Making Change Happen
If you’ve ever resolved to be a “better” parent or partner (and who hasn’t?) you may have felt a moment or two of frustration over your lack of success. What keeps us from being able to make changes in our own behavior, even when it’s something we really want?
We seem to be hard-wired to focus on the negative in our lives. What this means is that when something happens — say we get into a huge blowout with one of our kids — when we look back on how it went down, we too often dwell on the stuff we did wrong or the worst aspects of the situation. While this is important information to have, when we’re talking about making a change, our brains need to know what to do, instead of what not to do. Otherwise we’re left with a bit of a vacuum: I know I shouldn’t do these things, but what should I do in their place?
If we think about that argument you had with your child, when your little darling starts pulling out all the stops, you may be thinking, “I’m not going to yell. I’m not going to take the bait. I’m not going to argue…” which is all valid and useful stuff to not do. The problem is that your brain is then left scrambling, wondering what exactly isn’t off limits. And as your anger and stress levels rise, it becomes harder and harder for your brain to think rationally. So what you’re left with is a thought process that is focusing only on the negative things, with nothing actionable filling in the gaps…and the next thing you know, you’re right back to yelling and arguing again. And then you feel lousy, disappointed in yourself, and maybe even hopeless that despite your good intentions, you’re right back to where you started.
Instead of focusing on what didn’t work in a situation, go over it in your mind and consider what did work (if anything). What did you do that was helpful, what worked, what could you do more of next time? Also consider what didn’t work, but instead of agreeing with yourself that you won’t do it again, go one step further and think about what you will do next time. What concrete, positive action can you take? Don’t say to yourself, “The next time she swears at me, I’m not going to swear back,” say, “The next time she swears at me, I will calmly leave the room/explain to her that I won’t tolerate that kind of behavior/remind her that we don’t swear in our house and if she’d like to continue the conversation, she needs to speak to me respectfully.”
An analysis after the fact can be an important tool in changing behavior. But the content of that analysis needs to be focused on what you will do next time, not what you won’t. Succinctly define the behavior you’d like to change, then create a plan for what you will do differently next time. Test it out, experiment, and keep refining it until you’re pleased with the result you’re getting.