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Making Changes Is Not Easy

November 8th, 2011 by Markus Lefkovits

“We would like to make some changes to the therapy so that it fits our family style.”

“The reason I argue and yell at my parents is because I have ADHD. They should just tolerate it and accept me as I am.”

Changing behavior is hard. Ask anyone who has tried to lose a few pounds or start an exercise program. When seeking therapy for ADHD or LD, most people try to keep things the same, like the way they think when they are solving problems and the previous frameworks they have used to sustain their current habits. It’s natural. We all stick with what’s familiar and comfortable. We can even find good, rational arguments for sustaining old patterns.

This reminds me of an old Woody Allen joke about his visit to a psychiatrist:

Woody: My brother thinks he is a chicken.

Doctor: Well, why don’t you bring him in so we can help him.

Woody: I can’t.

Doctor: Why not?

Woody: I need the eggs.

Although our rationalizing is not quite that outrageous, we sometimes hide behind it to continue doing things “the same old way.” A person with diabetes knows to stay away from sugar but can convince himself that one small piece of cake a day is a lot less sugar than he used to consume. So, he eats the cake and then is surprised when his glucose levels are high. When someone decides not to implement a recommended change, they are surprised to see that all of the old behavior stays the same. What has happened is a deeper rationalization to not follow through on recommended actions (something different) that can have beneficial results. I have seen it happen many times.

Rationalizing in the information age

Our society is inundated with psycho-information in all forms. We hear about ADHD, learning disabilities, or Asperger’s Syndrome everywhere. We become experts by reading a couple of books or viewing a documentary. And when we hear a quirky study reported on the news that fits the way we already live our lives, we latch on to it. “Chocolate has antioxidants, so it’s good for me.” Suddenly chocolate cake is back on the menu.

One of the most common rationales plays off the concept of “personal style.” People think, “I’m an individual, and it is my right to do things my way.” While that may be true, if the way you’ve been doing things isn’t working, it is probably time to try something new. Some hold the idea of “personal style” as dearly as a section of the Bill of Rights. They use this idea to turn away from a responsible action or difficult – but helpful – change and return to a comfortable place that may not actually be working for them.

Unfortunately, the smarter we are, the better we are at rationalizing.

Even our children are educated about ADHD and many of them have started to use the diagnostic label as a tool for rationalizing their own destructive behavior. I have been offered this argument by several teenagers in the recent past who have rejected numerous efforts at therapy.

Important changes take time

Making changes to your lifestyle, schedule, or attitudes is hard and it takes time. One change that many people attempt is losing weight. Most adults know how to lose weight safely: eat fewer calories and burn more calories (eat healthier and exercise more). If the solution is so simple, why is the diet industry so big? Because steady, gradual change takes time, commitment, and effort. It’s hard work.

You have to wake up every day committed to making your life better.

People hoping to lose weight want an easier solution. And, the industry is there to provide “magical cures” that promise unbelievable results. And some dieters try one after another after another without sustained weight loss – because they haven’t made their lifestyle healthier.

Similarly, many people start therapy wanting a quick solution. They want to work at it for a few months and then be miraculously cured. Many think they can return to their “old way” of doing things and still feel the positive effects. It doesn’t work that way.

You need to sustain the changes to continue experiencing the benefits.

If you’ve implemented a new organization system to calm the chaos, it needs maintenance. You need to continue to use the new system and put things away. Otherwise, it will return to chaos. A child who is working on behavior changes needs consistent reinforcement. When you set up rules, they don’t mean anything unless you enforce them. Consistent limits and expectations help children know where they stand.

So how do we stop rationalizing?

Do the opposite of the “old way” in small steps. For example, if you aren’t exercising and you keep gaining weight, try taking a walk every day.

If it feels uncomfortable and doesn’t cause harm, then you know that you are on the right path toward a positive resolution.

There is an entire school of therapy built on the premise of “doing the opposite” to resolve issues of anxiety, depression, and mood fluctuations. A local resource, Marsha Linehan Ph.D. at the University of Washington, has done extensive research and writing on this effective method of therapy.

Before I start my therapy sessions, I let my adult clients know that change takes work. My follow-through rate is excellent.

Good luck sticking with your positive changes!

- Markus

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