Change often requires more

Change often requires more

I listened to a podcast recently that helped me make sense of how therapy works and why sometimes it doesn’t seem so effective. The speaker was describing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT as it’s often known) and the prescribed formula for therapeutic change. She said “thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to behaviors.” The idea is that if we want to change behaviors we need to intervene at the level of thoughts or feelings.

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks, these prescribed three steps begin in the middle of the recipe! In other words, there are important aspects that precede our thoughts and feelings. For example, someone telling me that I can use synthetic oil for my car and I only need to change it every year rather than every three months is a pretty simple statement. Now that I have the new information (thought), I can easily (feel) confident in my decision to get the car in every year (behavior).

But my friends, I think most of us are a bit more complex than this simple exercise depicts. If I had been told this news by someone I didn’t trust, if I followed the annual oil change schedule and my engine suffered, if I had a family member that worked in the oil fields and told me synthetic oil is not good for my vehicle … the list goes on and on. I specifically picked this example of changing one’s oil because it seems so very clear and easy. Now let’s try this on with something more multi-dimensional.

Consider for a moment some of the behaviors you’ve wanted to change lately. Have you wanted to limit your alcohol consumption, lose weight, feel less depressed, relax your muscles … now apply the thinking, feeling, behaving formula to your desired change and I bet you’ll notice something like resistance! That resistance, or confusion, or whatever we want to call it is the part of the recipe that pre-exist the CBT module.

What’s below your surface?

This is the realm of subtle work that requires teasing apart and helping us all understand more clearly the age-old patterns that fuel our irrational or unconscious behaviors. Yes, I know if I want to lose weight, I need to reduce my calorie consumption. But that knowledge (thought) generally does not stop me from grabbing a piece of chocolate (behavior) after a difficult day thinking I “deserve” (feeling) it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for CBT, it has helped many people and is a worthy behavioral change formula. I also think it is often not enough and our complexity as humans in an ever-changing world requires more subtle exploration and a great deal of compassion in understanding what is discovered. After all, the obstruction to change is often an old habituated, painful, even unconscious pattern. We might have embarrassment, or even shame, about it – which keeps the information even more isolated and hidden from ourselves and others. Translate this to mean, we can’t make the desired changes if it remains hidden.

If you’re interested in transforming an aspect of your life you can try the thought, feeling, behavior recipe and then notice if something interferes with your behavioral change. If it is something you understand, then explore that more on your own. If you don’t understand it or can’t get any traction by yourself; please reach out for one of us at the StLWC to offer support and guidance, an outside view, compassionate understanding, and assistance with getting you closer to your goals. Enjoy this internal exploration and all that it brings to your awareness. And remember, tread gently!

Dr. Gwin Stewart founded the St. Louis Wellness Center in 2007. You can write her at Read more about her HERE.

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