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Strategies For Measuring Growth More Usefully

Steven Topper LCPC

Take a moment to reflect on the last few weeks. What has been a struggle? Where has pain showed up in your days and nights? What has gone well? What do you wish could have been different? How do you wish you could have been different? See if some of these reflections yield familiar results. Themes that you’ve known about for quite a while. Commonly, our struggles are old ones, maybe repackaged for new contexts yet similar at their core. Some examples may include asserting boundaries better, engaging in healthy eating habits or drinking less, time management, being kind instead of right, or admitting mistakes. Many of us struggle with behaviors we know aren’t very helpful for us. It is often from this place we turn to therapy. We’ve attempted to problem-solve, and it hasn’t worked very well. The problems persist and then we may even start to wonder: Am I even capable of changing? Doubt creeps in. Maybe I’m just not good enough, smart enough, driven enough, capable enough. 

How Do I Know I’m Changing? Strategies For Measuring Growth More Usefully

So many of us have struggles in this way, it seems nearly inherent in the human condition. Change is really difficult and sustaining change can at times feel impossible. We compare ourselves to others, relapse, and beat ourselves up for not being perfect. One common impediment is that many of us have a lack of awareness for which behaviors work and which don’t. We can often pay attention to unhelpful components of our experience that keep us locked in old and rigid behavior patterns. By shifting our awareness from discomfort to meaning, we may be able to become unstuck from these old patterns.

In the field of contextual behavior science, there is a learning theory called Relational Frame Theory (RFT) that explores how language acquisition ties into behaviors and change. One important aspect of RFT for this conversation is how we humans tell whether what we’re doing is good or not. Life would be so much simpler if, after each step toward growth and change, I got an M&M, telling me that what I’m doing is along the right path and to keep going this way. We all know that this doesn’t tend to happen to us. Life twists and turns, and often we don’t even know what the right thing to do might be. Instead, we follow rules called mands (like the word command). Mands are verbal rules we ascribe to in order to orient ourselves to our life. One example of manding is a parent telling us to put a coat on because it’s cold. Instead of going outside to see if we’re too cold without a coat, we simply listen to our parents and put the coat on. Usually we’re rewarded for this as well, by staying warm and not getting in trouble with our parents. We don’t actually have to experience the negative consequence (being cold) in order to do what works. Sometimes these rules are more challenging and unhelpful. This is where it can be particularly difficult to tell if we’re growing or not. Maybe new behaviors we’d like to engage in come with surprising and unforeseen consequences. When we’re more assertive with our boundaries, the friends used to us not maintaining them may become angry with us. When we begin eating better, we might not feel healthier right away, and our bodies are unlikely to change after a few days. If we are following the mand (or rule) that these changes need to feel better, we’re most likely to become disillusioned, confused, and we may stop the new behavior. Because this behavior doesn’t follow the rule of feeling better, we view the change as not working. Motivation plummets, and we’re back to our old ways. 

However, there is another way of learning what works and doesn’t. Instead of following the rules, we can tact our experience instead (think of the word contact). To tact our experience means to pay attention to the consequences of trying something. I’m tacting when I go outside and find it’s too cold, so come back in and get my coat. I’ve learned through my experience (instead of a rule) about what works. If we deemphasize feeling good in the short term, we may notice really cool features of new behaviors. When I assert my boundaries it’s uncomfortable and scary in the moment, though later I may notice that I feel proud and respected. Even if friends give me a hard time, there may still be components to my experience that are rewarding to me. I may feel more honest and authentic. Further, trying new behaviors usually means we make mistakes. When tacting, I get to learn from these mistakes and continue to make adjustments to what works and what doesn’t. I don’t have to follow the rule, “Make no mistakes, they’re bad.” This allows me to actually learn how to do something that’s probably pretty difficult. 

Instead of focusing on the rules about discomfort and failure (avoid at all costs!), we can notice how meaningful and useful these new behaviors are. 

Talk to your therapist to learn more ways to gain support in making behavioral changes. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our Chicago counselors in-person or via online counseling.

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