle would fail and I’d have to coast to a stop.
As frustrating as it was, it reminded me of my effort to make personal changes in my life. Change at first is awkward. It might look like spurts forward. Other times it is slow going, and nothing I do will speed up the process. Then there are times when I make significant progress, only to revert back to old ways.
So, what is change and how do we change?
When people talk about making a change, they typically refer to a change in behavior. Christians around the world recently observed a season of Lent, which includes an opportunity to change a specific behavior. Some people give up a “bad” behavior like smoking or laundering money, while others try to introduce a “good” behavior like having a daily prayer time or always smiling at a neighbor they despise. Most people view change as something that takes place in their brain. For me, behavioral change takes place in a relationship system.
Substantive change happens when one is able to see how their behavior is intricately connected to a relationship system. We’d like to think that our behavior is autonomous but that way of thinking is simply outdated. Most behavior is automatic and is motivated by the back and forth interactions (verbal and nonverbal) between emotionally significant people in our lives. It’s difficult to “see” this process, but it’s not impossible to observe. In fact, it's our behaviors that help us "see" the emotional process. Our behavior is a reaction to the behavior of others. Dr. Murray Bowen originally saw changes in behavior as outcomes of a shift in the emotional functioning of a family system.
Take smoking, for example. If I were to ask a smoker how many cigarettes they smoke on an average day, they might say five. That’s average. If I were to ask them to keep a daily log, they might observe how on certain days they are able to get by with one cigarette. But on other days, they might have as many as eight or nine. What makes the difference?
Most research today answer this question by pointing to stress. The more stressed you are, the more cigarettes you smoke. People experience a feeling of calmness when they smoke. However, if the daily log were to include family interactions, one would observe how smoking increases when the tension in the family increases. How much it goes up or down depends on the number of family contacts being made. In this way, smoking is an automatic, reactive response to the anxiety present in the family.
This reciprocal nature of behavior is true for anything you want to change. Whether you want to start running, take cooking classes, stop swearing, or be a better parent our inability to make a change in our behavior is connected to our position in our families. Change is a challenge because 1) it is difficult to see this emotional process unfold and 2) it’s difficult to consider that the family we already struggle to relate to is somehow having an impact on my behavior.
Change is not just physiological. It’s biological.
Changing our behavior does have a psychological component. Nothing will change if we aren’t aware and convinced that change is necessary. As I mentioned earlier, when we see how our behavior is a result of or influenced by the emotional process in the family, we are in a better position to make a change. These observations don’t make it easier, but they do give us an advantage. But psychological conviction will only get you so far.
Changing behavior is similar to accelerating and braking a car. You want to get going, but the throttle doesn’t work. At times, it can almost feel like the brakes are fully engaged. You want to make a change, but you can feel yourself being held back. If you could only figure out a way to get your foot off of the brake or fix the throttle, you could make the change. Either way, you feel stuck. If you are like me, it can feel like you have your foot on the brake and accelerator at the same time!
For others, efforts to make a change may require one to step off of the throttle. You are going too fast and moving too quickly. It’s as if the car is stuck at a fast speed and you may physically resist the urge to slow down.
There is a physical sensation to making a change. Whether it’s the experience of having our foot on the brake, afraid to move forward, or having our foot on the throttle, afraid to let up, the “self” experiences the resistance and reactivity. There is a visceral experience of changing your behavior.
Overcoming our fears
At the root of the challenge is our perception of fear. I say perception because in most cases, what we fear is not real. At one time, a specific fear may have served a function. A specific fear may have been useful to a prior generation. But humans are really good at seeing a threat even when the threat is not real.
Our inability to take our foot off of the throttle or the brake is a result of a perceived fear. We are afraid that if we change our behavior, either in the direction of doing more or doing less, something bad will happen to us and/or our family. If I stop doing what I always do, it will not go well. If I start doing something new, it will not go well. These perceptions may be psychological in nature, but they become embodied in our everyday behaviors.
The importance of getting factual
Dr. Murray Bowen said, “That which is created in a relationship can be fixed in a relationship.” Learning to connect our behavior to the larger emotional process of the family relationship system is an essential part of any effort to change behavior.
Here are some things to consider when trying to move forward:
- What behavior do you want to change?
- What are the challenges you face in changing this behavior?
- What contributes to an increase or decrease in this behavior?
- How does this behavior function in the family? How does it calm you or the family down?
- Consider asking parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents about a time they tried to change their behavior? Perhaps asking about the one you are attempting to change.
- Make predictions on how others will respond to your attempt to change.
If this way of thinking makes sense to you, let me know. I’m available to coach you through a change process.