I recently spoke with a friend who asked me about antidepressant medications, as his physician had suggested that he consider taking them. He was anxious, fearing that the drugs would alter his personality or be like a 'happy pill' that would strip him of all human feelings.
As we talked I thought of a psychiatrist I know who recently gave me his wonderful take on how antidepressant medications work. 'After a couple weeks a slight shift occurs,' he said. 'One suddenly recognizes that it's sunny or what dinner tastes like. One sleeps through the night and can actually take pleasure in things. It's not dramatic, and rather than altering their personality, the medication actually brings their true personality back.'
Since that conversation I've been thinking a lot about the concept of 'change.' My friend thought that change automatically meant something drastic -- so drastic and sudden that he wouldn't even recognize himself. Change was something disturbing. It was something to be wary of, even to fear. Change meant that everything would be different.
But is this truly what change means -- that everything will be altered? And is this all-encompassing notion of change even helpful in a practical or a human way?
It seems to me that it's self-defeating. One recognizes that one's life needs to change, but the perceived enormity of the changes keeps the person paralyzed. Definitely not helpful.
Now is a particularly good time to ponder what 'change' means. It's the beginning of the year and the time for those annual New Year's resolutions. It's time to pledge to return to the gym, eat more healthfully, quit smoking, cut back on drinking, reach out to more friends, volunteer, return to church, take up yoga, read more, take a class, plan for the future, save more, spend less, budget more carefully, and make a host of other improvements.
It's as though people analyze everything about their lives and make a checklist of all the aspects they'd like to improve. Then, with great enthusiasm, they start on January 1 to change themselves. All of themselves. Everything.
One need look no further than the local gym to see just how well these drastic pledges of change turn out. In early January the gym crowds are immense. It feels like the entire city has committed itself to fitness. People throw themselves into intense and exhausting workouts. Then, around the third week of January, the gym's population slowly begins to dwindle back to preholiday levels.
People start with eagerness and dedication. Then they miss a few days and believe they've 'failed' in their efforts to change, so they quit exercising entirely. It's as though they say to themselves, Well, I've already broken my New Year's resolution, so why bother to continue?
It's what we clinicians call 'either or' or 'all or nothing' thinking. Either I follow my New Year's resolution to the letter or I don't follow it at all. I either go to the gym every day or don't go at all. There's no middle ground, no in between.
I know this way of thinking thoroughly, because I've spent most of my life trapped in precisely that thinking pattern. But I had a recent, incredibly subtle experience that proved to me that changes need not be monumental in order to be significant.
I have an ex-boyfriend who sends group e-mails, forwarding jokes that are offensive and not very funny. I'm the furthest thing from a prude, so when I say they're offensive, trust me: They're offensive. For a while I quietly thought to myself, I wish he wouldn't send these e-mails to me. But my pattern is to not rock the boat, not to tell others what I'd like them to do -- or not to do. It's almost as if I worried that the relationship, which already had ended, would become even worse if I voiced my wishes.
It was absolutely irrational, but that's how things continued for quite some time.
But when he sent me his most recent offensive and humorless joke, I simply responded, 'Please don't send these to me anymore.' It was a simple thing to do -- to set limits with someone. To send a message to someone about what's OK and what's not OK.
But the message I sent to myself was even more potent -- that my feelings mattered. I didn't have to compromise my sense of self in order to maintain relationships. I didn't need to change everything in order to experience significant improvement.
A wise person once said that God is in the details. I could argue that the fundamentals of change are there as well. So as you step more fully into 2009, remember: You need not completely reinvent yourself to experience gratifying change.
Fransen is a licensed clinical social worker who is in private therapy practice in Chicago. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.