Changing yourself

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE - Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) - February 17, 2013 - 12:00am

Have you ever found yourself suddenly not enjoying something you used to enjoy before? Did you ever wake up with the realization that some of the beliefs and ideals you used to be willing to die for have become meaningless or trivial? Or how about losing interest in friends, hobbies, work or causes that you used to look forward to and spending a lot of time on?

This has happened to me a few times. Maybe it was part of a prolonged midlife crisis spell. Some, as it turned out, were just temporary moods or feelings. But there were some that became permanent changes.

People change. They do all the time. That’s a fact. Sometimes it is easy to change. At other times, it can be very difficult to handle.

I remember hearing about a macho bully boxer from my older brothers’ generation. He had an irrational hatred of gays and used to beat them up, until one day, he suddenly came out of the closet openly and became a screaming, out-and-out cross-dressing homosexual.

I have met priests who changed their minds later on and left their vows to get married. One of them was my teacher who married Lydia and I. I’ve also heard of formerly shy, submissive women who overnight transformed into assertive people aggressively pursuing big dreams. We all have our own stories to tell.

I was recently reading about last year’s Oscar awards and came across something interesting. Mother Dolores Hart, a nun, was there to attend the show because of a movie about her life. You see, she had led a very interesting life and some producers made a documentary about it. It was in the running for some awards.

As a young actress decades back, she held the distinction of having given Elvis his first onscreen kiss. She was a fast-rising actress then who had done movies with some big Hollywood leading men during her time. In fact, she had already inked a million dollar contract at her young age. But when she was 23 years old, she found herself visiting a monastery for some peace and quiet, and decided to stay there — for life! True as it is, I find it hard to believe something like this happens. And yet it does. It is very similar to the story of St Ignatius of Loyola, a soldier, playboy who gave it all up for the spiritual life.

These are certainly compelling stories of change, to put it mildly. What sets these apart is that, while we all do change from time to time, many of the changes that happen to us are not conscious ones. They just seem to happen suddenly and they catch us by surprise. They don’t seem to be born of conscious decisions. More accurately, they are more like the results of a lot of unconscious internal struggling and processing that probably was percolating inside us for some time, unknown to our conscious minds.

The unconscious mind is “below the radar” of our thoughts, so to speak. But it has a lot of energy and also wants to express itself through us. And it will, often without our conscious permission. That’s why we often perceive change as something that only “happens” to us. They are not acts we willfully chose unlike those of Mother Dolores Hart, and St. Ignatius, etc. They never entered our conscious thoughts.

Okay, but if we sincerely, and with full knowledge and consent, want to deliberately change, how do we do it? How do we get the unconscious and our unthinking, kneejerk habits to go along with us? Is it even possible?

I notice that a lot of mature people have greater chances of success at changing themselves for the better, and do so when they want to. They have a developed ability to look at themselves objectively and dispassionately. And that is one of the crucial primary skills we need to be able to recognize our defects before we pull off personal change. It involves being able to suspend the ego’s “fight or flight” function and just learn to observe ourselves. We observe ourselves without vanity, emotional investment or narcissistic interest.

By simply observing, you learn a lot about yourself and you begin to understand how and why you do things, and why you outgrow other people, including yourself.

Each time we find ourselves falling into familiar negative emotional patterns that are triggered by certain situations, we can pause and think and decide whether we want to indulge them instead of being “hooked” by them as what usually happens. Only by catching ourselves doing them can we consciously start to really change our reactions to responses.

Think about this if you find yourself always having the same pattern of fights and arguments with certain people. How often has this happened before? Isn’t it always all too familiar on hindsight? And yet when it happens, don’t you habitually bite the bait without thinking until you are again completely entangled? And you always feel surprised and ask yourself how/why it happens again and again. And you feel victimized because you felt provoked and couldn’t help but react the way you did. Once again, you have been seduced into falling for toxic patterns that keep you “crazy” and unhappy.

Surely, there must be a way out of all this.

I remember an emotionally troubled friend of mine who had been seeing a shrink for more than 10 years. He once asked his doctor if he was “getting better.” Was he progressing? He really wanted to know. The psychiatrist smiled. He told my friend that when he came in as a patient, he was like a fool who was always bumping into furniture in a dark room. But after 10 years of therapy, he had learned to stop bumping into the same furniture. He can now navigate the dark room and was now bumping into other furniture inside other rooms.

This may sound funny but it is a perfect metaphor to explain what was happening to my friend. It is this; he was learning more and more about himself. His unconscious psychological habits were slowly but surely becoming more known to him. His neuroses were being “uncovered” through therapy and brought to the light of conscious self-awareness. Now that they were out in the open for him to see, they had begun to lose their power over him.

Carl Jung liked to say, “What is forced hidden becomes fate.” I love this. It simply means if you deny who you really are or refuse to recognize your own feelings, they will “come out” on their own, and often impolitely. And they can bite you. It is good to uncover chunks of your rich unconscious, elevate and bring them to the realm of the conscious and be enriched by their gifts.

I once attended a life-changing seminar where the facilitator asked the question, “What kind of life would you have if you stopped blaming anyone for whatever you are going through?” That blew me away! I was stunned at the implications. To me, it meant taking full responsibility for one’s actions. It meant being 100 percent aware and actually choosing your responses instead of merely just reacting. That takes a lot of courage and training to commit to as a life practice.

Hard as it is, the wonderful payback (if indeed you can develop the habit) is the liberating feeling of unbridled freedom. You are living life on your terms. You can stop expending energy blaming other people. You know your wants from your needs. It is your own life you are living, and no one can force you into doing anything you don’t want to do!

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