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I’m writing this as New Year’s Eve approaches and everyone I talk to seems to be planning to change in some way over the next few days. One friend has decided to get a personal trainer. Another told me she’s going to make more time to help her children with their homework. Having momentarily forgotten that her youngest had even started school, I found myself thinking that I should probably make more effort to stay in touch with friends in the new year.
But now, thinking about therapy and the work I’ve been doing with Adam, my therapist, over the year, I wonder if it would be more appropriate to make my resolutions in that area of my life – it is, after all, one in which change is fundamental.
The difficulty with that, though, is that it doesn’t really lend itself to the practical, behaviour-led changes that are the easiest to initiate. One call to a personal trainer (or, admittedly, to a friend I haven’t caught up with for months), and the wheels of change can quickly be set in motion. Most people making resolutions aren’t trying to change the way they think – to “rewire” their brain to believe “I look fine the way I am” or “It doesn’t matter if my children don’t get in to the school I want them to go to”. Instead, they are aiming to change certain behaviours better to suit what they want. Really, they’re making New Year’s wishes – “I want to be fitter”, or “I want my children to be successful”.
But what Adam most often encourages me to change is my thoughts. “Don’t think about calories,” he said to me in our last session when I told him I couldn’t imagine ever being able to stop totting them up. He may as well have suggested I forget my own name; we all know that following an instruction not to think about something is far harder than determinedly to think about it. But, equally, I know that trying to change default behaviour without modifying the thoughts that underpin it is a wasted effort, and so I have dutifully been trying to quash the thought every time I’m aware of it.
But it’s hard, because the thought is still alluring and, on some level, I want to hold on to it. Yes, I want change, but I sometimes wonder whether that change could accommodate just a few of my most engrained thoughts. I’m aware that I sound like a recovering alcoholic who still wants to enjoy the odd drink, but I can’t help thinking that there must be a halfway house that’s worth exploring because it seems that, for all Adam’s support, rewiring my brain in this way is something I’m never quite going to be able to do.
I know that it’s partly because of these doubts that I’m finding the process so difficult. Despite having been in and out of therapy for years, I remain ever so slightly cynical about its efficacy – not in general, but for me, at least. But I haven’t given up on it because I remember something that a previous therapist once told me about CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy): it’s not a placebo – you don’t have to believe it will work for it to have an effect; you simply have to practise it. (Although, she added, it’s easier to practise it if you believe in it.) Ever since, I’ve hoped the same is true of all psychotherapy and that, if I persist, my niggling doubts won’t affect its outcomes.
But the more I think about new year resolutions and why they mostly fail, the more I’m beginning to think that faith might be important in any psychological change after all. Creating new neural pathways is one thing, but for me to really feel differently – and positively about the future – I need to distil these new thoughts into beliefs. Behaviours might be easy to change but it’s only those that are in sync with what we believe that we can comfortably maintain.
According to something I read recently about “false hope syndrome”, people who make resolutions that are out of alignment with their internal view of themselves will usually fail to keep them. Even with a personal trainer, if my friend still believes she is lazy and unmotivated, her new regime won’t last long.
If the same is true of therapy, I will achieve the changes I want only if I can see myself as someone who is capable of therapeutic change. Whether or not I can trust 100 percent in the transformational properties of person-centred, cognitive behavioural or any other form of therapy, I can at least believe in my own willingness to try it. After all, I did freely decide to give it a go in the first place. And I go back each week.
By acknowledging the part of me that asked for help by finding a therapist all those years ago, I can see that I do have faith – not in my ability to find the answers, maybe, but in my willingness to look for them. And so my new year’s resolution is simply to keep going back to therapy each week. For me, that shows faith, and that is a positive change in itself.
l Alicia Ryan (not her real name) is a London-based writer and regularcolumnist for New Therapist with a particular interest in the limitations of language as a means of sharing experience. Reflecting on her own psychotherapy, she finds this possible disparity between personal reality and linguistic representation even more intriguing.