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Creating Social & Emotional Change

creating change

Amy Lewis, LSW

creating change her story

A woman wanted to stop smoking. She did what she was supposed to: the patch, the gum, cold turkey, but nothing worked for her. Nothing stuck. One day, she heard a story on the radio about the Great Depression. The descriptions of suffering and sacrifice of the people who survived the hunger and extreme conditions moved her. She thought, if they could live with only the basic necessities, I can too. I am a woman who believes in social justice. I am from a hard people. Though I live in a comfortable house, I can buy only what I need to survive. I’ll do it for one month, and on the day after, if I want cigarettes and champagne, I can have it. I can have anything I want. She never smoked again.


his woman created change by living a story, inspired by a great story. The story

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. -Anais Nin fit into the context of her life, and changed it. She is a writer, a survivor, and change became possible through her storytelling.


here are countless ways to change, programs and tools and supports and products. Therapy, prayer, vitamins, support groups, meditation, exercise, selfhelp books, affirmations, medications. We change because we feel bad, because we want something better in our lives. We change because we are ashamed of what we do. We change because the balance has tipped, from bearable to unbearable, from too hard to


possible. We try things that don’t work, though they have been highly recommended. We succeed when we find the right personal path, or when we are so desperate that there is no other choice. Sometimes we relapse, revert, recycle old behaviors. What happens when we try, struggle, and feel like a failure in the face of change? Do we define and resign ourselves? Relapse is so common, it is considered normal. NORMAL! This is important to know because the guilt and shame that often attends relapse can overshadow the intent to create a healthy new habit. Relapse is part of the process. It supplies valuable information about how to do the desired behavior. No, not that way. Try again when you’re ready. Use what you learned. Skip the guilt and shame. Don’t know how to turn that off ? Refer to page ten for suggestions on halting obsessive thought processes.

your story


hat’s the story? Why SHOULD you change your behavior? What’s YOUR story? Why WILL you change?

I should stop smoking because it’s bad for me. I will stop because my young son, who has never seen me with a cigarette, told me I smell bad. I remember the stench of smoke on my mother, and I don’t want my children to associate that smell with me. I should stop using a tanning booth because it increases the risk of cancer. I will stop because I don’t want to get wrinkles. I should stop lying to my wife because she deserves my honesty. I will stop because I’m afraid of getting caught.



hese examples highlight the need to admit to ourselves our underlying motivations, because they have the power to create and maintain change. Most of us have heard compelling reasons to change a behavior that we are attached to, yet failed to follow through, or possibly even seriously consider it. The reasons that are most obvious or socially acceptable are not necessarily the ones that work for us.

clear a space: felt sense:

tools for change

get a handle:




an you recognize your own story, distinguish it from the recommendations and motivations supplied by others that haven’t worked for you? A psychologist named Eugene Gendlin developed a technique called Focusing that helps people define a physical knowledge of what they need, called a “felt sense�, and create change. It is a simple but powerful tool that you can use alone or with others. If you feel scattered or uncertain, Focusing can help center, define, and even shift a problem. Try it.



focusing: short form by Eugene Gendlin

How are you? What's between you and feeling fine? Don't answer; let what comes in your body do the answering. Don't go into anything. Greet each concern that comes. Put each aside for awhile, next to you.Except for that, are you fine? Pick one problem to focus on. Don't go into the problem. What do you sense in your body when you recall the whole of that problem? Sense all of that, the sense of the whole thing, the murky discomfort or the unclear body-sense of it. What is the quality of the felt sense? What one word, phrase, or image comes out of this felt sense? What quality-word would fit it best? Go back and forth between word (or image) and the felt sense? Is that right? If they match, have the sensation of matching several times. If the felt sense changes, follow it with your attention. When you get a perfect match, the words (images) being just right for this feeling, let yourself feel that for a minute. "What is it, about the whole problem, that makes me so________?" When stuck, ask questions: What is the worst of this feeling? What's really so bad about all of this? What does it need? What should happen? Don't answer, wait for the feeling to stir and give you an answer. What would it feel like if it was all okay? Let the body answer: What is in the way of that? Welcome what came. Be glad it spoke. It is only one step on this problem, not the last. Now that you know where it is, you can leave it and come back to it later. Protect it from critical voices that interrupt. Does your body want another round of focusing, or is this a good place

to stop?



or some, movement IS the change they seek- exercise and holistic wellness practices like yoga and tai chi can be very healthful habits to cultivate. Others might find insight in the many forms of movement therapy available today. A simple technique to experience the power of movement is based on the skyhook exercise introduced by Ida Rolf, the mother of a type of bodywork called Structural Integration. Stand comfortably, feet hipwidth apart,knees unlocked and slightly bent. Imagine that you are hanging from a hook in the sky, attached to the top of your head. Let your limbs fall from this hook, and take a few deep breaths, noticing any sensations that arise. Take one step, then another, maintaining your awareness of the highest point of your head as the place where the rest of your body falls from. Imagine then that you are a puppet, hanging from this sky hook, and free to move as your structure dictates, rather than by the constraints of your situation,

environment, or belief system. What does this feel like to you?



any people write to define motivations and a personal context for change. When writing for yourself, keep critique out of it. There is no right way. Question your beliefs with journal prompts like these:

I used to believe‌ I still believe‌ I need to believe‌in order to change. Or, write a portrait of yourself as you are now, and then again in the future, after making the change you have in mind.



nce you know your own story, what’s next? Try to find another one. According to novelist Chimamanda Adichie, it can be a dangerous thing to have only one story. Speaking to a Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) audience, Ms. Adichie described how limiting ideas can be when there is a single, dominating story, whether about a continent (Africa is a beautiful place full of incomprehensible people), a class (poor people have no defining characteristics besides poverty) or herself (literature that was available in Nigeria as she grew up described blue-eyed white children who ate apples and exclaimed with joy when the sun came out, rather than girls with skin the color of chocolate who ate mangoes and had no need to talk about the sunshine, which was constant.) “So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.� One story can be brittle, limiting; it can get you stuck in a deepening, inflexible groove. Focus again, finding a new felt sense, a new handle. Write more, remembering old beliefs and defining different paths of potential. Give yourself a broad, stable base to work from.


precontemplation: Problem? What problem? I don't need to change my behavior.


I have a problem. I'm thinking about how I might change in the next six months.


I am going to do the following things to change my behavior within the next month.


I am changing my behavior now.


I changed my behavior more than six months ago, and I am still working to integrate and maintain the change. I am committed to the change, and remind myself of the benefits I receive from the change.


o there it is: a story, your personal context for change, and the will to change, often very different from what society and friends expect it to be. But where there’s a will, what’s the way? Prochaska and DiClemente describe a five-stage process beginning with precontemplation, before there is even a desire to change, eventually leading to maintenance, which represents the time after a change has been implemented when a person is committed and engaged in the new behavior, yet still selfconscious, actively maintaining it. (See sidebar for details.) At some point a person might cycle back into contemplation or even precontemplation, by relapsing into the previous behavior, or move out of the cycle into a stable, permanent new behavior.

-from Prochaska & DiClemente's Stages of Change Model


Stages of Change Model adapted from Prochaska and DiClemente

stable behavior action preparation





voices of change

Every time I wanted to smoke, I forced myself to go outside and run around the block. I am still an alcoholic, even though I am sober. It helps me to know this, to keep me focused and involved with the program. When I raised my hand to hit my kid, I counted each finger twice before it came down on his body. After counting, hitting no longer seemed like the only option, so I walked away instead, until I could speak calmly.


I always know that I have a cigarette in my glove compartment, just in case I want one. Every time I started obsessing about that person, I snapped a rubber band I wore around my wrist. It stopped the thought process! Within 24 hours, I went from at least one obsessive thought per hour to only one or two a day. After a week, I took off the rubber band. I think that tomorrow I can start again. Tomorrow I will start again.

science, psychology and social marketing, oh my! ambivalence and competing behaviors— convincing yourself to do what you wish you wanted to do


want to want to change my behavior. Professionals in the counseling and social marketing fields both recognize Prochaska’s Stages of Change and the role that ambivalence plays in tipping the balance from an unwanted behavior to a new, chosen one. Counselors call it ambivalence, social marketers call it competing behaviors. Either way, the behavior you want to change has served some purpose, is compelling in some way, and must be acknowledged. Gestalt therapists encourage clients to talk to an empty chair, sharing feelings with a part of themselves. Listmaking is a classic solution, but avoid pros and cons. Give

yourself credit for the choices you have made, honor the role your habit has played in your life, and notice what happens to your feelings of resistance to change when you give yourself permission to appreciate the behavior you hope to move away from.

getting out of the groove- the benefits of neuroplasticity


sychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and researcher Norman Doidge, M.D. writes about the mutability of the human brain in The Brain That Changes Itself. He describes how both the structure and the circuitry of the brain reforms to support the activities we require of it. When injury or lack of use makes one part unusable, sometimes other parts of the brain or nervous system can take over and develop new capabilities. This is called neuroplasticity. One practical use for neuroplasticity is re-mapping responses. For a person who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), irrational worries control behavior, overriding the knowledge that they are experiencing a symptom

of a disease. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, OCD only affects 1% of the adult population in any given year, yet many others suffer from anxieties and compulsive thoughts that sap energy and limit freedom of thought. Jeffrey M. Schwartz, author of Brain Lock, developed a treatment that has proven effective for OCD symptoms, as well as these milder, everyday forms of compulsive thoughts or behaviors. Reading this short description is not a substitute for treatment for a person suffering from OCD, but might help break a mild obsessive cycle. A continued, irrational obsession can be related to a particular interaction between three parts of the brain: the orbital frontal cortex, which detects mistakes, the cingulate gyrus, which triggers anxiety to tell the body to fix a mistake, and the caudate nucleus, referred to as the “automatic gearshift”, which normally allows thoughts to flow, but in

the case of OCD, gets jammed. Schwartz’s technique has the individual “manually” shift gears, developing new neuronal connections and bypassing old behaviors, rather than trying to break them. How? First, relabel the experience: I am obsessing over this, which allows a slight separation. Next, reattribute. Schwartz recommends, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD,” but for general purposes, try, this doesn’t serve me, I want to be free, or anything you like, rhyming or not, to sum up a separation of your self from your thought pattern. Then, refocus on a positive, pleasurable activity—do something—to replace the compulsively desired action. Every moment spent obsessing with unhelpful content, something that you know is not reality, or maybe just not productive (thinking about this constantly doesn’t help anything, it just wastes my energy), deepens the circuit, making it ever-harder to escape. Finally, revalue the initial experience—do not take it at face value.

fake it till you make itthe science behind it


r more specifically, imagine that you can until you do. Many experiments have shown that imagination and action are integrated. A study engaged one group in physical exercise and another picturing themselves doing the same movements, same number of repetitions, with an imaginary voice urging them to work harder. At the end of the study, the physical group showed muscle strength improved by 30 percent, and the imaginary exercise group increased their strength by 22 percent. First rats, then monkeys, and now humans have been trained to use only their thoughts to perform actions. Using microelectrodes attached to the brain, rats have been able to mentally control their water supply, monkeys mentally moved a robotic arm to reach and grasp for objects, and a paralyzed man used a

resources Focusing

Eugene T. Gendlin

The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell

robotic arm and manipulated a computer cursor by visualizing movement. The positive affirmations of the nineties were based in metaphysical concepts, but science has caught up. Imagine and mentally practice the change you desire to make— these exercises develop the neurological pathways in your brain to do what you hope to accomplish.


t’s not me that needs to change- it’s the rest of the world. Maybe so. Humbly apply these concepts to family issues, community groups, political movements. Seek insight, then share it. What works for you? Let people know, but remember Chimamanda Adichie and the dangers of just one story. Your path to personal change might never be another’s, but it could very well inspire them to find their own.

Creating Change  

by Amy Lewis, LSW

Creating Change  

by Amy Lewis, LSW