Laugh if you must, but Dr. Phil has a saying that’s pretty powerful. When he’s confronted with someone who is fiercely holding onto and defending a belief or approach or behavior that seems to be causing problems in his life, Dr. Phil will frequently ask of the person: “So, how’s that workin’ for ya?” Most of the time, this results in the person being left stumbling for words, his posturing and defensiveness deflated. Because, quite obviously, if it it were indeed “working” for him, he wouldn’t be sitting on national television talking to a therapist about it.
To be fair to the poor sucker embarrassed on national television, we all do this. We cling to ideas or behaviors that no longer benefit us because they are familiar and comfortable, or because they serve us in ways that feel good in the short term, but we pay for doubly in the long term. My personal example of this is my attempt to avoid anger at all costs. It’s quite a bit like being conflict-averse: I will do everything in my power to keep the peace and not make someone angry with me, even when doing so is disingenuous or completely betrays my own needs or violates my own boundaries. This lovely habit is no longer serving my best interests (if, in fact, it ever did, which is certainly up for debate), so I am working — hard — on eradicating it.
My ex-husband’s crutch involves his chronic use of the exasperating phrase “It is what it is.” This is a handy little mechanism for absolving him of any responsibility to truly deal with or solve problems as they arise. By invoking this phrase, he declares his utter powerlessness to fix anything and so doesn’t have to bother, nor feel guilty about not doing so. It served him so well, he was served with divorce papers. But I digress….
But, as we all know by now, admitting the problem is only the first step. What the hell do we do next?
This post could be about the value of therapy and how I believe that everyone — at every age — should have a therapist to work out what it is that they’re doing here on this earth and how they can do it better. But that’s not actually what this post is about.
I think the challenge, when we discover that we’re stuck doing something or believing something that is, frankly, no good for us, is figuring out how to let go of it and what to replace it with.
The letting go of it part is really hard. Most likely, our grip on this particular hindrance is pretty tight, or it would have sloughed off ages ago from the constant friction it causes in our lives. No, in order for it to still be here, we must have been protecting it and defending it and nurturing it all along. So, first we must stop that. Immediately. We must stop rationalizing its value and defending it from criticism and protecting it from the parts of our brain and our heart that know it’s simply no good. Acknowledging that something you do or believe isn’t working for you anymore is a huge, important step; by truly accepting that you need to find a different way, you’ve already diminished the power that behavior or idea used to have over your life. But you have to honestly know and feel that this part of you isn’t good, isn’t worth holding onto. Just agreeing with another person’s assessment isn’t the same thing. That’s why good therapists will let you get there on your own, leading you perhaps, but never pushing you. Because unless you decide on your own, for yourself, that it’s time for a change, the change won’t stick.
So, what about the what to replace it with part? Yeah, I know that this part sounds easier, but it’s really not. Relinquishing a paradigm that we have internalized and acted on for years creates a significant void in how we see and experience and approach the world. So I think it’s important to replace it with another idea that feels comfortable and right and good, and that our heart agrees is going to move us in the direction we need to go.
This last part is important, so I’m going to be annoying and state it again: and that our heart agrees is going to move us in the direction we need to go. Because, we know in our hearts (or our guts or our third eyes — wherever your intuition speaks to you), whether a possible path is truly right or just another cop-out or falsehood.
The typical reaction to rejecting an existing paradigm, I believe, is to resort to the other extreme. A really good example of this is one I encountered recently in a man I dated. After experiencing a couple of mind-blowingly untrustworthy, insincere and insecure women, he decided his normally trusting, knight-in-shining-armor-to-the-rescue approach to women wasn’t serving him well and discarded it. In its place, he embraced a very guarded heart and strong sense of mistrust masquerading as disciplined mindfulness and mature caution. Is it serving his best interests? I guess only he knows the answer to that.
Drawing on my own problem area, I suppose the logical and easy extreme would be to refuse to engage at all on any terms other than my own (sounds silly, but I’ve seen divorced women do this, and you probably have, too). I have known all along that this path would not lead me — by any stretch of the imagination — to a healthy relationship, and so I have tried to avoid it. But I’m still struggling to find the middle ground, the healthy place, the right alternative. With much coaching from my therapist, I have come to realize that it has to do with learning to speak my truth cleanly and clearly and without investment in the other person’s reaction (see my previous post, speaking your truth, gracefully for the full story).
Last week was one long exercise in this struggle. I had opportunity after unwelcome opportunity to practice my commitment to my new approach. I wouldn’t say it went smoothly, but progress was made. Definitely.
Trying to figure out what aspects of your belief system or behavior patterns are no longer serving you well and how to replace those with something that will is definitely not a short-term or easy project. But I do think — sincerely believe — that it’s worth asking yourself, frequently: how’s that workin’ for ya?