I explore alternative behaviors and rehearse them in safe settings.
The following audio is a commentary on Step Eight for the 5th edition of the Proactive 12 Steps. See written transcript immediately below the audio player.
Transcript (edited for clarity):
So here we are very much in the thick of the step-by-step approach to changing questionable behavior patterns. By now, you have much more understanding of why it’s not a “Just Do It” attitude. We’re talking about patterns of behavior that have risen to cope with something overwhelming.
“Overwhelming” means it’s happening at a gut level. To make changes that are effective and sustainable, you have to go slowly. Not slowly for the sake of going slowly, but to be able to address the problem that caused the avoidance and coping behavior. So in this step, you are not yet about making any changes in real life. You are exploring and practicing possible changes in the privacy of your mind. That is, not with the intensity that is involved in interacting with others.
Baby steps are not just for babies
You might think that this is too much of a baby step. Well, it helps if you put it in perspective. Just look, for instance, at boxers. Practice in boxing is not limited to fighting. It involves using a punching ball. You also practice improving your form.
In martial arts, judo, karate, Aiki-Do, people spend a lot of time learning the movements slowly and deliberately. They practice the form in addition to doing practice fights. And all of this practice is not just for beginners. Even extremely advanced martial artists do that.
There is something similar in golf. Training does not just involve playing golf. You also practice the movement, the swing, and visualize how to do it. These should be mindful movements. To learn them better, it helps to practice them without the stress of the actual game, the pressure of performance.
A practical example
So let’s take a simple example. Let’s say that the behavior pattern you want to change is what happens when you’re at work, and people ask you to do something. Part of it is, they are asking you to do something, and how you manage that. Another part of it is the interruption.
When you think about it, you notice is that you tend to either be too accommodating and say yes, or you are irritable or negative or angry when people ask. You let people interrupt whatever you’re doing, you accept to take on more, and you end up feeling overwhelmed. You take on more than you can handle, even if that is listening to somebody else’s problems when you don’t have time for that. Being too accommodating, or being negative and angry, doesn’t work well for you (and others).
You’ve already paid attention to what emotional logic was involved in that. You’ve already got a sense of the level of pressure and fear that it brings up for you. So you understand why your automatic answers are what they are. And now you’re brainstorming some ways in which you can respond to people differently. To do that, you look back at past situations. What happened today? Last week? What other moments do you remember? In Step 8, you look at them, not in terms of understanding why, but in terms of seeing how you could have done something differently.
Do you have a minute?
And so you remember an interaction with, say, Tom last week. He popped into your office, or your cubicle, and said: “Do you have a minute?” Reflexively, you said yes. But you did not have a minute. You were in the middle of something essential to you. And when you were listening to Tom explain whatever he wanted to tell you, you were in a state of inner frenzy, all tied up in knots because you were not able to hear him. You were still thinking about what you needed to do. And so you were really between two chairs, neither in one nor in the other.
So in the brainstorming part, you rewind to the moment when Tom said: “Do you have a minute?” And you then imagine yourself raising your head slowly, facing him, and saying: “No, actually, Tom, sorry, I don’t have a minute right now. Maybe we could talk about it later this afternoon, at 3?’
Now, this will seem obvious to people who don’t have a problem with managing interactions. But if you do, it may feel hard even without the pressure of the actual encounter with Tom. It is going to bring up a sense that you don’t have the right not to be available. And so this is why you practice. It’s going to be less difficult to realize that you have the right to do such a thing and to find a graceful way to do it when you’re not in the heat of the action.
A clarifying comment
I’m not saying: “Here are some magic words to use.” It would be too simplistic, and the opposite of what I intend to say. I just wanted to give you an example of something that would feel difficult if you have an emotional issue triggered by a given situation. I wanted to show you how it could be relatively more comfortable to deal with it in a rehearsal mode than under pressure.
I want to emphasize that you are not looking for magic words, but for a different way of responding. Pay attention to the feelings that go with saying something as simple as: “No, Tom, actually, sorry, I don’t have time right now” and notice how it feels inside, what your breathing is, what your tensions are, how stressed your voice might be.
Embracing the tension
Chances are, even in a rehearsal situation, if something is emotionally difficult for you, you’re going to feel stress. The idea is not to hide it. It’s not to pretend you’re not rehearsing to play a role. If you notice tension, that’s great, embrace it. The stress tells you that there is more emotional work to be done. It means that you’re not ready for prime time, which is OK. It means that you still have more exploring to do, and that’s OK.
The point here is you’re not trying to fake it, to pretend it’s easy for you. You are exploring patterns in situations where you have difficulties, and so it is not easy to change. You are doing this exploration for yourself, not to impress other people. Figuring out where the problem is will help you find a way to address what is difficult. Again, the idea is not to appear to be relaxed about it. It is to figure out what it is that makes you tense and stressed out, so you can deal with that adequately. And that’s why you’re going, slowly, step-by-step.