Seek and Ye Shall Find

Seek and Ye Shall Find

When I was teaching my children to drive, I remember telling them this. Don’t look to the side of the road and beside you so much because if you focus left or right, you tend to steer the car in those ways. Where your eyes lock in will determine or at least strongly influence the direction of the whole vehicle. I often refer to focus and attention in therapy as well and in this case, the ability to find something just by looking for it. That is, it seems to be true that the quickest way to see a particular outcome is to actually look for that outcome. You find what you look for.

Here’s an example of a made-up patient with a common problem. Sam is battling the tendency to overreact to his wife. When he feels upset and emotional flooding begins, he has a long history of reacting to a level that is incongruent with the context itself. On a 1-10 scale, if a situation deserves, say, around a 6, he might respond at an 8 or 9. That makes the conversation more tense, more emotionally dangerous, and simply impossible for his wife to carry on functionally. It shuts her down or she has to raise her level to match his, which makes for a real lose/lose scenario.

Sam and I might talk about the way his parents fought or his historical sense of always feeling attacked or demeaned. We might talk about his fear of conflict and how that tends to raise his tension and thus his response level. There are lots of topics that might contribute. When it comes to actually making the change, however, he has overreacted for so long he worries that he might not be able to overcome the habit.

So, I give Sam this assignment. I tell him that when he comes back to see me in a week to come back with at least one example of a time when he felt the urge to jump the 6 to an 8 but he caught himself, took a breath, and kept the level at or closer to a 6. In short, look for the change.

It does not always work but to a remarkable degree it does if he will actually look for it. Whether or not he was already doing it and just not noticing or if the looking for it helped him be more aware of his intentions, it doesn’t matter because now Sam has evidence that he is capable of doing better. This will begin to help him create a view of himself that includes the greater possibility of not giving in to his impulse and the more he looks for it, the more it happens and the more it happens, the more likely it is to continue to happen. In a few months, Sam has discovered that the frequency of that sort of over-reaction has dropped significantly. He found what he sought.

If you have something that you know you need to change but have a hard time with it, try this. Take a week in which you look for evidence that the change has already begun. Catch yourself drinking one less beer or stopping after a handful of chips. Look for evidence of smiling at your co-worker who has been driving you a little crazy. Look for that moment you wanted to “zig” but you decided to “zag” instead. Then you may start to believe that you really can change. If you believe it, you can!