Making Change

A psychologist provides guidelines to help individuals define their best pathways to change

Feeling stuck? How to get free

What to do when trying your hardest doesn't help.

Sometimes life just hands us metaphors to live our lives by; and I recently had such an experience. I was walking a main trail in New Hampshire's Franconia Notch State Park when a staff member pointed out a small path off to the side. He suggested that I check out the "wolf den." It consisted of a few boulders wedged together, leaving a small covered opening to squeeze through. When he mentioned that a number of people have gotten stuck in there, I asked how he gets them out. He chuckled and said, "Well, we can't move the rocks." Then he explained that he just waits. After about fifteen minutes of struggling, they give up... their bodies relax and they can slip right through.

Similarly, life often presents a situation that we simply cannot change; but that we feel we can't live with. As a result, we fight it - pushing hard against boulders that cannot be budged. For example, there is the infertility problem that cannot be wished away; and the disabled son or daughter whose limitations cannot be overcome. Only when we stop fighting the unchangeable can we accept our predicament. Then we are open to the best ways of handling it.

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You may have already heard advice about the importance of acceptance. It's part of the message from the Serenity Prayer; to accept the things we cannot change. It's also one of those life lessons that you might have learned directly from your experiences. For example, after you explain to your child ‘for the tenth time' why he cannot go to a concert or get a particular Xbox game, you might finally give up and simply state, "Because I told you so." It's in that moment that you realize you'd been metaphorically trying to put your head through a brick wall. You feel much better once you stop all the head banging (or at least once your headache eases); and you are more likely to figure out better ways to get your message across at a later time (if you think that's necessary).

This advice isn't just from anecdotes and folk wisdom, either. Scientific studies have found that people don't think clearly when they are ensnared in an emotionally difficult situation. For example, research has shown that people feel distressed when faced with information that contradicts things they are invested in believing. Without realizing it, they resolve this dilemma by finding ways to support what they already believe. Psychologist Drew Westen and his colleagues illustrated that point by conducting an experiment during the 2004 Presidential election. They studied how committed Democrats and Republicans responded when negative information was presented about their favored candidates (John Kerry, George Bush). The results show that the parts of the subjects' brains that process emotions became highly activated while the ‘logical parts' were not. So, no matter how logical their responses to the negative information may have sounded, they were more motivated by their emotions than facts.

While people might recognize this emotionally driven thinking in others, they often don't realize just how swayed they are by emotions. So, although emotions provide a richness to life that we all value, learning to calm down and distance ourselves from them is an extremely important skill to practice. It can help you to gain new perspectives about yourself and to find your way through problems.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She is also the ‘Relationship' expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey.

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