How To Change When It Feels Impossible
As a mental health and pain management coach, I spend A LOT of time talking to my clients about managing chronic pain, chronic illness, and mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, grief, A.D.H.D., O.C.D., bipolar disorder, etc.
In the process, I often hear, "I want to change Christina, but I just can't." My response is always, "well…you get to decide that." I'm often met with a confused look—and rightfully so. How can anyone decide that they can change their anxiety? Depression? Borderline personality disorder?
Ridiculous right? For most of us, mental and physical health issues aren't our fault—they just happened to us. We may feel it's luck, chance, fate, or even karma but scientifically speaking, biology/genetics, environmental factors, and learned behaviors are all to blame. Whatever the ingredients, we typically feel frustrated and helpless- victims of our body and mind. So how then do you change something that you have no control over? How do you change when it feels so impossible?
Here are five of my best tips and tricks for changing when you don't feel you're strong enough:
1. Change Your Perception
It's important to understand that we can change anything outside of other people and death. Bold statement, eh? Let me clarify. Most times, we can't change our actual situation…but we can change how we perceive our actual situation. In no way am I suggesting that we adopt a fictional, false, delusional reality. In fact, it's quite the opposite. You need to be grounded in reality—prepared to put aside the excuses that help deceive you—and truly face your reality—good, bad, or really ugly.
Today officially marks 13-years I've been in chronic daily pain. It's incredible to think of all I've been through and how far I've come since first being diagnosed with deep infiltrating endometriosis in 2008. Though I still live in a very broken body, I can wholeheartedly say I live a fulfilled life—a happy life. But… it wasn't always that way.
At 28-years old, everything changed…overnight. As my physical health rapidly declined, my mental health did too. Multiple surgeries, countless medications, hundreds of doctor's appointments, and various treatment plans all promised to give me my life back, but nothing seemed to work. To make matters worse, three years into my fight for my health, my father and best friend tragically lost his battle with glioblastoma brain cancer. Four years later, I was facing a divorce. Good times, eh? Pain, grief, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness consumed me.
So, what changed? Radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is a concept from D.B.T. (dialectical behavioral therapy). Radical acceptance postulates that we need to accept difficult situations in our life just as they are, without judgment—we need to accept things that are outside of our control—and, by doing so, we can reduce our suffering. Let me explain…because I know it sounds…radical.
First, it's imperative to understand that the acceptance component of 'radical acceptance does not mean agreeance. Acceptance simply means that you stop fighting reality—you acknowledge what has happened, as it really happened.
Next, let's talk about what "judgment" means. When we judge a situation, we often say things like, "this isn't fair!" Or "why is this happening to me?!" Or "what did I do to deserve this?!" While anger, grief, sadness, and disbelief are completely normal, constantly wishing that "it" never happened, blaming ourselves (and others) or refusing to see reality for what it is…will keep us stuck.
Lastly, radical acceptance doesn't mean that the pain disappears—it means the suffering does—and once the suffering stops, you will be better equipped to find solutions for the things you can change.
So, what does radical acceptance look like in practice? Well, let's take the loss of my dad as an example. My dad truly was my hero and best friend. His death was absolutely paralyzing. For a year and a half after his death, I struggled with complicated grief. I could not accept that he was really gone…and because of that, I could not move on.
Finally (and thankfully), I realized that I wasn't living; I was merely existing. I didn't know what I needed to do…I just knew anything had to be better than what I was doing. It was at that moment I made it my goal to understand and practice radical acceptance.
I couldn't change my dad's death…I couldn't bring him back…but I could change the way in which I was dealing with it. I couldn't change the hole in my heart that was left …but I could learn how to live with it. I couldn't change how much I missed him, but I could focus on making his legacy mean something. I suddenly realized; I couldn't change the past…I couldn't predict the future…but I could do anything I wanted in the present moment.
I became obsessed with the idea that the present moment was the only moment I had control over; obsessed with the idea that changing my thoughts and behaviors could potentially create a more favorable outcome for my future. It wasn't easy…but I did it…and so can you!
2. Be Clear on WHY You Want to Change
To change, we must come to terms with the fact that the way we're living in our current reality just isn't working. We must be willing to change--we might not know how, but we must possess a desire to find a better way to cope with what we're struggling with. The real question to ask yourself: "is the pain of staying the same greater than the pain of change?" If you answer yes, you can and will change. If the answer is no… you're just not ready to change…yet. It doesn't mean that you won't find success one day but today isn't your day. Blunt but true.
Understanding the reason why you want to change is a crucial first step. Why? Because that reason will be tested every time you want to give up...every time you want to take the path of least resistance...and every time you fail and don't feel strong enough to get back up again. So, if that reason is not strong enough or clear enough, it will never stand a chance against the negative self-talk that will inevitably ensue.
Furthermore, it's essential to understand why you're changing because if it's for someone else…you may be able to change in the short term, but you won't be able to find lasting change. People only change when they want to.
3. Be More Stubborn Than What You're Trying to Change Is
We must be ready, willing, and able to be persistent and consistent. Changing any thinking pattern or behavior is hard work. In other words, you must be more determined than the behavior or thoughts that you want to change are. Yikes. Stubborn behaviors and thinking patterns are just that…stubborn.
I'll give you a simple example: I used to love smoking cigarettes—like love it. I picked it up when I was just sixteen years old (hey, it was the 90's), and I would go on to smoke on and off for the next nineteen years. Why did it take so long to quit? Well, the truth of the matter was…I didn't want to. However, when I was finally ready to change…giving up cigarettes after nineteen years was no easy feat.
Imagine a "little angel" on one shoulder and a "little devil" on the other. The "little angel" would kindly remind me of all the reasons I should stop…while the "little devil" had a field day in my mind. "What about your morning coffee? You love having a cigarette with your coffee, don't you?! What about when you're driving? How are you ever going to get into your car and not light up a cigarette-- impossible! O.M.G., what happens when you get stressed out?! You're not strong enough to do this!" Ugh.
Until I finally started fighting every thought the "little devil" would plant in my mind…I wasn't successful. I didn't have to do this once a day…not twice a day…but, without exaggeration, fifty times a day…every day. It was downright exhausting and there were so many days I would be a mere second away from just relenting and lighting up a cigarette.
When I wouldn't give in, the "little devil" got creative. You can't do this! You can't follow through on anything—think about how many times you've failed before—this time won't be any different! Wouldn't it be so nice to just go buy a pack of cigarettes and sit in your car and smoke? Come on…just one! No one has to know!" The "little devil" was such a jackass.
Nothing changed until I stopped being victimized by the "little devil" –until I fought back harder than it was fighting me.
4. Set Clear Bite-sized Goals
Whenever we want to change anything, having clear goals to achieve is one of the first steps to success. During my 15-year advertising and curriculum sales career, one of the things I perfected was writing S.M.A.R.T. Goals. Why? Well, because talk is cheap. Someone can say they're going to be successful, but big companies want to know how you will get there. Having the desire and perseverance is the first step but amalgamating that desire and perseverance with clear, measurable, actionable steps is the formula to real success.
SMART goals were designed to help us take our "big picture" goals and break them down into bite-sized, measurable, actionable steps. By setting SMART goals, you can clarify your ideas, focus your efforts, productively use your time and resources, and increase your chances of achieving what you want in life.
SMART is an acronym that you can use to guide your goal setting.
Your goal should be clear and specific; otherwise, you won't be able to focus your efforts or feel truly motivated to achieve it.
When drafting your goal, try to answer the five "W" questions:
· What do I want to accomplish?
· Why is this goal important?
· Who is involved?
· Where is it located?
· Which resources or limits are involved?
It's important to have measurable goals so that you can track your progress and stay motivated. Assessing progress helps you to stay focused, meet your deadlines, and feel the excitement of getting closer to achieving your goal.
A measurable goal should address questions such as:
· How much?
· How many?
· How will I know when it is accomplished?
Your goal also needs to be realistic and attainable to be successful. In other words, it should stretch your abilities but still remain possible. When you set an achievable goal, you may be able to identify previously overlooked opportunities or resources that can bring you closer to it.
An achievable goal will usually answer questions such as:
· How can I accomplish this goal?
· How realistic is the goal, based on other constraints, such as financial factors?
This step is about ensuring that your goal matters to you and that it also aligns with other relevant goals. We all need support and assistance in achieving our goals, but it's important to retain control over them. So, make sure that your plans drive everyone forward but that you're still responsible for achieving your own goal.
A relevant goal can answer "yes" to these questions:
· Does this seem worthwhile?
· Is this the right time?
· Does this match our other efforts/needs?
· Am I the right person to reach this goal?
· Is it applicable in the current socio-economic environment?
Every goal needs a target date so that you have a deadline to focus on and something to work toward. This part of the SMART goal criteria helps to prevent everyday tasks from taking priority over your longer-term goals.
A time-bound goal will usually answer these questions:
· What can I do six months from now?
· What can I do six weeks from now?
· What can I do today?
Beware of setting goals that someone else has power over the outcome. You want to set goals that are entirely dependent on you.
5. Get Back Up
As I mentioned earlier, changing anything in life is HARD! It takes serious commitment, dedication, and drive—and we will fail! What's the famous line Thomas Edison said about failure? "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Stopping something, starting something, creating something…all takes hard work but what we don't realize about hard work is that failure is part of the algorithm of success.
Regardless of this fact, most of us still feel like a failure after we've…failed.
So, if we don't really fail when we fail…when do we actually fail? Well, Albert Einstein said it best, "you never fail until you stop trying."
Easier said than done. Perhaps you need a bit of musical motivation like I often do. In the '90s (I'm a 90's kid, what'd you want from me?), there was a song named "Tubthumping" by a band called (and I'm not kidding)…Chumbawumba. The hook of the song was, "I get knocked down, but I get up again. You're never gonna keep me down."
No matter how you motivate yourself to get back up…just make sure you do. And then, forgive yourself for it…and try again.
So, is the pain of staying the same greater than the pain of change? I don't know…you tell me 😉
Christina H Chororos is a mental health, chronic illness, and pain management coach. A thirteen-year deep infiltrating endometriosis (DIE) sufferer, Christina founded Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching in the fall of 2018. Additionally, Christina enjoys her work as a chronic pain and illness educator, advocate, and writer.
Christina graduated with honors from Lynchburg University with a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Education in 2002. Furthermore, she obtained an Integrative Wellness Life Coaching Certification from the Integrative Wellness Academy in the fall of 2017, and a Graduate Certificate in Pain Management from the University of Connecticut (UCONN) in the spring of 2020.
Christina writes for iPain Living Magazine, a quarterly magazine published by the International Pain Foundation.
For more information please visit kairoschronicpain.com