How possible is it to truly change? The older we get, the more we might think, “I am who I am.” We know that years of seeing ourselves in a certain way, along with our daily actions, form a pretty strong image of who we are. In many ways, it is positive to possess a strong sense of self. We open ourselves up for growth, though, when we recognize things about ourselves we might want to adjust or improve upon. This does not mean we are abandoning ourselves; rather, we are looking for ways to learn about ourselves and present our best self to the world.
Let’s take the example of changing our health habits. This is a common desire for many of us. I recently talked with a friend who wanted to start running, but just did not see herself as a runner. She did, however, see herself as someone who wanted to exercise regularly, be in better shape, have more energy and accomplish all this without regularly going to a gym. We agreed that she could try running, walking, biking, tennis – any of these would help her accomplish her goal. We also agreed that in order to stay motivated, especially at first, she might need to keep a narrow focus on how she feels after she exercises – accomplished, proud of herself and healthier. Any time doubts or hesitations crept in, it became important to replace them with the anticipation of her post-exercise feelings. Thinking about that sense of success helped propel her forward during times she wanted to give up.
When I look at myself, I see my long-time tendency to avoid certain situations as something I would like to change. Often, it feels overwhelming to watch someone I care about struggling or in pain. For the first years my boys played baseball, I was tempted to close my eyes when there was potential for failure, especially if the game was on the line. I wanted them to only know the joy of succeeding, and I felt their unhappiness as if I were the one called out on strike three with the bases loaded. A couple of years into it, a grandmother came to watch her grandson play. During the game, she turned to me in the stands and said, “I sure wish I could have these years back and watch my son play again. That time really does fly by.” I suddenly realized I was purposely missing time I could never get back. Whatever happens will happen regardless of whether I am watching, and, in fact, my kids needed me more in times of disappointment than in times of triumph. It was not always easy, but I wanted to help them learn to move on from mistakes, and I couldn’t very well accomplish that if I was hiding under the bleachers!
The idea of significant personal change can be overwhelming. Say, for instance, you have piles of papers on your desk and piles of clothes in your closet. It can be maddening to spend all that extra time searching for something, or sometimes even buying an item you already have but can’t find (please tell me I’m not the only one!). You might shrug your shoulders but feel stuck because you don’t see yourself as an “organized person”. Picking a couple of specific things you want to change might be better than putting pressure on yourself to suddenly become an organizational guru. It might sound something like this, “I want to organize my closet” or “I want to have a system to keep my paperwork in order”. Action steps are easier to manage than a major transformation. You can pick specific tasks such as buying storage bins, throwing away unneeded items, or dividing papers into files. You might even dedicate 15 minutes of your day trying to maintain a system rather than searching frantically. Already you have created a positive change.
Changing and growing does not mean abandoning ourselves. It means being willing to reflect and identify ways in which we might become better. Rather than contemplating what obstacles may confront you on the road ahead, be bold and take that first step. We cannot identify what we want to change without thinking, but we cannot help ourselves or the world get better without acting.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 and is an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.