What Function Does It Serve?
Y'all are going to think I'm crazy, but this is way too relevant to not share.
Okay - so most of us want to figure out what our problems are so that we can change them right away, so that we can fix them and be done with it. I mean, people come into therapy and counseling specifically for that reason. They feel some level of distress (something isn't quite working in their life) and they're not quite sure what or how to "fix it."
Here's where I come in...
(And only if people seek out counseling or therapy and/or read this...)
- There is no 'fixing.'
I bristle when I hear the word "fix." It makes me think that life is a problem to be solved rather than a journey to be experienced. Like there's a right way and a wrong way, and we need to make sure that we're on the 'right' path. Blegh. And also, like we view ourselves as these constant projects that just aren't measuring up to expectations.
As an important caveat, I strongly agree with growth being a continual journey and self-reflection is an important part of that, which includes assessing our strengths and areas of growth. I'm not trying to imply that we shouldn't engage in some level of reflecting on who we are or how we can grow. I am saying, however, that we don't do ourselves any favors when we nitpick every little 'flaw' that we have and try to 'fix' (i.e. demolish, destroy, terminate) them.
- We don't pay enough attention to the benefits of those behaviors we so badly want to 'fix.'
Here's what I mean by this. When there is something in place - a behavior or thought or whatever that you want to 'fix,' please trust me in saying that it's there for a reason. Yes, I know, "no it's not!!" No, seriously, it is. It's been serving a purpose for something and that is really important. And before you argue with me again, just because something has been important in some way doesn't mean that it has to stay in your life or stay important.
For example, if you've been chugging beer to feel less anxious enough so that you can fall asleep at night, let's honor the fact that beer has helped you fall asleep. Yes, there are many holes in this (i.e. beer increases anxiety long-term and actually disrupts sleep cycles), but for the sake of this example, go with it. Beer has helped you fall asleep, and that is wonderful because you don't sleep well. If we just focus on getting rid of the beer chugging and not the importance of it as a sleep aid, then we're not going to ever really understand or be able to 'fix' the problem.
The problem isn't the beer drinking - that's a symptom of the problem. In this case, the problem is sleep. If that's the only time and reason you're chugging beer, then it's sleep, rather than beer. Does that make sense? And if that's the case, then we can clearly see the benefits of chugging beer. I can only speak for myself, but I hate not getting enough sleep. I'm tired, cranky, can't think clearly or straight, and don't want to show up fully. With that in mind, I can fully understand why you might be chugging beer to get some semblance of rest.
If we don't understand the importance of the behavior and the benefit of it, then we're not going to be able to create lasting change.
- We also need to clearly see the costs of those behaviors we so badly want to 'fix.'
For every behavior, there's a benefit (see point two) and there's a cost. The cost is not necessarily material, although it can be. When I say cost, I'm really talking about psychological, emotional, mental, spiritual, and/or social cost. Literally, the cost is referring to what have you given up to keep this behavior alive.
For our beer-chugging insomniac, the cost is health, friends (because they act like an a-hole after chugging three beers), anxiety (see above), and money. Here's where people typically start looking at counseling or therapy - it's when the costs add up. It's when they become a little bit larger than the benefits. If we think of a set of scales, for example, the left side is costs and the right side is benefits. Initially, when engaging in beer chugging, the benefits seriously outweighed the costs. I mean, there was no thought about it. However, for each time this happened, the costs slowly and surely began to weigh a little more. Until eventually, they weighed about the same. This is still not enough to get into cousneling or therapy. It's only when the costs start to outweigh the benefits - when those scales tip in favor of costs, then people are ready to start talking about change. Not necessarily ready to change, but definitely ready to start talking about it.
This is hard stuff. Please don't think that change is ever easy or that behaviors are intentional in some way (whether conscious, subconscious, or unconsciously so).
- We shame ourselves for the behavior, hoping to get rid of it.
This ties back in with points number one and two, but is worth spelling out clearly. It seems to go like this - we have something we don't like and want to 'fix,' and then, when we fail at eradicating that thing from our lives permanently within one week (after doing it for 15 years), we feel bad, shameful, guilty, and like we're not trying hard enough, good enough to do it, or deserve to feel bad.
The irony is that when we don't succeed and we feel bad about it, then we just set ourselves up to 'fail' again. Rather than thinking of the beer chugging (for example) as something you need to get rid of right now, think of it as something that you're going to learn about, delve into, see as maladaptive coping (at this point - not initially, right?), and create new behaviors that will give you the same or similar benefits without the same cost.
It's hard to see the sequence of events when you're wrapped up in feeling shitty, but it's easy to see it from the outside (hence why therapy and counseling can be so successful).
I think this is obvious, but I'll say it again for good measure. Honor those things you so desperately want to 'fix.' They've served you well (to this point - the point of feeling distressed by them) and have probably been protective in some way. There is nothing wrong with those things. It's only when we assign judgment to them that they become an issue for us (in terms of trying to heal and/or adopt new behaviors or coping methods). In other words, when we feel icky and shameful about the things we want to 'fix,' we're not seeing them realistically. We can dislike something, try to change and grow from it, and not feel bad, guilty, or shameful about it. I hope that makes sense - it's all of the above, not either/or.
Additionally, I'm not advocating for self-destructive behaviors and/or for people to engage in really harmful things. There are times when immediate intervention is necessary. I am saying, however, that each behavior we engage in serves some sort of purpose. The sooner we can understand that purpose and honor that behavior, the more thoroughly we can heal and adopt new behaviors that serve us well, are adaptive coping mechanisms, and are healing, rather than destructive.