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Making Changes to Feel Better

"grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to
change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference"
(The Serenity Prayer)

Making deliberate changes in one's life is a challenge. This paper is designed to help you focus your efforts on what you can change. I will presume that you want to make changes in order to feel better. Although sometimes feeling better can result simply from taking medication, having electroconvulsive therapy, or having other people make changes in your life, often feeling better can result only if you make deliberate changes in your own life.

There are three domains of human experience within which we can exercise voluntary control: our actions, our thoughts, and our attention. For example, you can deliberately pick up the sheet of paper from which you are currently reading this article, you can deliberately think of a white horse, and you can deliberately direct your attention to the sounds in your environment.

Note, however, that although we can exercise voluntary control within these three domains of our experience, we cannot exercise control over the entirety of these domains. For example, you may experience muscle twitches as you fall asleep, and there are limits to how high you can jump or how quickly you can run. Similarly, spontaneous, unwilled thoughts will be experienced without you deliberately choosing to experience them. You may also find that your attention is drawn involuntarily to a loud sound, or an unusual odour, or an unpleasant physical sensation. In other words, there are aspects of these domains of experience (actions, thoughts, attention) over which we cannot exercise voluntary control.

One important point is that whatever lies outside the domains of our actions, thoughts, and attention is not within our ability to voluntarily control. Notably, we cannot directly control our emotions (except through physical means such as medications, other drugs, electroconvulsive therapy, and surgery) and we cannot control other people (except through the use of physical force). We can, however, indirectly affect our emotions by controlling our actions, our thoughts, and our attention - this realization constitutes the basis for the rationale for various therapies, including individual psychotherapy, group therapy, marital therapy, family therapy, and occupational therapy. We cannot control other people directly, but we can negotiate - this realization provides the rationale for learning the skill of negotiation.

Because at least parts of the domains of action, thought, and attention are subject to voluntary control, the development and improvement of skills in these domains is possible. As with other skills, breaking down a complex set of actions, thoughts, and attention into smaller steps makes these skills easier to learn. Similarly, as with all skills, improvement comes from coaching and practice. Coaching is necessary to know how to apply your efforts effectively; without good coaching, much effort in these domains can be wasted or even make things worse. Practice is necessary to develop skills and make their application smooth, easy, and automatic. Carrying out useful action, thought, or attention once under controlled circumstances might be relatively easy, but without practice it will not become automatic. Old, habitual ways of acting, thinking, and paying attention will be much more likely to be repeated under conditions of fatigue, illness, stress, or distraction. It is only with practice that a new way of thinking, feeling, or attending will become automatic even under these adverse circumstances. Learning requires perseverance.

Realizing and accepting one's personal limitations requires humility. Facing the challenges of making changes within the domains of action, thought, and attention requires courage. With your sustained effort and your therapist's coaching, you can learn to make the changes that will lead to a different, positive, emotional experience. I hope that as a result of your efforts you will experience some of that desired change.