One of the earlier tasks of therapy is establishing a client’s problem list. What are you hoping to get out of the process? The response generally begins with, “I want to change... XYZ”.
XYX may denote a problem relationship or a counterproductive behaviour but is often described in less specific terms. “I want to change my life”, “I want to change this”, “I don't want this any more.”
No wonder change sounds alluring, reassuring. After all, it’s not “this”.
There is a flaw in the logic, however. There can be an assumption that the opposite of “this” is great, that you wholeheartedly want it. But do you?
Change is rarely straightforward. We can all relate to creating complications against our own self-interest.
And while it is good to feel eager and expectant about change, these same drivers can mislead us into having unrealistic, simplistic expectations.
There is a world of difference between the promise of change and the process of change.
Often, we knowingly maintain our problem behaviours and engage in destructive ways. We are aware that we are avoiding work in favour of the mind-numbing game show. We are aware the entire ice cream tub doesn’t constitute one of our five a day. We are aware that taking to the couch will undermine our efforts to escape the humdrum.
We want to change but we do not want to change these behaviours in the here and now. We rationalise, justify, bargain and continue to avoid. We reassure ourselves that tomorrow is a new day and purge our guilt with self-blame.
A more accurate appraisal of the change scenario might more closely resemble this: I don't want to undermine my financial plans any more. But denying myself this beautiful coat feels so difficult and online shopping is one of my few pandemic pleasures, when everything feels so wearisome.
In short, “I want to be changed”, rather than “I want change”. Thing is, change is something you do – not something that happens to you.
Don’t beat yourself up – this is human nature. As Psychology Today’s Prof. Noam Shpancer notes, ‘our brain has evolved to favour short-term over long-term calculations, immediate over delayed gratifications’. Much of our behaviour is automatic. We respond in habitual ways to conditioned cues in our environment. We favour the short-term. It feels less effortful, less emotional. Immediate choices are easier.
So the first step to change is this: recognise your innate ambivalence and resistance to change. There are reasons why we do things that keep us stuck.
Knowing this, CBT expert Dr David Burns recommends a simple thought exercise, the Tic-Toc technique, to help us break out of self-defeating habits that get in the way of change. Firstly, write down your goal.
Secondly, write down the steps involved. Now note your task-interfering cognitions (Tics) – thoughts that get in the way and interfere with change.
Then look for any thinking errors in these Tics. Finally, write down your Tocs (task-oriented cognitions – more balanced helpful thoughts that orientate you towards change).
Goal: Pass my exams.
Steps involved: Starting my overdue assignment.
Tics: I have it all to do. I will never get there. I’ll start when I'm in the mood.
Thinking errors: All-or-nothing thinking, fortune-telling, awfulising.
Tocs: I can make a start. It might feel less overwhelming. I don't have to do it all tonight. I’ll feel better when I’ve made a plan. I don't have to wait until I feel ready. I’ll do 20 minutes.
As you read this, you might find yourself saying “This trashy Tic-tic technique won’t work for me. It’s useless”.
I urge you to see this prognosis for what it is – another Tic that drives frustration and procrastination.
Let’s replace it with a Toc:
"Maybe Tic-Toc won’t work for me but maybe it will. I've no evidence and I'm not a fortune teller last time I checked. I'm reasoning from my feelings and just because I feel despondent doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. I'm mislabelling the technique without giving it a chance. I've nothing to lose except these upsetting Tics".
Change is something you do. It’s actively making intentional choices. Is it always easy? No. Is it worth it?
(First published in Southern Star on 18/02/2021).