Holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl tells the story of a sadistic doctor, a Nazi official responsible for sending hundreds of patients from a mental hospital to the gas chambers. Years after the war, Frankl became acquainted with a man who was imprisoned with the Nazi leader in Russia and who testified that the doctor was the epitome of moral strength and integrity and became his greatest friend during his years in prison. Frankl then remarks, “How can you dare to predict the behavior of man! ... Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”
This first step may seem so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning, but in actuality it is the most important step of all. Psychologists outline the stages of change from pre-contemplation, where a person doesn’t even realize he has a need for change, all the way through termination, where he has reached his goal. Often the most difficult stage is moving from pre-contemplation to contemplation, or from denial and inability to consider change to a point of awareness and desire for change.
Even if you can do no more than want to want to make a modification, that is a beginning. Ruminate over reasons to alter certain behaviors, characteristics or circumstances and ponder the pros and cons of making such a change. Pray, write or talk about your desire and let it grow within you.
Once you have cultivated a desire to change, start to see in your mind’s eye exactly what that change would look like. Imagine yourself as the patient person, the healthy woman, the financially secure individual you want to become. Athletes often use mental imagery to enhance their physical performance by imagining what crossing the finish line will look, taste, smell and feel like and then replaying it over and over in their minds. As you visualize your success, your will deepen your belief in and resolve to change.
3. Formulate a plan to change
Using the visualization techniques to show you what you can have or become, outline the necessary steps you will need to take to achieve your goal. Write down your plan with specific details and a timeline you will follow. For example, several years ago I decided to change my negative feelings about and approach toward Christmas, a holiday that had become a season of stress and chaos instead of joy for me. My plan for change included buying and wrapping out-of-town presents by December 5, selecting concerts and events to attend in lieu of a long list of gifts, including the children in holiday baking, and reading Christmas stories each night in December. Perhaps of most importance, my plan included feeding my spirit and opening my mind and heart to the possibility of Christmas joy.
4. Challenge your plan to change
Next, play devil’s advocate with your plan, pre-determining those obstacles that might hinder you from achieving your goal. A social gathering with delicious treats might pose a threat to your weight loss plan, an injury might prevent you from meeting your goal to run three miles a day, fear of judgment might hamper you from enrolling in the art class you have longed to take. Find a way around each impediment such as eating a healthy meal before attending the party, choosing to swim laps in the case of injury or talking back to your fears by thinking of the worst thing that could happen if you were judged unfairly. Making a mental and written list of possible obstacles will prepare you to handle them when they come instead of allowing them to take the wind out of your sails.
5. Work your plan to change
Changing a habit, a perception, or a condition requires vigilance, patience and hard work. Continue to visualize and reflect on the benefits of the change you are trying to make. Rely on your loved ones and support system to buoy you up and keep you accountable. Remember, practice makes permanent. Practice not only the physical tasks on your action list, but especially perform the mental exercise of challenging your thinking. If you want to change your reality, you will have to make some mental adjustments. As you work your plan, you will find that some things are out of your control, but you can always choose your attitude and reaction.
Give yourself time and space to change. Recognize that your journey may be bumpy, long or circuitous, but with the determination that it will be worth it, keep trudging. Change, even positive change, can be frightening because it represents something new and different. Reframe the situation as an exciting adventure. Work through your fears and limitations and allow the transformation to unfold. Reward yourself for small victories and signs of improvement.
The power to change is within you. Take the first step today.