THE MAGIC PILL: ACTION

When I think of how to describe the times we are currently living in, I let my clients guide me. And what I am hearing these days is that, when looking around, it is like looking through a clear pane of glass: you see “everyone else”, but you also see yourself reflected. This description resonates with me because the key distinction in whether or not one is able to create change in their life is whether or not they are willing to see the world through a pane of glass, or more specifically, how they look in the world.

12-Step meetings have long had attendees recite the following after every meeting:

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Why is this mantra repeated time and time again by those who seek change in their own lives? Because in those few lines are the exact instructions of how to change! They also let us know what does not create change, and moving from one state to the other is the point of this article.

How do we change the world? How do we change our world, our relationships, ourselves? Does change require that everyone change? What if I am the only one who changes?

Let’s dive in…

WHAT YOU CAN’T CONTROL: Without exception, couples come into my office pointing the finger at one another, inviting me to side with them and agree that the other is the problem. “If only my partner would change, things would be better!” In order to connect the couple, I first need to see if they are willing to be a team, working against the problem instead of each other.

I start with this task because I have learned that we cannot make anyone change, we can only influence them to change. The other side of that is coin is allowing ourselves to be influenced to change by our partners. Both of these ideas help us with the first part of the serenity mantra: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.

This is easier said than done! But it is doable, and is the only way I know of to move your life and relationships from where they is to where you want them to be.

Why are we so committed to trying to change what we cannot control? Because it feels easier than taking a good hard look at ourselves, and our contribution to the problem(s). I remember years ago when I wanted to move out of Los Angeles because I thought that everyone here was horrible, and my best friend had the courage to ask me, “What if it is you?” I was furious with him at the time, but soon realized that while it was not only me, it was certainly partly me that was making my time here so difficult. Over time I succeeded in changing the way I respond to and think about the city (both under my control), and my outward experience of it changed for the better. I focused on what I had the power to control.

WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL: What we can control is a lot, truthfully, but it does take work. You know this if you have ever fallen for an easy weight loss system–the ones that promise that you can “eat like normal” on their program and still lose weight. While you may lose some pounds, they rarely stay off after stopping the program because what has not changed is how you eat and why you eat, which are key determinants of our weight.

It is much harder to look at the underlying negative thoughts that fuel our need to comfort ourselves with food, because this may mean facing problematic and painful relationships from our past. However, doing this work with a caring witness (such as a therapist), can result in lasting change and freedom from negative thinking. These things are under our control.

In short, we have control over our responses. This aligns with the second part of the serenity mantra: “the courage to change the things I can”. It does take courage to do this, because it can be painful and frightening, but the reward can be worth it. Taking control over our responses includes changing the way we interpret and think about things, which in turn affects how we feel about things. In other words, our response to what is happening. And when we change our response, we then have the power to influence others to change.

This is the magic pill. 

THE MAGIC PILL: The third part of the serenity mantra asks for “the wisdom to know the difference”, and that is no small ask! Knowing the difference between what we can and can’t control is not only the magic pill for change, but also the key to avoiding suffering. Focusing on what we can control can interrupt complaining and give us the power to take action, and action is what brings about change. This change does not always happen to everyone involved. I tell my couples clients that if you change as an individual in relationship, one of two things will happen: either your partner will adjust to the change or they will leave you. Either way, movement has occurred, which is often better than remaining stuck in a painful rut!

The bad news about action is that it difficult to do something different, and there are no guarantees that the outcome will match your preferences. The good news is that we can still choose to take it, even if it is hard, and be open to the result, knowing that we can always choose again. Sometimes, we might need a little extra support with this, either from others or even from medication, especially if we are strongly affected by either depression or anxiety (both can lead to inaction).

Action can take two forms: external or internal, and both are valid. External action is when we make adjustments to our behavior or response, or when we stop accepting invitations to fights or dysfunctional patterns. Internal action is when we change how we think about what is going on, often allowing us to move from victim to survivor (responsive rather than reactive). Victor Frankel writes about this in his important book, Man’s Search For Meaning, where changing his mind, or internal action, literally saved his life.

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A body in motion wants to stay in motion, while a body at rest wants to stay at rest. In other words, taking action from a state of inaction is difficult–but it is not impossible–it just takes a force to get it going. As a culture, many have become very comfortable, which is not a bad thing, but it has deterred us at times from taking necessary risks or making uncomfortable choices. Just because action is a magic pill does not mean it is easy to swallow. What helps it go down is support from others, and having a clear idea of who we would rather be in relationship to the ourselves and others.

With individuals, therapy can help to identify and confront ways of thinking that contribute to unhealthy choices. Changing the way you think can positively shift the way you experience what is going on around you. With couples, I encourage them to support each other by sharing the changes they are embracing themselves while acknowledging and appreciating the changes we see in the other. This is what working as a team looks like, and it can change your relationship into a refuge rather than a battleground. I know of no other way that gets you closer to a life of peace and love.

HOW TO ALIGN GOALS

Seeing eye to eye can be tough at times!

Falling in love can be like a dream, in that we often feel as though we have found our “other half” or “lost self” because it seems as though we share every single goal with our new partner. I remember when I was in my twenties I would meet someone and not be able to imagine ever having a conflict because the pairing felt so well matched. Of course, in time conflict did occur, and when this happens it can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under us!

I often tell the couples I work with that when things like this happen, it is only bad news if you don’t know what to do with it. In other words, conflict and differences do not have to be deal-breakers, they can in fact bring you closer together if you talk about them respectfully and with curiosity. The truth is that there is nobody who is exactly like us in every way–there are always going to be differences.

But what happens when goals aren’t aligned? Not sharing a like of action movies is very different from not sharing a like of children! What if one of you wants to move out of the city? Or change careers? How about when one person becomes religious or leaves the religion you shared when you got together? These issues are not just “preferences”, they are often linked to what is most important to us. How do you navigate these shifts in core values?

It can be challenging, but it is not impossible, and it all depends on knowing how to talk to one another. Guess what, we usually don’t know how. I often will work with couples for weeks or months to help them discuss divergent goals and values, but here are a few key points that can help you right out of the gate. 

BE CURIOUS RATHER THAN JUDGEMENTAL: Curiosity is your best friend in a relationship, especially when it comes to discussing differences! Our brain is wired to feel threatened by differences, so successful conversations require making conscious choices about how we listen to one another. If one of you wants to travel the world and the other prefers to focus on building a home together in one place, it helps to dig a little beneath the conflict. Curiosity pushes judgement aside because it goes beneath the surface difference to the shared humanity underneath. Willing compromises and solutions to problems are possible from a place of shared perspective and understanding.

We are meaning-assigning creatures, and in today’s world where our roles in society are increasingly up to us to decide, it can be difficult to build an identity or know where we stand in relation to others. Some people set goals as a way to ease that process, and it can work, but it can get messy when our identity and values are linked to what we do. Differences in goals can feel like a personal attack on what we value, but they rarely are–they are just differences that have yet to be explored and understood. 

How couples talk about this is critical, as it can divide them or connect them, depending on how they do it. What should they be curious about in these conversations? 

FIND COMMON AREAS AND OVERLAPS: Underneath every goal is a desire for a certain experience or feeling, and exploring these can help to reveal areas of commonality and overlap. This is important because commonality and overlap can connect you to one another and weaken the fear that your differences are deal-breakers. 

In my experience with couples, there is always commonality, because we are all human! Goals, no matter how different, tend to work toward similar meanings and feelings: feeling valued, purposeful, creative, stimulated, etc. If couples can see past the surface look of the goal, they will often discover shared meaning. (If they don’t, then that is also useful information to have as you make decisions about the future of the relationship!)

This is why constructive conversations about goals look for areas of overlap rather than areas of difference. In order to have these conversations, it helps to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and to hold the idea that they are with you, and not against you. The way we approach conversations if influenced by how we think about conversations!

WORK TOWARD COMPROMISE AND DECIDE WHAT YOU CAN GIVE UP: I want to address the concept of compromise briefly, as it comes up in so many discussions with couples. Most people have half the concept of compromise down: you give up something you want in order to get something. But there is another half that is necessary if you want the compromise to result in connection instead of resentment, and that is that the compromise must be willing.

A willing compromise does not mean that you have to agree with the other or even like the compromise, it just means that you do it willingly. This is the key to avoiding resentment and contempt down the line–and the good news is that it is not that hard to do because we do it all the time! Have you ever gone to work on a day when you wanted to stay in bed? If you have, you probably thought you were just “sucking it up”, but in fact you were making a willing compromise with your work. On the other hand, if you spent the day at work bitter and fuming, there is a good chance that you went to work unwillingly!

Willing compromises are a key ingredient to successful relationships and problem-solving. Without them a couple will tend to see the other as a competitor and a threat, resulting in disconnection and resentment.

REGULAR CHECK-INS: Finally, I want to mention the value of doing regular check-ins with your partner. I have trouble understanding why couples expect a relationship to move along smoothly without checking in with each other from time to time–can you imagine running a successful business that way? We regularly meet with our business partners, our doctors, even our friends to discuss “how things are going” and to review goals and progress, and yet when we think of doing this with our partner we are resistant because it can feel “unromantic”.

Romance and passion are often the end results of efforts made along the way–they are usually spontaneous only during the courtship phase. You can make your check-in into a ritual you both look forward to, and a way to practice healthy communication and mutual understanding. I usually recommend doing check-ins once a week, on the same day and at the same time if possible so that it becomes tradition, and they don’t have to last more than fifteen minutes. Here are some things to discuss during check-ins:

  1. Review progress on ongoing goals and projects.
  2. Review the upcoming week of each partner and ask if there is anything each needs to be aware of in the others week.
  3. Ask if the other needs support in any way during the upcoming week, and make a request for support if you need it.
  4. Talk about sex: what is working and what is not–any new ideas or questions–is everyone happy with the sexual relationship?
  5. Finally, find out if the other is bothered by anything recent and needs to talk about it, or let them know if you need to talk and be listened to. It is good to finish this off by sharing what you appreciate about each other or by commenting on something they did well or that made you feel loved.

Remember that check-ins are not about “being right” or arguing–they are a tool that can strengthen your relationship and connect you to each other. A small investment that can lead to a big reward!

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I hope for the day when we are less threatened by one another’s differences and instead more curious about them. I also hope for the day when we recognize our many shared values–when it comes down to it most of us want the same thing: to feel loved and safe. How we get there may be by different roads, but by knowing how to talk about goals, we may find that our roads are more parellel than we thought. You don’t have to be on the same road to be moving in the same direction with your relationship!