They knew what they needed to do they just weren’t doing it yet. They had been going to therapy for a while now and they were at the point where they could give the therapist all of the “right” answers as to why they weren’t meeting their goals.
“It’s good that you can tell me what you need to do. When are you going to do it? You two are the only ones who can make your relationship better. I care about you and believe that you are capable of reaching your goals. With behavior change, I have every reason to believe that you can build a more loving and satisfying relationship.”
They knew the therapist was right. He had supported them time and time again and they trusted him.
It was time to either accept the current state of their relationship or push through their discomfort and make significant changes to their behavior.
The great people of history are judged by their behaviors, not by their thoughts and feelings. Thomas Jefferson isn’t praised because he thought about freedom, he is revered because he wrote the Declaration of Independence and helped found the United States. Jane Austen isn’t remembered for her imagination, she is held in high esteem because she wrote down her musings and told wonderful stories. Heroes are honored because they put their intelligence and passion into action.
If we let them, our thoughts and emotions can keep us from making positive changes to our behavior. Overthinking and catastrophizing (i.e., dwelling on worst case scenarios) are just two examples of thought processes that prevent behavior change. Discomfort and fear are emotions that can keep us stuck even when we know we have to make changes to our behavior to be healthy.
When we do begin to move and our behavior changes in healthy ways, there is a strange effect on our thoughts and emotions. Our mind, once focused on worst-case scenarios and the difficulties associated with change, is not as persuasive as it once was—our behavior change has shown it to be an imperfect interpreter of our world. When we take action to better our lives, our feelings, which had been overwhelming us with fear, hopelessness, and frustration, are reshaped by our effort to be a better person. As a result, we feel better. When we force our troubled thoughts and feelings to confront new healthy, loving behaviors, they cannot help but become more healthy and loving themselves.
We can think about love; we can feel it; but the most powerful love is shown through behavior. People have no problem behaving in loving ways when they feel like it; it is the strongest and most admirable people who show love to others even when they do not feel love for them.
I call this deeper kind of love “choice love” because we must choose to behave lovingly even when our thoughts and feelings may be pointing us in another direction. It is choice love that keeps us from name calling and fighting dirty when we have arguments with our partner, friends, or family. It is choice love that allows us to be kind to our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. It is choice love that gets us to rebel against selfishness and instead turn toward serving and caring for others.
The Influence of Values
If we say we want to be a good person, we need to value things like kindness, justice, mercy, honesty, and self-control. When we value these things, we are able to behave well in moments when our thoughts are negative and our feelings tell us to act badly. For example, when someone hurts us, nothing makes more sense or feels better—for a very brief second—than revenge. Yet, most of us would rightly agree that taking revenge is not a morally good response to getting hurt. When our values set a high moral standard for our behavior, they give us direction in moments when we feel tempted to do wrong.
To earn trust, there must be consistency between our words and actions. Being honest for a day does not wipe out a lifetime of lying. Drinking responsibly for an evening does not whitewash a reputation for drunkenness. Giving a few dollars to the poor does not make up for a life lived for selfish gain. Because trust is built through consistency over time, we should not let the doubts of others discourage us in the early stages of turning our life around.
Oftentimes I work with clients who are trying to earn back the trust of their loved ones after years of hurtful behavior. The early weeks and months of this process are especially difficult for everyone. The person trying to earn back trust has to overcome the temptation to fall back into bad habits while being watched by the doubtful eyes of others. The friends and family members of this person have every reason to be skeptical and yet they must summon the courage to forgive and offer the opportunity to earn back trust. When people learn how to behave well in in the presence of temptations, doubts, and mixed emotions, they eventually establish strong relationships and a new and healthier life.