Welcome to our Q&A with the experts. For January, the topic is making the changes you want to make … that you don’t want to make! David B. Wexler, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in San Diego and Executive Director of the non-profit Relationship Training Institute (RTI). He is the author of five books and numerous articles and he has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV programs throughout North America to help educate the public about relationships in conflict and how to resolve them. You can join Dr. Wexler at RTI’s annual weekend retreat for couples, “Building Better Relationships: A Weekend Workshop for Couples to Bring Out the Best in Both of You” on Jan. 27–28.
We asked Dr. Wexler for advice on making those changes we know we need to make. And we’re not calling them New Year’s resolutions (which we dutifully make on January 1 and conveniently forget about on January 2).
Here’s what he had to say:
Your better self knows it’s time for a change. But because you are human and complicated, turning that desire for change into an action plan is easier said than done. You have old habits — which die hard. You have your comfort zone and doing things this same old way eliminates risk or discomfort. You also have a lifetime of emotional conflicts and old beliefs that subtly sabotage your best efforts to do your life differently.
Never fear. Here are some strategies that have been proven to help you activate that better self and stop stepping on your own toes:
1. Big changes come in small bites. You want to clean out your garage, but you walk in and see this enormous and impossible task. The strategy: Carve this task into a series of eight small tasks, like one corner at a time. Take on task #1, then stop it and schedule the next chunk at another time. You’ll be surprised how encouraged you are when you see signs of progress and start building momentum. Nothing breeds success like success.
2. Just do one thing differently. Maybe you have a problem with asking your kids too many questions when they get home from school. They get annoyed with you, you get your feelings hurt, and things get ugly. The strategy: Look in the mirror before you pick them up from school and tell yourself that you will ask no questions about school for one hour. If that helps, then extend it to an hour and a half the next day!
3. Remember that change is relative. Researchers measure changes in symptoms by looking at frequency, intensity, and duration. The strategy: If you and you partner argue too much, it is important to celebrate ANY change in frequency (less often) or intensity (less harsh) or duration (not lasting as long and recovering more quickly). Remind yourself and each other that things are getting a little better and that you can build on this “relative” success.
4. Enter the Time Machine. Research tells us how valuable “positive end-result imagery” is. The strategy: Decide on a change you want to make, like losing weight. Then project yourself into the future, maybe six months away, when you have been successful with this. Then describe — looking back in time — how you pulled this off: your workout plan, the program you joined, the new thinking patterns, etc. The trick is not looking forward about how will do it, but actually imaging looking back at how you did do it. Take this list and use it as your map. Every day or every week that you notice yourself doing any of these things is a good day and a good week.
Last but not least: You can apply these strategies with your kids, too. But most important is the modeling. If you are working on changing something, include them in on the plan. They can help keep you honest — and they will watch what adults do when they take charge of their lives!