THE SPACE BETWEEN AWARENESS AND ACTION
by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.
You may, for some time, have been struggling with a problem. Perhaps you think you are too perfectionistic and hard on yourself, or you are getting over a bad breakup and find it hard to move on, or you do not like your boss and it is not working well with her. Maybe you have done some psychotherapy and explored the issue: your childhood history and how it interacts with the difficulty, looked at different ways you perceive the dilemma, your feeling about it and how you’ve coped-and you wonder why the issue isn’t resolved. You have identified the problem but it’s still here, so now what do you do?
Sometimes clients talk about their dilemmas and it changes “organically.” For example, a client may not have set good boundaries with others and their own needs. After some exploration, he/she “finds themselves” naturally and easily stating their own expectations. Yet other times, recognition of a problem doesn’t automatically lead to a resolution. Are there strategies for moving from awareness into action? Here are some considerations.
— It may not be time yet to make plans to change. Sometimes we feel “antsy” to move on. Feelings and memories regarding a problem can be painful to experience or grieve. We may want to jump over the exploration section to just get the problem gone. Don’t cheat yourself! The lessons you learn in the emotional processing of an obstacle will be useful in future life situations. The ability to “lean into” and tolerate difficult experiences is hard to learn but can be invaluable. Be patient.
— You feel you have sufficiently gone through the awareness phase but feel anxious about taking action. Rather than trying to “power through,” explore the anxiety. Just as there is much to learn about a particular obstacle, there is much to learn about our worries and anticipations.
— Now you are ready to make some changes, and making the decisions about what strategies and how to implement them are pressing. Go slowly. You want to learn not only the action needed but also the intricacies of the action. Choose one action step at a time. One of my adult clients was anxious about an important conversation she had to have with her parent. In the past, these communications frequently dissolved into angry, hurtful interactions. Over some weeks, she and I worked on a number of issues (e.g., tone, timing and tact) and honed the important pieces of the communication. We then developed a mantra for her to follow: “Pause…breathe…think…” Afterwards, she said it was one of the best conversations she ever had, beginning some resolution to their difficulties and a sense of closeness. So start small with one focus at a time.
— As you take steps, pay attention to the process and your feelings. It is common to feel awkward when we try something new. It may take time for these activities to feel authentic and natural. Let yourself experiment and make mistakes and try again. Take heart. The problematic issue did not develop overnight and it won’t be resolved overnight either. It takes time to create a new habit.
— Sometimes after a new behavior becomes the “new normal,” a person can feel some regret. “If only I had figured this out sooner!” Regret is a very difficult experience and often springs from comparing ourselves to others. You may compare yourself to others, noticing that others seem to have mastered this skill and you’re barely keeping up. Flip this around if you can: “I’ve wanted to learn how to be this way for a long time, and I’ve finally done it!” Hard-won challenges can be celebrated, with acknowledgement of our own courage and fortitude to grow and develop. Further, the momentum we gain from working on changing our way of being can help us to tackle even more. As Tina Fey stated: “You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”
Dr. Susan Harper Slate is a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Santa Monica. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Dr. Slate can be reached at (310) 582-0010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2017 by Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.