Changing our habits is one of the most conscientious things we do in our lives. It’s more than training yourself to drink eight glasses of water, or to exercise for an hour each day. Changing our habits means retraining our mindset, and not just our bodies. In how we process events, think about ourselves, and our self image. We know these are good things for us, but why do we resist suggestions to change? Are there strategies for overcoming our fixed reactions and coping skills that don’t serve us well?
Only to Just Begin.
When I was living through my postpartum depression, I was seeing my psychiatrist for medication prescription, and my mental health counselor, Susan, who worked with me, (heavy emphasis on work). Susan taught me through application examples, of how I had become who I told myself I was. She explained the tendency to resist cognitive therapy when we don’t see ourselves as being capable of getting better. I had to learn new skills if I wanted to succeed, and I had to start seeing myself as someone who would recover.
I learned that a barrier to behavioral therapy, is lack of genuine introspection. Therapy was going to be work, and I had to be honest with myself and acknowledge what my challenges were. This meant examining issues about myself, not something flattering to do, that’s for sure. I had to admit that I was a pessimist, and I felt doomed at the start of any homework before I even gave it a try. For us to even bore an inch into my stubborn persistent negative self image, I had to be painfully honest. I had to face my dysfunctional emotions, maladaptive behaviors and cognitive processes. In Susan’s words, “To change a behavior, change an action.” This was beyond the petty advice given by friends and family of “mind over matter,” or “cheer up!”
I didn’t like this part of therapy.
Who likes to think of themselves as dysfunctional and negative? Yet, that’s the truth that I had to accept. With plenty of reading from books that Susan recommended, and from months of honest answers to questions in therapy, I began to turn my self concept around and talk to myself in a positive way.
I thought twice before saying, “Not me.”
I didn’t automatically begin to think, “That’ll never work.”
I stopped myself from saying, “Yeah, but…”
“Yeah, but” was the biggest obstacle we had to overcome together. “Yeah, but, I tried that,” and “Yeah, but, that didn’t work before,” and “Yeah, but, I’ve tried everything.” Self-condemning was the biggest road block to possible improvement. Without the door to my mind and trained thoughts even open a crack, what light would ever get in?
We resist when someone asks or tells us to do something because our self talk makes us lose the war before we even march onto the field. The thing is, without change, there will be no change. Doing things my way hadn’t been working for me… so why did I persist with pessimistic negative thought patterns?
I know I didn’t want to be that way, but I had trained myself over a lifetime. The cost of continuing in that way was becoming evident. We lose friendships, without understanding why. We exhaust family members, unclear why they have no patience. Our marriages barely hang on by a thread from the emotional fatigue of supporting a person who never has hope and is always down.
My question to anyone “stuck” and wanting to change, is this. Examine the impasse. Do you need to find a more pro-active physician? Is there a therapist that’s been recommended to you, but you haven’t sought out yet? Have you resisted suggestions of medication, or continued talk therapy? Work with your medical team and be open to their suggestions for change. Our trained minds are stubborn. My default setting of pessimism was stubborn enough to not even consider suggestions by my therapist. I would think, Why try? Nothing ever works anyhow. Susan taught me how to change the way I view and experience events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives.
Over a lifetime of negative thought patterns and reactions, our default is set. In my case, comfortably, to see myself as always being anxious, depressed, low energy, and being that one in a thousand who will never get better. The thing is, we can get better. Postpartum depression and anxiety are mental health disorders, but with treatment, people with PPD and PPA do recover. But as in anything, work and commitment are required to deconstruct ingrained and automatic behaviors.
I once saw myself as eternally depressed. I once saw myself as that one with postpartum depression and anxiety that would never get better. After 11 months of weekly therapy sessions, I began to improve. I saw success and that made me try again, and try harder. It wasn’t an overnight process, and it wasn’t an easy process. It was work, and it’s still not my nature to be hopeful, but through honest dialogue with myself, I had a starting point of recognition and awareness of this about myself.
I had to begin, with difficult questions. By asking others to support and help me. I had to put my ego aside, and ask myself how I talked to myself. I asked trusted friends to be patient with me while I grew in a new, beneficial direction. I had to listen when my therapist told me that I was allowing no room for positivity, or change.
None of this was fun, but all of it was life saving. This work made me feel uneasy, vulnerable, raw. It was hard. I felt shaky, as a new me began to battle with the old me. Much of the time, my new thoughts didn’t feel like mine, so unfamiliar that triumph was hard to imagine — I was not a positive person, remember? But with time, and repetition, as my new thoughts grew to become my own thoughts, I felt capable and stronger. And I began to feel that victory was possible.
My self concept now is of someone who has overcome things that she thought she never would. And it began, by beginning.
*If you’d like to explore more, these are the books that Susan had me read. My therapy wasn’t based solely on positive thought, but together with medication and talk therapy, challenging my self concept was an integral part of my treatment plan. Once my therapist and I worked on (it took a year!) helping me see that recovery was possible, hope set in. Before then, I was resistant. Medication helped, talk therapy helped, eating sleeping exercise support and friendships helped, but it wasn’t until I changed my inner talk, that things began to look hopeful.
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman
Optimal Thinking: How to Be Your Best Self by Rosalene Glickman
Optimism: Learn the Power of Positive Thinking. Our Thoughts Shape our Attitudes by Abe Kass