Rejoining Joy

Ways of living

Stepping Up and Acting On

Taking Charge of Choice

Vinny was not sure about anything. Everything was a question mark for him. He struggled to make the most basic decisions. He did not see where his life was going. He had a humdrum job and also went from one date to another. He began to hit the bottle.

Andrea felt deceived by everything. She liked going to bars and meeting high rollers. She liked sexting with guys her friends considered losers. But after the exciting bed jousts she felt an internal emptiness. She did not know how to change her lifestyle. Increasingly, she turned to drugs.

You might be this person, stuck in a behavioral pattern either that you know needs change or that others keep telling you to change.  In therapy, both Vinny and Andrea kept referring to their dysfunctional families. I emphasized to them that they had not reduplicated their family members' worst habits and that they had initiated therapy because of a deep desire to change. It took many sessions for them the chart their destructive behavior habits, their triggers, their underlying negative cognitions, beliefs, and self-blaming, and their failed efforts at resolving them. We explored their past histories and how they could take steps to change for the better.

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"Stepping up" became one of the catchwords to characterize their change dynamic because it covered all the major areas of change that could take place. Stepping up is a phrase with multiple meanings and connotations, but all of them capture the essence of changing for the better - taking the challenge [stepping up to the plate], moving up, for example, developmentally [taking a step up the stairs], and being active [stepping up the pace].

To implement positive change, you need to be actively involved and even take the lead. Vinny and Andrea were stuck not because they did not have the ability to change but because they did not have the skill to get the process started.

The use of the stepping up metaphor in therapy changed that and it could help you, too.  However, keep in mind that a metaphor can only serve as a short hand for a long journey in change and as motivating device to begin it and keep at it; the rest is up to you, and change takes your best effort, hard work, and vigilance.

This is where the second catchword that I used in therapy helped keep the change process on track and toward positive outcomes - that of "acting on." The phrase acting on evokes the notions of taking charge and acting for. Change does not happen because one passively wishes it but because one actively acts for it to happen, especially after different solutions or choices are formulated and the best one is chosen to try out.

Vinny and Andrea had developed the will to change but lapsed easily into old ways or bad habits. Vinny would drink on the week-ends in order to avoid hard decisions and adapting new ways. Andrea would take drugs to ease her way into the allure of cheap thrills. Both needed reminders of how to take their initial resolve and keep the change process fueled so that relapses were kept at bay.

We developed techniques to fit for their predicaments, based on behavioral techniques as natural relaxation strategies and cognitive and narrative techniques for understanding and dealing with their triggers. Then, we determined how best to have each of them to act on their plans and follow them to success.

Vinny and Andrea began to make progress in taking charge of their choices, of deciding for themselves instead of having bad habits that had emerged in their past decide for them. They used the metaphor of "acting on" to their advantage when self-doubt crept into their mentality.

However, for both of them, they felt that something was holding them back or getting in the way. It was as if the past held secrets that it did not want to reveal to them, and the secrets represented barriers that they had to overcome before being well on their way to more positive and more permanent change.  At this point in therapy, a new catchword served as a powerful metaphor for changing for the better -- that of "taking charge of choice." The metaphor evokes an active self that is acting to find the right path in behavior rather than a passive one waiting for bad habits to take over behavior.

Both Vinny and Andrea were encouraged to report to me their weekly efforts and setbacks and any revealing thoughts or feelings that they might have had. Andrea was the first to tell me about a fleeting thought that she had about her father telling her "It's only flesh" during times of his sexual abuse. We had explored abuse issues in therapy, but not her father's psychology in abusing her. These words became the secret terror that finally came out into her consciousness, and I helped her get through the worst of her regression due to the revelation. Like Andrea, you can regain the strength of your positive journey in change and decide to never abdicate your role in deciding what was best for you and your future.

Vinny also had a breakthrough in his control of bad habits and acting for himself rather than against himself and his best interest. He stopped using the bottle as an excuse for his bad habits once he recalled that as a child he had to protect his sister from his drunkard uncle who kept trying to abuse her. His parents did not believe them when they were told the first time it happened. In retrospect, he understood that the uncle brought gifts for the children and money for the family, being the proverbial rich uncle, and the parents acted to preserve this link.

The clients that I have described are composites, but the stories of change that they tell are valuable ones in which "stepping up," "acting on," and "taking charge of choice" serve as powerful metaphors toward promoting active change and in keeping it going in a positive direction. Life is not a metaphor nor is the therapeutic change process, but metaphors can help them along and cement their change for the better.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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