This section includes a selection of letters on changing yourself and changing others. Individual counseling and self-help groups can also be powerful agents of change.
Wayne & Tamara offered a way of thinking about change in a series of three columns in early 2007. Those columns are reprinted below.
Hello. Love your column. Adult child of an alcoholic here… I’ve done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and still don’t know what to do with the rest of my life, career, hobbies, or anything. I over think everything and don’t make a move. I live in television, movies, and books. Is there a career in that, or is it just escapism?
I don’t take any risks, and at 37 I don’t know how to start. I am married but don’t rock the boat on any level. If I meet resistance, I usually back down. I have big dreams, then talk myself down. Example: What if I wrote a novel, and it gets published? I don’t want to travel too much and meet a lot of strangers. What if someone starts to stalk me? Or sues me? Or someone from my past writes something about me in a tabloid?
I don’t start anything, so I can’t finish anything. Just day-to-day work, and home week after week, year after year. I know there is so much more, but I am so afraid. Any advice would be appreciated.
Becky, how can I change? That is your question. Wayne often says when we don’t know the right answer we don’t know the wrong ones either. Lost in the woods, all directions seem equally plausible. If a person comes from a home with alcoholism, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse—if they were marginalized in any way growing up—this is their dilemma. How do I change?
Let’s travel back in time 2300 years in search of an answer. In one corner of the world an idea is taking shape. The place is Greece, and the idea is this. We human beings are minds riding around atop a body. The mind is the center of reason and the body the center of our passions. Since we are rational animals, we can use will power to control the irrational part of ourselves and plot a good course through life.
If you had good parents and reasonable opportunities, this idea of using will power to change isn’t too bad. But if you grew up in a home where you were marginalized, it doesn’t work well at all. A better notion comes from India of the same period.
The Indian concept sees the mind and body as two aspects of one whole. To change, to break the pattern of unhealthy conditioning, we must restore the original flexibility we had when we arrived on the planet. Working with both mind and body we can completely alter consciousness.
Consider a block of ice. We cannot easily change the shape of a block of ice with will power. But if we restore the ice to its original form—water—we can refreeze it into almost any shape we desire. If we restore our mind and body to their original state, we can break our conditioning and transform our lives.
What does it mean to say you are the child of an alcoholic? It means you woke up each morning with a feeling of dread. You were afraid to speak, afraid to act, and doubted yourself. Your natural pattern of development was thwarted, so it took another path. You developed habits and patterns of thought you are now embarrassed, even humiliated, to discuss. But these can be changed.
Because change is such an important topic, we are going to discuss your letter over the next several weeks. But let me leave you with a thought from Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. When Cameron is approached by people who want to change, yet doubt they can, she often hears, “Do you know how old I will be by the time I do this?” Her reply is, “Yes…the same age you will be if you don’t.”
Next week Wayne will discuss the specifics of change.
(Relationship advice from the column for the week of February 19, 2007)
Rising From The Ashes
Hello. Adult child of an alcoholic here. I still don’t know what to do with the rest of my life. I over think everything and don’t make a move. If I meet resistance, I usually back down. I have big dreams, then talk myself down. I know there is more to life but am so afraid…
Becky, last week we printed your entire letter, and Tamara began our response This week I continue where Tamara left off.
Like everyone else, you arrived on the planet with a natural inclination to develop along certain lines. However, your development was thwarted. It could have been anything, but in your case it was two delusional parents. One parent lived inside a bottle, and the other parent pretended it wasn’t so. That’s pretty harsh, but it’s the usual story for children in an alcoholic home.
As a clear-eyed child trying to cope with two people not living in reality, you developed certain habits. You double and triple thought everything. You created an imaginary life in your head. And you listened to negative thoughts repeat themselves again and again. Thoughts like, “I am not good enough, I am unworthy, I am useless…”
Though it embarrasses you now to admit how you coped, these habits were a perfectly normal response. You should be grateful for them. They helped you survive a difficult situation, but now it is time to let them go.
Unfortunately the mind tends to follow familiar patterns. Though these habits are no longer needed, the mind wants to hold on to them. What you need is a way to break through your negative conditioning and become again that clear-eyed, resilient child.
Today I want to suggest three simple, powerful techniques you, or anyone else, can use to change. As Tamara mentioned, the West has traditionally regarded the body as a poor relative of the mind; this meant emphasizing change through will power. But will power is nearly powerless in overcoming negative conditioning. A wiser approach uses both mind and body.
The first technique we suggest is simply watching each breath, or counting each breath up to a certain number, say 21. What this technique does is break habitual patterns of thought. It moves your mind to the present and frees energy for productive uses. Books on this practice are often grouped under the heading of mindfulness or relaxation.
The second technique employs the body, and it relies on one elementary fact: habits of mind are embedded in the body. When energy is tied up in unproductive mental habits, it is also tied up in the muscular and skeletal systems. A gentle daily routine of stretching and flexibility exercises frees this energy.
The final technique is also simple, and it relies on another basic fact: what you lacked growing up was role models. The human instrument is capable of incredible things, but when you looked into your parents’ eyes you often saw nobody was home. You need to find role models. We are thinking of those people who live in each moment, people who are highly organized personalities living life with a continuity of purpose. Coming in contact with just one such person can change your life.
Each of these suggestions is powerful. They are available to anyone, anytime, and they don’t cost a thing. They have only two limitations. First, if you are in an immediate crisis, they won’t work fast enough to help you. Second, they can’t cure an underlying organic problem.
In the Bhagavad Gita it is written that no effort on the right path is ever wasted. That’s how it is when you decide to change the course of your life. There is no failure. It is simply a matter of the degree of your success. Every effort, even the smallest, improves your life.
Next week Tamara and I conclude our thoughts on change.
(From the column for the week of February 26, 2007)
Hello. Adult child of an alcoholic here. I still don’t know what to do with my life. I don’t take any risks. I live in television, movies, and books. Is there a career in that or is that just escapism?
I have big dreams and then talk myself down. Example: What if I wrote a novel, and it gets published? What if someone starts to stalk me? Or sues me? Or someone from my past writes something about me in a tabloid? I don’t start anything so I can’t finish anything. I know there is more but am so afraid.
Becky, Wayne often says he admires the amoeba, a tiny creature with only one cell. If you watch an amoeba through a microscope, you will see a creature which moves toward what it needs and recoils from what it doesn’t. Life is no more complicated than that.
People with good parents and favorable circumstances build from a center of encouragement, and they have a place to fall back to. People whose development was thwarted cannot change until they are freed from their negative conditioning.
To cope with things like alcoholism or abuse they developed certain patterns of thought and behavior. These patterns are the normal operation of a mind recoiling from a bad situation, and unfortunately, they can’t be changed by will power alone. These patterns include such mental habits as reliving bad memories, physical habits like holding tension in the muscles, and emotional habits like dwelling on fears.
Last week we offered three techniques to break these patterns. The mind can be freed through simple exercises focusing on the breath; books on mindfulness, relaxation, and meditation explain such techniques. The body can be freed through simple stretching and flexibility exercises, like the warm-ups people do before a sport, or the exercises taught in a beginning yoga class.
Two weeks ago Tamara made a comparison to a block of ice. We cannot change its shape with will power, but if we restore the ice to its original form—water—we can refreeze it into almost any shape we desire. If we restore the mind and body to their original state, we can break our negative conditioning and transform our lives.
What you need to do is recondition your mind, recondition your body, and understand what you are capable of by seeing what others are capable of. That is why we mentioned a third technique: look for good role models. They can show you how to live. Seek out highly functioning people the way ancient navigators sought the pole star.
Lastly, we want to address your fears. The fears you have today are no more than the fears you had as a child in slightly different form. As a child you worried about why daddy was drunk and why mommy lied for daddy. As an adult you torture yourself with fears about being sued or being trashed by a tabloid. When you dissolve your negative conditioning, those fears will also dissolve.
Can you publish a novel? Perhaps. But often the desire to write or paint or live in the country is simply a placeholder. It stands for something else. It stands for the desire to uncork the bottle; it stands for the desire to release the energy trapped in negative patterns. Until you begin to change you won’t know what your desire to write is really about.
What we are suggesting is very, very simple. It does not preclude using any other means, like counseling or support groups, to help you change. But people who follow this path look back after a period of years and feel their life was guided by an unseen hand. That unseen hand is the natural unfolding of their potential as a human being.
Like the amoeba, which can change its form to adapt to circumstances, you can change in ways you cannot now imagine.
Wayne & Tamara
(Relationship advice from the column for the week of March 5, 2007)
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