I went out to lunch yesterday with three of my daughters (I have four). We went to our favorite Asian restaurant which happens to be just a few blocks from my house. How many people live within walking distance from one of their favorite restaurants? I can get just about anything I want made vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free. It is a dream come true for the dietarily restricted diner. Plus, it’s a family owned business which means that one gets to know the proprietors after a bit. It’s like walking onto the set of Cheers–everyone knows your name.
Our family has witnessed their family’s births, deaths, and marriages. I did not, however, know anything about a divorce in the family. One of the women who more visibly runs the restaurant (and whom I just adore) divorced two years ago. I had no idea. That’s when I separated from my ex-husband, too. A few months ago, I emerged from my chrysalis of recovery and decided to go back to my favorite spot. Karen was there, of course, with a ready proclamation: “I haven’t seen you in forever! How are you? How are the girls?” We hugged. She seated me. I didn’t say much. As is her way, she would subtly insinuate herself next to me to refill my water glass and ask, “Really, how are you? What’s going on?” I quietly answered, “I’m getting a divorce. It’s been a rough year.” She paused and looked at me. “I’m getting a divorce, too.” Our eyes met. I thought I might cry. She looked like she might cry. “Okay, okay, we’ll talk later,” she said.
It was the mutual recognition of familiar suffering that evoked that response, I think.
Back to yesterday…
There was a moment when business slowed, and Karen talked to me. She asked how my current life looked. How is post-married life? How are the girls? She fears that she will be alone forever, and she’s not sure how she feels about it. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Why is it so hard to meet quality people? How does one go about building a better life when you never expected to be in this position?
I talked to my boyfriend about this last night. I shared with him all the questions Karen had. Those were my questions as well when I was still married, and I suspect that questions of that nature are what keep people stuck. The Great Unknown is scarier than what is known. No one wants to be alone. So, they choose the lesser of the two perceived evils–staying in something dysfunctional, abusive, or just plain wrong for them vs. entering into something potentially better but completely foreign.
He responded, “Yeah, we all have criteria defining what we want. We might want someone with tempered wisdom and humor, but do we actually think about the life experiences and effort one has to endure and take to acquire those characteristics? We have to actually put in the work in our lives and character to become the people we ourselves would want to partner with.”
He is right. To attract the people and circumstances that you most desire, you have to become that which you want. If you want a patient partner, then you yourself must become patient. If you want a good humored partner, then you yourself must become good humored. If you want a tolerant partner who doesn’t criticize others, then you yourself must become that kind of person. Why is this true? Well, a patient, tolerant person will not find a critical, impatient, intolerant person attractive nor want to partner with them. So, if we desire positive attributes in a potential partner or friend but lack those very qualities in ourselves and lives, then how likely are we to actually get what we want? This is why that cliché “Become the change you want” works. There is truth within it.
There is nothing easy about any of this. Change is hard. Our bodies are not wired for change. Our bodies are wired for homeostasis. We are designed to maintain the status quo whatever that is, but, in my experience, you cannot achieve a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment without changing. Change is required.
Okay, okay, you might say, but how do you start? What if too much has to change? What if you are generally unhappy, lonely, sick, and confused? It’s one thing to say that you need to change, but what does that look like in real life?
I’ll leave abuse out of this discussion, but I will make this comment. If you are being abused, then make that your priority. You absolutely must leave any circumstance or relationship that is abusive. People who abuse are not likely to stop. Abusive people most often tend to have feelings of entitlement and feel as if they have a right to their behaviors. There is no cure for entitlement and rarely is it curbed in a therapeutic setting. It is symptomatic of much larger personality and character issues (Entitlement and Domestic Abuse).
Abuse aside, how can you begin to get traction in life and make real changes that stick? Here is an example from my life.
One small change at a time sticks far better than many changes made too quickly. Two years ago, I realized that I was consuming far too much sugar daily simply due to putting sugar in my coffee. It might sound ridiculous, but you don’t know how much coffee I drink. The caffeine aside, I had to deal with the sugar first. So, on January 1, 2015 I decided to develop a taste for coffee with no sugar. By mid-2015, I could drink my coffee sans sugar. I am very sensitive to bitter tastes which is why it took me so long to grow accustomed to coffee with no sweetener. I overcompensated for the lack of sugar, however, with half-and-half, but I could drink any coffee without sugar. In fact, I could no longer drink any kind of fancy coffee drink. They were all too sweet for my new palate although I still required some kind of milk be it coconut, almond, soy, or dairy.
At the beginning of 2016, I decided to learn to like coffee black. Blech. Alas, this was the change I was committed to making. By the end of 2016 I was drinking my coffee black. The unexpected side effect of cutting out sugar and milk? I lost 14 pounds in two years. Just from removing sugar and half-and-half from my coffee! Isn’t that somewhat alarming?
The reason I could sustain these changes were:
Once you witness a positive result from making a change, you will want to apply yourself to making another positive change. You begin to see that your efforts produce results. I started with diet and my social life, and my changes were small and manageable. Seeing positive results builds momentum and courage which is what enables you to start thinking bigger. This principle is exactly how you continue to keep making changes and also how you stay the course that you’ve set.
Now? My life is completely different, and it all started with very small, manageable changes that didn’t really seem that applicable to the bigger problems I had at the time. Cutting out sugar from my coffee in no way seemed to relate to my bad marriage, but it had a direct impact on my ability to view myself as effective in my life. Why?
As funny as it sounds, I had two friends that always teased me for putting heaps of sugar in my coffee. When I showed up for a coffee date and put no sugar in my coffee, one of them said, “Oh my gosh, hell has frozen over. You didn’t put sugar in your coffee! What has happened to you?” I was experiencing change.
We all have something idiosyncratic that others recognize as uniquely “us”. If we stop doing it, then something really has changed in our lives. It’s most likely little, and it may not be that beneficial. Maybe you smoke. Maybe you’re a social drinker. Maybe you emotionally eat. Maybe you watch too much TV or rely too heavily on retail therapy. Maybe you’re ill-tempered and angry too often, or perhaps you’re judgmental or not so secretly bigoted. No one is perfect. We all have areas in need of development. Pick one thing, reframe it, and decide that you will change it.
In my case, I didn’t say, “I will stop putting sugar in my coffee.” That would have put my focus on the sugar. I simply said, “I will learn to like coffee without a sweet taste.” In this way, my focus was on the coffee. So, for example, if you struggle with becoming angry too quickly, then you would not say, “I want to stop becoming angry so quickly.” That statement puts your focus on anger. You would say, “I will develop a more calm and serene character even under pressure.”
Why change the language? Well, people who are angry, for example, do not have “anger problems”. They have no problem feeling anger. They have no problem expressing anger. They do, however, have a lower capacity for peace, self-control, and calm. So, their focus should be on the latter rather than the former. I didn’t have a “sugar problem”. I had no problem consuming sugar. I had a poorly developed palate and sensitivity to bitter tastes. I needed to increase my capacity for consuming and enjoying bitter tastes, and I did. I now no longer enjoy milk chocolate as much as I did and even prefer very dark chocolate. I used to hate dark chocolate. Isn’t that funny?
Small, manageable changes and a change in focus.
That’s how you set your foot on the path of meaningful change.