Wednesday, June 18, 2014


It's so hard to change the patterns of a lifetime. It requires hard, conscious work. And compassion towards ourselves. Our patterns of behaving are deeply rooted. Because these behaviors have been repeated and reinforced so many times during our lives they are so well engrained neurochemically that we are brain-wired to repeat them.
We are also afraid to change our ways of acting and thinking because they serve a self-protective function. They helped us to survive when we were younger. Some of us come from backgrounds of significant physical, sexual or psychological abuse or profound emotional neglect. For many of us the impact of our earlier environment was more subtle. Without an awareness of the impact upon us our parents,teachers et al were critical or judgmental of our sensitive Selves. Or there was a familiar atmosphere of fearfulness, tension, anger or sadness. This felt, at some level of consciousness, unsafe. So our Selves went into a self-protective hiding place and developed outward ways of behaving in order to survive. Although the use of the word survive may,in some instances, seem exaggerated or unnecessarily melodramatic, for the sensitive Self the stakes feel very high and the notion of surviving in a hostile or neglectful environment is very fitting.
For most of our patients - although this is not true for those who are currently in abusive situations - the need to be in a survival mode no longer exists. However,before they are able to put in the very hard work of changing, our patients need to understand how their patterns initially developed. Also, they need to perceive that unwittingly they are continuing now to act as if the same degree of physical or psychological threat still exists. After that initial therapeutic work is done I tell my patients,"It is time to move from surviving to thriving." In order for their Self to develop more fully - to thrive - they will have to do some hard work. While this is happening I encourage them to say to themselves the phrase/mantra, "I'm moving from surviving to thriving." Simple aphorisms - because in a few words they embody a simple and profound truth - like that can be very helpful and potent in this deep inner work.
As therapists it is very important for us to embody and express compassion for how difficult it is to change these patterns. Patients usually become judgmental and angry toward themselves because they are having such a difficult time changing. It seems to them that it should be simple. I often say,"Be gentle with yourself. Be compassionate towards yourself. It is very hard to change the patterns of a lifetime." I remind them that our brains are wired to respond in these ways, that the patterns are deeply engrained neurochemically and that, at some level of consciousness, they serve a self-protective function. Gradually, through my repeating."Be gentle with yourself" my patients internalize this phrase and become more compassionate toward themselves during the difficult process of changing.