By Karim Serageldin
In the relationship work I do, I make sure we practice skills in session because I know change occurs through time and repetition. When couples go home with some new skills to practice, sometimes they come back to my office complaining that the growth did not take place. Sometimes they give up because it seems “too hard” or “forced.” I often ask myself, “Why is it so hard for people to change when they have the tools and just need to practice?” What is stopping us from being consistent? Over the years I have come to realize that there are mental blocks and natural fallbacks on the path to growth that we must be aware of in order to be empowered along the way. Here is my list to help guide us through the pulse of human growth!
1) Know the Keys to Growth.
Time + Repetition = Change
Time + Changes = Transformation
Time + Transformations = Mastery
Whether you want to learn how to play guitar, memorize Qur’an or instill a new relationship pattern, these keys will get you there. Know the keys and remember them often. Recall them when things get tough and you feel like giving up. Remember that nothing happens over night and every master was once a novice in their craft!
2) Know no one is perfect.
I often hear the following from couples that play the blame game, feel put down and give up easily.
“My husband tells me I am the problem and I need the counseling—not him.”
“She doesn’t want to do anything different, she thinks I can’t change.”
“He/she will never change, there is no point to this!”
Firstly, any human being that does not recognize that they can always learn and evolve as a person is ignorant and in even more need of growth! Both of you need to accept that each of you have potential for growth and sincere dedication is required to achieve anything. No one has the right to say, “I am fine and in no need to change,” or “I do not need new skills.”
This is a deadly delusion and will likely lead to many other failures in life.
3) Get comfortable with discomfort: The Pain Value System
Sometimes we know what we want but don’t know how to get it. I know I need to lose weight or improve my marriage but “I just can’t take that first step.” This lack of motivation is killed by the fear and anxiety of the discomfort of change. We like staying the same because it does not require any exertion. This is why we get stuck and before you know it, years go by and then you tell yourself, “It’s too late.”
We need to psychologically assess and accept the reality of discomfort with any change and get ready for it. Pain and hardship is inevitable in life. Get over it and stop expecting life to be a stream of undisturbed pleasure. No one is free from tests, trials and discomfort. This is the existential journey in which we grow and refine ourselves!
Since this is a fact, all of us must assess the pain between different paths of action as well as the gain of those paths. This is the pain value system.
For example: if I don’t like being overweight and recognize it gives me pain and discomfort, I may also see that having an exercise routine, eating better and sacrificing my midnight snack binges are also painful. Well, which one am I willing to be uncomfortable with? Both are paths that will be painful but which path will have greater gain and benefit for me in the long run? Stay fat or get fit? Hopefully this reasoning will help us break through that first step and realize “Enough is enough. I am going to suffer anyways so I might as well do what is best for me!”
In relationships, we must do what is best for “us.” Couples express how hard it will be to work on themselves or practice new skills. I tell them, “You are already suffering in this relational pattern so you might as well suffer in a path towards growth instead!” Push yourselves to practice skills and support one another! It is better to try changing with hard work, than stay stubborn and not work—both paths will be painful but one will end in pleasure and success!
4) Growth is incremental.
The keys to growth clearly show that things take time and happen in succession. We all know the saying, “Nothing happens over night.” Every step towards achievement is part of the achievement. To get to the top of the mountain where that epic view awaits, you have to take one step at a time. As we walk up the trail we may stop to rest, sit and reflect, hydrate or even fall down a few meters, but we have to keep going and move one foot at a time.
Growth has a pulse and it is not a direct line shooting up vertically or even at a smooth 45 degree angle. It usually has waves and crests much like the lifeline you see on a hospital monitor. As a Taoist proverb says, “It is better to move slowly than to stand still.” In Islam it is better to do a small good deed consistently than a huge deed once. Why? With time, those small deeds will become a mountain of goodness for you and change your character. In relationships the daily hug or smile you give your partner will result in a deeper intimate connection overtime. Research by Shaunti Feldhahn, a best selling author on relationships, has shown that it is the little things over time that make couples happier. For example saying, “I love you” to your wife or “Thank you” to your husband when he does something will take the edge off overtime and prevent conflict eruptions in the future besides increasing the connection and gratitude in your relationship.
5) Progress not Perfection.
One couple I worked with wanted to make the dawn prayer every day together. Before this they did not pray at dawn at all and the wife requested the husband wake them up to have this new spiritual habit. The following week she came in feeling like they failed and I asked why? She said, “We only prayed three times this past week.” I pointed out to her, “So you did make progress?” She thought for a moment and said, “Yeah, I guess we did.” I helped her see that she was too focused on praying everyday, the end goal, such that she overlooked the actual growth: praying three times that week verses zero!
The progress is more important than perfection. In fact, perfection is practically impossible. For those of you thinking, “Well what about mastery?” Mastery is still not perfection. Perfection is only for the Divine. Michael Jordan still missed some shots and Thomas Edison failed a thousand experiments before the light bulb. Yet we recognize them as masters in their trade and remember the achievements and progress they made—not the failures. This is a major block we have in relationships. We focus on the let downs and disappointments rather than the effort and small progress that is happening. We can’t get there and be there at the same time. Patience is at the heart of progress and staying consistent requires will power. We can give up easily if we frame our actual progress as “failure” in light of it not being “perfect.”
6) Relapses may occur.
Yes, old habits can die hard. You may have not shouted at your wife for three months then slipped up again. You may have prayed everyday for two weeks then only a few times the following week. You may have been at the gym all year then took a month off.
People are wired in certain ways and have habits and behavioral patterns. Change is not easy and from time to time a pulse or trigger goes off and we may act out or lose steam. It is not the end of the world! Get back to it and use your previous progress as proof that you can do it again and keep that change pulse vibrant! Some people are really disciplined and can maintain a new practice no matter what; others have relapses from time to time. Don’t see it as a failure but a change in frequency. The important thing is to keep your pulse alive no matter what! Remember this the next time your partner seems to have “gone back to their old ways.”
7) Appreciation & Reminders!
I always tell my clients, “Appreciation of kind acts leads to motivation to act kindly.” As humans we feel valued and honored when we are shown gratitude. When we feel validated we naturally want to do more for others. This is why a child can do the same act over and over again if they get praised. It literally feels like a sparkling light went off in the soul! Showing gratitude is so important I start my couple’s sessions off with each partner first voicing their gratitude to one another. Part of showing appreciation is to reward each other and ourselves through small tokens of gratitude, whether material, verbal or emotional. The human being likes incentives and our society is all about rewards; even the hereafter has a set of rewards in place for those who believed and did good! Bottom line—treat yourselves and treat each other from time to time for your achievements. This helps us feel like we can keep going and set milestones to look forward to. Part of appreciation is to remind one another of our good traits, praise the qualities and acts we want to see more of. This validates us and makes us feel that inner light beam which will motivate us to keep going and trying!