The springtime often signals us to find a general sense of refresh and routine in daily habits -- hello, spring cleaning! But how many times have you promised yourself you’re going to get to exercising, to commit to reading one book a month, or to have that tough conversation you’ve been avoiding?  You know what I’m talking about. The cyclic nature of trying to keep that new promise to yourself no matter what can be detrimental to self esteem and perceived self competence, especially when you have a tough time making it stick. So, how can you nip it in the bud and make this promise a sustainable change? And further, how can you and your partner be conscious about the changes you want to make-- and commit to them together?  What is the Transtheoretical Model (AKA the Stages of Change)?  This model can be understood as the decision making process a person goes through when they want to make a change in their life (see an expanded explanation of the stages here). This can be anything from quitting smoking* to exercising, quitting a job or ending a relationship. While this model has most often been used for health-related behaviors, there is evidence to show that it can apply to a greater pool of change.  To give you a better sense of how this works, let’s look at the process of deciding to change patterns of eating potato chips. Whether you’re not enjoying them anymore, they don’t feel worth the money, or they’re just something that you want to stop eating, for the sake of this example, you have begun your process to stop eating potato chips and are in the precontemplation stage.  Precontemplation: You do not think that there’s an issue. Instead, you’re fist full with your favorites but may have noticed that your best friend doesn’t seem to enjoy them as much as you do.Contemplation: Typically after hanging out in the precontemplation stage for about six months, you tiptoe into the contemplation stage. You are recognizing that you may not enjoy the chips as much as usual and in fact recently read something about how they may lead to sluggishness and fatigue. “Huh, that’s interesting” is as far as you go.Determination: This typically entails action within the next 30 days. You get really into learning more about how potato chips impact your body and energy. You might begin to poll your friends on who has kicked this historically favorite snack food and what works for them. And you probably are still snacking on your favorites while saying to yourself, “tomorrow we are making this change”. Action: You made it! You begin to implement your routine, have stopped buying the potato chips, and are committing to not putting them into your shopping cart. You are able to hold on to why this is important to you, but the question now is, “can you keep it up?”Maintenance: Behavior change has been made, aka the potato chips are not a part of your life, and you have committed for about six months. You feel proud of your ongoing commitment to release something that you wanted to let go of, and you are taking action each day to keep this habit out of your life.  Sounds great... but how can I use this?  If you are pondering this question, it sounds like you’re in the preparation stage of your change! This is a great thing to know about yourself, and helpful for next steps. There are some tools you can use to speed up your change process, through patience and diligence will still be crucial. Assess where you are in your processAfter reading the above stages, it should be easier to assess yourself and where you want to go next. Are you thinking about implementing a plan? Do you know enough about where you want to be to get started? Do you believe that you have the strength to change? Check this article out for some concrete tools on how to be honest with yourself and your process.  Gather the factsIf you’re feeling stuck in your process (for example, if you are reading this article and thinking “sounds great but…”), gather some more information about the change you want to make. Start researching different types of exercise regimens that could work for you! Imagine a life where you feel better in your body, one where you do not feel winded when you chase your kids up the stairs. What does this feel like?  Be aware of feelingsIf you are my client, you know I’m a big feelings person. When there is a feeling of stuckness, there is usually a reason for it. Keep in mind that this does not mean you are doomed to be stuck forever! Just be aware of what is coming up for you when you think about making your change.  For example, is there a fear that bubbles up for you? Or a feeling of incompetence? Do you truly believe you can excel without your favorite chips, or have you been told-- implicitly or explicitly-- that change is not possible for you?  Do a cost-benefit analysisWhat will happen if you do wind up making your change? And, potentially more importantly, what will happen if you don’t? Recognize all the ways your life has the capacity of shifting, and be aware of the further changes that may come from your plans.  Make a commitment...but not too big! If you have never exercised before, it is unlikely that you are going to exercise for two hours every day for the next week. Try to be realistic with yourself and set a reachable goal. This will give you a bit more confidence to keep raising the bar. After all, you can’t get to the roof of the building without taking the first step on the bottom floor!   Feeling a bit more ready? That is amazing! If not, don’t fret. While this model is said to be transtheoretical, it really focuses more on thoughts and behaviors rather than deeper meaning and nuance. If you’re feeling stuck, it may be worth digging a little deeper with a therapist to help explore what is keeping you from the changes you want to make. I will leave you with this: Do not, I repeat do NOT forget to be patient with yourself. Humans are a complex mix of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, existential crises, idiosyncrises, chaos, order, and an infinite amount of flaws that make us beautiful. If you are stuck on your change, do not lose hope. This is okay and normal, and could just require a therapist’s trained and “as-objective-as-possible” perspective to help you see yourself wholly.   *Prochaska & Diclemente, 1983    Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW ​

The coronavirus has presented humankind with an immense number of difficulties, which can include anything from “what am I going to eat for lunch when the grocery store just feels too overwhelming” to “how am I going to continue planning my wedding when I don’t even know if we’ll be able to plan it,” all the way to “I am so concerned about my loved one’s health, and I can’t even see them.” Complications that are arising are big and small, and exist both in the near future and in the future down the line. So, with all this confusion and uncertainty, how are you supposed to stay present and hold onto fleeting moments of joy? Why would you even want to do this?   What does “staying present” mean?Staying present is the ability to maintain awareness and a sense of connection with the moment you are currently in. This means you are focused and engaged, and not being held up by your thoughts about the next 47 things you have to do. Not organizing your grocery list, not scheduling out what you need to get done at work tomorrow, and not thinking about all the things that annoy you about your partner. Just wholly, fully, in the moment.  Another word for this is “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is essentially the connection to your senses and your body. Being aware of your senses allows your brain to shift from anxious and racing thought patterns into a calmer and more grounded state.   Why would I want to do this? This will not fix any of my problems.Ah, excellent question. Let’s start with some fun facts. First of all, practicing mindfulness has been shown to decrease feelings of stress and improve overall sleep quality (check out the article here). It increases overall levels of life contentment and satisfaction, as well as work productivity.  How does this happen? The goal of mindfulness is not actually to solve your problems. The goal is to help ground you in the moment so you can find the ability to step out of these thoughts that only stress you out. It may feel temporarily good to ruminate on an issue, but does how often does your rumination actually solve your problem? Unless you are setting aside time to plan and execute, you are likely just thinking about stressful things. This increases an emission of stress stress hormones, which makes it much more difficult to think clearly and execute decisions and actions efficiently (take a look at this article, aptly titled The Busier You Are, the More You Need Mindfulness).  This is why taking that quick few minutes to be present and clear your head-- not completely, but just clear from stressors and ineffective rumination-- actually winds up increasing satisfaction as well as productivity. In fact, there is even evidence to suggest that mindfulness can increase life span and overall physical health.   Ok, this sounds slightly more appealing. So how do I do it?Below are a couple of suggestions and techniques designed to help the busiest of people and professionals take in the moment in a digestible way. Set reminders on your phone, or schedule in “mindful time” to create the habit of stepping out of your thoughts and into the moment.   1) Notice your senses:  Start with looking around the space you are in and naming 5 things you see. Describe each thing wholly; what color is it? What is its texture? Next, name 4 things you feel physically on your body. Do you have a tag that is itchy? Are your pants too loose? Are your feet too sweaty? After this, name 3 things you hear. Listen closely. Do you hear the heater? Or maybe birds chirping outside? If you can, then try for 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. These are sometimes difficult, but remember the goal is not success or failure. It is only to be present and aware.  2) Narrate your actions: This one might feel silly at first, but it is a great way to connect your mind to your body. If you are cooking, walking, or really doing anything that does not require serious thinking/brain power, you can narrate it! For example, if you are cooking your eggs in the morning, state “I am opening the fridge, I am opening the egg carton, I am taking out two eggs,” etc.   3) Make lists:Possibly counterintuitive, but actually very helpful. Make two lists, and separate them by what you can versus what you cannot control. Take a look at the “what you can control” list, and prioritize. Once you’ve figured out what you want to tackle first, schedule in a finite amount of time and get started. Partializing and breaking down goals and tasks will make it much less likely that you’ll have a lapse in focus, pick up your phone, and fall down a rabbit hole.   4) Notice your breath:Notice as air comes into your nose, and out of your mouth. What does it feel like? Do you feel your diaphragm expanding and contracting? Is your breathing shallow and quick or deep and slow?   5) Mindful eating:Find a snack you absolutely adore, and take a few moments with it. Notice the color, the texture, the temperature, and what it feels like when it melts in your mouth. Slow down the process of eating to stay in the moment.  Practice makes progressDon’t be too hard on yourself if you’re having a difficult time staying present, or if your mind is having a difficult time breaking the addiction to stress. After all, the drive to focus on stress and anxiety is a survival skill. Be patient with yourself and keep trying. The more effort you put in, the more the benefits explored earlier will begin to pop up in your life! ​ Alyssa Ashenfarb, LCSW  

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The “Post-Talk”​: How to confidently address scary topics in your relationship

Ah, take a deep breath. You’ve finally completed the most daunting part of the task: having the actual talk. You’ve expressed your needs in the best way you know how, and can give yourself a pat on the back for acknowledging your fears and moving past them.

 

By now, I hope you’ve seen our previous two posts in this series. The first was to help you organize your thoughts and feelings, and the second was geared to help you both get your point across and be open to your partner’s feedback. Now what? 

 

This post is a little different, and is focused more on reflection and next steps. This post is to help you solidify how you and your partner can support each other after heavy conversations, setting the stage for future difficult conversations, and how to manage the conversation if it does not go as desired. 

 

Support each other 

Sometimes, after big talks, there is exhaustion. There is confusion. And the conversation may not have gone the way you expected it to go. Recovering from all this emotion can be really draining, and the best way to do it is together. 

 

Post conversation is a great way for both you and your partner to ground yourself in your emotional responses, and to show appreciation that you both took the time to work on moving towards your goals. Show your partner some love! Express gratitude for where you are in your lives, and where you are excited to go in the future. Acknowledge all the awesome things your partner did during your conversation that made you feel loved and supported during your most vulnerable moments. 

 

If the conversation did not go as planned, acknowledge that this is likely the case for both of you. No matter where you wind up in the future, you are existing in your emotions in the present moment, together. Sabina Nawaz explores how to effectively come back from difficult workplace conversations in her article, and provides some grounded ideas that can be really helpful for resolution with anyone who is human!

 

Setting the stage for future difficult conversations

Ask each other for feedback! Explore what was most helpful, as well as what was least helpful. What made you feel exceptionally safe? Exceptionally anxious? Noticing the patterns that both help and hurt you will help alleviate anxiety in the future about how to handle these talks, and will help prepare you for them in the future. If you are two people who typically avoid conflict, fret not. Check out this article to make it a bit more manageable. 

 

If you are comfortable, let your partner know about the steps you took to prepare yourself for the conversation. This will help your partner know how important this conversation was to you, and how your partner can prepare for these types of tough talks in the future. Exploring the way you prepared with your partner can also help them feel connected to your thought process, and can help generate empathy for the way you expressed yourself. 

 

Figuring out what to do if things do not go as desired

When I think about things “not going as desired,” I am really thinking about conversations that do not have momentum or progress towards an outcome or goal. This when the conversation ends angrily, when the conversation feels cyclic, or when no decisions have been made. You’re stuck, and you don’t know where to go next. 

 

The first step would be naming the fact that you are stuck, so both you and your partner can acknowledge this (see a further explanation of this here). Naming the feeling of “stuckness” allows space to take a deep breath and relieve yourself of the individual pressure of momentum. You and your partner remain in this discomfort together. 

 

The next step is really to just take a break. In the second blog of this series, we briefly focused on ways to regain control and momentum when things begin to feel overwhelming or stressful. This still applies, even post conversation! Practice grounding yourself with stretching, distraction, and other ways that will remove your mind from the habit of rumination. Don’t forget to let your partner know that you need a break, and make sure there is a clear game plan in place for how to return to the conversation. 

 

*Remember-- you or your partner might need to self soothe a whole handful of times before you’re able to complete the conversation. This is totally fine! It is so much better to take some time to self soothe than to fall into a spiral of yelling and/or crying.

 

You did it!

Give both yourself and your partner some credit, no matter how this went! Coexisting with a partner you love can feel like work that requires a ton of love and attention. You are two people coming together with your own mini-cultures, baggage, and neuroses. These are all the beautiful things that make you human, but they are also sometimes the cause of some tension. 

 

I really say all this to highlight that it is not a horrible and detrimental omen for your relationship if your heavy conversation does not go well. It is wholly and entirely normal, and takes a ton of practice to master. Stay intentional, open and empathetic, and remember that the goal of the conversation is to just move forward. Don’t put too much pressure on you as the individual on these small moments-- you are in this together. 

 

If you two are truly feeling stuck and are finding it impossible to move forward, reach out to a therapist. This is exactly what we are trained in! Having difficult conversations to create productivity and growth, within a context of warmth and support. 

 

 

Mollie Eliasof, LCSW

 

 

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