One of the ways we perpetuate our self-defeating behaviors is to convince ourselves that change may be possible for some people, but not for us. We are who we are, and that’s just the way it is. To make matters worse, we tell ourselves that even if we did somehow manage to change, we wouldn’t be able to sustain it because there were certain things we simply could not do without artificially altering our reality, or engaging in our habits.
Just a few moments of disparaging self-talk can make the change process seem to us like a towering mountain we can’t climb, and even if we could climb it we would surely die somewhere on the other side. Perhaps we have no personal examples of self-change we can recall to give us the confidence that we can climb the mountain and survive. The fact is that we do have examples, many of them, but to bring them into focus we have to look at ourselves a little more deeply than we are used to.
Who are you? If I asked you that question, there are many ways you might answer it. You might tell me a little about your background, your work history, your relationships, or your worldview. You might show me a picture, or tell me about your political leanings. You might even delve into your using history as a way of defining yourself. Even if you could tell me everything you know about “you” in a few moments, I submit that you still wouldn’t be answering the question—not really.
To truly address the question of who you are, you must disregard some of the beliefs you hold about yourself, and simply observe. There is nothing you can point to, nothing that exists that is really “you,” because what you think of as “you” is a moving target that changes subtly from moment-to-moment. You are what you are in this moment, a moment from now, you will be something different. During the time you spent reading this, your mind has changed in many subtle ways. As your attention flitted from the computer screen, you considered some aspects of your day so far, perhaps made a decision about lunch or dinner, or thought about calling a friend. In the process of doing that, and reading this, you created some new neuronal pathways, and strengthened others. As a result, you are not exactly the same person you were even five minutes ago, are you?
This was change, and your brain accomplished it all by itself, without any direction or even encouragement from you. You were not even aware that it was happening. When you meet someone, you form an impression of that person, perhaps favorable, perhaps not. As time goes by, if you keep seeing that person, your original opinion is either strengthened, or changed by repeated exposure. We don’t “direct” that change, it just happens. We are constantly changing, in fact it’s impossible to not change, we can’t help it. Over time, we become different people—everybody does. If you thought about it, I bet that you could come up with hundreds of examples in your own life, where you used to feel one way about someone or something, and have come to feel differently for some reason.
If the brain does this kind of thing all the time without any direction from “us,” what in the world makes you think you can’t change something that you really want to change? Furthermore, what makes you think you can’t adapt to life after making a major change? You have made major changes in your life before, and been able to adapt to them, and you know it. When I knew I had to stop drinking, the first thought that went through my mind was how could I ever enjoy my daughter’s wedding without drinking champaign? I also didn’t know how I could ever eat pizza again without a beer to wash it down.
When I quit, I didn’t know anything about the change process, or where it was going. I only knew I had to change. I was told I had a disease that I was powerless over, and had to rely on something outside of myself, something with more power than I had, in order to stop. For many of us that concept doesn’t make real change easier, it makes it more difficult. To recover, we have to change our behaviors, and the best way to do that is to change the irrational thinking and responses to triggers that drive the behaviors.
Often the irrational belief that gives us the most trouble is the one that tells us that we can’t change ourselves in the first place. Reinforcing that belief with the notion that we’re “powerless” is for some of us the worst thing we can do because it encourages us to ignore the contrary evidence that is right before our eyes. We can see for ourselves that we are capable of change, all we have to do is observe.