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Changing How We AreChanging how we are... foiled by a dominant response?

Have you ever made a firm decision to change something about how you speak, or respond, or in some way behave, only to hear yourself saying the same old stuff once again? The things that you planned to never say again are being said. The tone of voice you hated in one of your parents is coming out of your mouth?

For example, perhaps you decided to stop doing the "poor me" story when you talked with family and friends. You decided to count your blessings, to keep a gratitude journal, and to let your communication and behavior reflect the shining new you. It worked for about a week, but then something happened, you got extra busy, you started to feel pressured, stressed, and suddenly, there was the "poor me" story again. After all your efforts!

What happened?

Part of the frustration of trying to change ourselves lies in what the psychologists call the "dominant response." This is the response, or behavior, that we have learned the most thoroughly. If we think of thought and behavior patterns as a bit like channels through which water runs, the more frequently, and the longer, that the water has run through the channel, the deeper the channel is, and therefore the more effort is required to get the water to run in another direction. The longer we have behaved or communicated in a certain way, the more difficult it is to change it.

"Ah, but we are thinking beings, we can control ourselves," I suspect someone is saying.

This is true, and we can change. We do change. The tricky part comes not when we first set out to make the changes, but when we next come under pressure. Under normal circumstances, we can choose our responses. We decide that we'll do something new, and we do it. However, when we are under stress and pressure, what happens is that, because we are thinking about whatever is stressing us, we forget to "choose" our new behavior. While it is still new, we need to consciously choose it each time, because it has not yet cut itself a deep enough channel for it to happen automatically. The old channel is still deeper, which is why it is called the "dominant response." When we are under stress it is the dominant response that tends to show itself.

So... what should we do, when we hear those old, un-chosen words coming out of our mouths, when we see ourselves resorting to old behaviors that we had intended to put behind us?

  • We can decide that change is never going to happen and give up. Bad choice!

  • We can smother our embarrassment, outwardly justify our behavior just as we used to, but inwardly resolve not to allow it to happen again.

  • We can made a mental note that times when we are under pressure are the times when we MOST need to summon our self-awareness, to monitor our words and behaviors, so that we do not fall prey to the same situation again.

  • We can go "up front" with whoever we are with and thus acknowledge our error. "Oh, darn, I wasn't going to let that 'poor me' woman loose on the world again, and she just got out. Sorry about that - I know she's wrong but for a minute there I just couldn't control her."

    My vote would be for the third and fourth options in combination. Some people, I know, would prefer to use the third and not the fourth, and that is fine too. Different personalities need to use different techniques. My support for the fourth option comes from the fact that it not only serves to acknowledge that you said something you did not intend to, but to gives notice that you are trying to change, and subtly brings whoever you are with onto your side in this effort.

    Change does not happen in a straight line. If you enter someone's office and see a chart that shows a straight line upwards... do you believe it? Most of us know that there are blips in any progress. It does not mean that progress is not being made. Two steps forward and one step back will still get you to your goal. If you can cut down on the backward steps, perhaps get to three steps forward and one step back, or even better, then you will get there faster. But you will get there either way, provided you do not allow the steps back to undermine your confidence in your ability to reach your goal.

    Watch for the times when stress sneaks up on you, as often happens at this time of year. See yourself as moving through competing currents of energy and pressure, but as being in control. A book I enjoy has the title "Playing ball on running water" and that image is a good one. See yourself has being balanced, poised, able to dance and play despite all the competing energies and pressures of the day. And see yourself most of all as able to CHOOSE how you make each and every response.

    That is the way to eliminate the old dominant responses and establish new ones that we have chosen for ourselves, by choosing the new ones each and every time. It can be hard work, but the new you is more than worth the effort!

    � Diana Robinson, Ph.D. Work in Progress may be reproduced in its entirety only, including this copyright line. Disclaimer -The contents herein are solely the opinions of Work in Progress owner, and should not be considered as a form of therapy nor advice. There is no guarantee of validity or accuracy. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, services of a competent professional should be sought. TO SUBSCRIBE to Work in Progress send a blank e-mail to workinprogress-On@lists.webvalence.com. To offer feedback e-mail Diana