At times I feel like a Sherlock Holmes of the mind, each of my clients the faithful and resourceful Watson of his or her own unsolved mystery.
A Holmes-like insight is the province of traditional psychotherapy, and it is often a helpful tool. Insight can clarify the causes of anxiety or depression, relieve guilt and shame, explicate the roots of trauma, and point the way to new and better lives. But insight alone is seldom enough to effect lasting change. And, as one of my former professors remarked, “Sometimes insight is the last defense.”
In therapy, as in life, actions are more powerful than words. Identifying dysfunctional patterns, self-sabotaging thoughts, and triggered feelings that keep us prisoners of our problems is an important, even vital, preparatory step, but for significant growth, we need, also, to change what we do.
Psychologist Jim Grant envisions our collections of patterned thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as akin to a Spell that can lead us to act in ritualized, self-defeating ways. To break the Spell, we need to alter our actions. Even a slight shift in an old pattern opens the way for future growth that no amount of additional insight, by itself, can foster.
For example, addicts typically follow a limited but compelling set of commands such as: “Once I get the idea in my head, I have to get high,” or “If I’m around it, I have to do it,” or “Getting high is the only thing I have to look forward to.” In therapy, addicts can identify triggers, challenge addiction-related thoughts, and work through the feelings that entrap them in addictive behaviors. But to break the addiction Spell, they also have to act differently, “faking it till they make it” even when every conscious thought and habituated emotion is screaming at them to use. They must, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, do the thing they think they cannot do.
What holds true for addiction applies to any of the maladies that bring people to therapy. Each of us has our own patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior, and each requires not just insights – words and ideas – but also actions to replace dysfunctional patterns with new, more fulfilling ways to be in the world.
Of course, acting differently is much easier said than done.
When I was a junior in college, I took a class in the writings and teachings of the Armenian-Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. One of Gurdjieff’s chief precepts was that most of us live in a waking dream, believing we are far more in control of our fates than we really are. The other students and I rejected this notion – we were, after all, the generation that would change the world! So our instructor challenged us with what seemed, at first, like trivial attempts at behavior modification.
Our first assignment was around eating. If we normally cleaned our plates at each meal, he said, we were to leave a bite behind, and vice versa. This task seemed undemanding, but in the week between classes, none of us succeeded in accomplishing it more than once or twice. Humbled but unbroken, we theorized that eating behaviors might be too deeply ingrained for an initial experiment. So next time, he let us choose. I decided to use my left hand for something I normally did with my right – opening doors – and on the way out I confidently opened the classroom door left-handed. By our next meeting, I was not so confident. I’d remembered the assignment only for that night. Score: Habit 2, David 0.
Or so I believed at the time.
What I hadn’t realized then, but understand now, is that although little had changed, I had changed something. I did remember to leave a bite on my plate at least once, and I had opened at least one door – the classroom door – with my non-dominant hand. I just hadn’t sustained the changes. Now, after witnessing hundreds of people better their lives by learning to act differently, I know that even a single exception to a dysfunctional pattern can be more potent than dozens of repetitions. Each exception makes more exceptions possible, opening the door (with either hand) to a new direction.
I have been drawn to action-oriented schools of therapy, and I use them with my clients, but psychotherapy is not the only way to break a Spell. All we need is a method that empowers us to recognize self-defeating patterns, to identify what those patterns want us to do, and to choose, through any means available, to do otherwise. And then, above all, to repeat the change again and again, as often as we can remember, until it becomes the way we live.
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