What makes people change?

If we ignore a problem, will it just go away?

Published August 17, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I notice that there are times when I read your column and times when I don't. I like to think that I read you more when I am down in the dumps, and less when things seem to be going well. I have written to you before, but I think I write to explain my process for myself, and I think a lot of people do that, too. But then other people write to you to try to feel OK about what they are feeling. I think this time I would like a response from you because today I am writing to find out what you think.

I had a dream last night where I wrote to you and you responded to me in your column. In my dream I had written to you every single day. I have had many problems in my life, but I have so very few now. I am happy, own a house, am happily married, love being a faculty member on a vibrant campus, love what I do, love working with students, and enjoy where I live. Life is wonderful. Except there is one problem.

I would like to believe that everyone has one big problem. If they fixed that, then they would have another problem fill the place of that one big problem. There is always something that is the focus of a human being's attention, and that thing is usually something that they cannot fix. Do you think this is accurate?

I had another dream where thousands of bubbles were colliding with one another and with each collision they created colorful spots on the outside of them until they resembled a rainbow of colors in a wall in the air above me and some other observer told me, "It's just like the Holocaust," which made sense in the dream, and makes no sense now.

Problems, I have learned, will go away if you stop paying attention to them. Do you think this is accurate?

There is a person in my life who troubles those around her and herself. She is the biological mother to my stepson and I think she is having a huge meltdown wherein she is being caught in many, many lies. She cannot handle it. I am watching her break down, and it's not fun to see her sobbing in my driveway on Monday mornings, but I don't feel anything about it, although I used to feel badly. I have learned to stop reacting to her emotions. We are walking through a custody lawsuit that involved her roommates being busted for ounces of heroin, and her not paying medical bills or getting insurance for her son, and in general making poor decisions. She denies all wrongdoing, sobbing, as always. She denies police reports and their factuality, which means, I think, either that she cannot read or is in extreme denial.

We walk through this scenario by protecting the child. We walk through her denial. And still bad things happen to her and around her, while we are fine.

I learned this lesson already in the Bay Area and hanging out with musicians. I was lied to over and over again. I was treated horribly by so many people in the music industry, and not because they were being malicious. In this process I learned things, but it took me many years afterward to learn this lesson: I know we can shape our futures based on our decisions.

I believe that as humans we must fixate on problems, and fight until we are dead. But there are patterns and ways to avoid problems, and many people don't know this. And we cannot save them all, but we can help some people. We can help some people sometimes.

Perhaps my dream last night meant I was supposed to write to you today to clear my mind of the sobbing this morning in my driveway. I think it meant I was supposed to write to you and you would respond. I think that I respect you because you were addicted and stopped. I know so few people that were ever able to stop. Most of them I walked away from, like my first husband who now, after over 15 years of meth addiction, has confided in a friend that he is trying to get help. My last intervention with him was in 1999 when I had stopped all drugs.

But some people are addicted to lying, or are addicted to their manic swings, so try to weather the depressing ones.

So what do you think, Cary. How do people get past their problems? When is someone ready to be helped and by whom?

Are there any answers?


Dear Looking,

Yesterday someone was interviewing me for a small Northern California newspaper and she asked what I thought about this and that. I was silent for a while. I was thinking. I was trying to think about what I thought. I came up with very little.

Then I said, I'm not sure what I think, but I'm sure what I know. There are things that I think, and then there are things that I know and feel. Things that I know and feel are things I have experienced.

So the whole conversation changed when I said, Here is what I know.

I know simple things. I know things that I have observed. I have observed many people make small changes if they try hard. I have seen this.

I do not know why. I know what. The what is: Most people can make small changes if they try.

And when do they try? Again, what I know and have experienced is this: People try to change when it hurts too much. They try to change when they have had enough pain. This is political as well as personal. I have seen people band together and go out in the streets and yell and carry signs when they all have had enough. And I have seen people stop taking drugs, or begin playing music, or quit a job when they have had enough. Or I should say: I presume that they have "had enough." All I really know and have experienced is that this happens: People every now and then will go out in the streets all at once, carrying signs and shouting, or just walking quietly together. I have seen this. And I have seen people who could not go a day without drinking then go years without drinking.

But each of us seems to have a different and unknowable capacity for pain. Some of us will die before changing. Some of us change what we are doing the minute we are slightly uncomfortable. Some of us have the habit of asking, What is going on right now that is making me uncomfortable? What do I want right now? That is often a good guide -- asking What do I want right now? Maybe I am hungry or want some fresh air.

So what was your question? It was sort of abstract. Oh, yes: Is there usually one thing that we are fixated on?

I don't really know. I do know this: If you are fixated on one thing it might be a way of deflecting anxiety, and if you are having anxiety you can get help. I know that. I also know what I feel: I feel that you have an engaging style, and it draws me in but it also alerts me to a kind of seductiveness that I sense is dangerous.

Here is what else I know: I know that you have told me you would like to believe that everyone has one big problem. What do I think about it? I think if you are interrogated about this statement properly and lovingly, it probably carries unfolding depths of meaning and may carry the key to some very difficult problem you are having. I can't know what that problem is but I can guess: It may be a habit of repetition, for instance, a pattern of concentrating on one problem after another as a way of distracting you from some other, unspoken problem. But that is just me guessing.

All I really know is that you have said this and I am interested. But here is what I feel: I feel a fear that you are dragging me into something -- that by asking what I think you are taking me away from what I know. So if we were talking -- and this column is simply a dialogue -- I would just ask you to tell me more about this thing. And then maybe I would refer you to a very talented therapist.

I am not a therapist. I am someone who uses words for a living.

Something else I know: Certain methods work. The method of allowing a person to find his or her own truth works. When individuals do things themselves, they often change and are helped. Me just writing to you, if you just sit there and read the words, I don't know what change will happen when you do that. But if you begin to play music again, or dance again, or if you exhibit a calmer, more vibrant exterior because you have developed new habits, well, that I know because that I have seen. So if there is some action you have been thinking of taking in regard to this problem of the mother, let me suggest you take it. Have some faith that your intuitive sense of what to do next is good.

What else do you say? You tell me about a diverting dream, with bubbles in it, and the Holocaust, and then you say, "Problems, I have learned, will go away if you stop paying attention to them. Do you think this is accurate?"

I think back over my life and try to identify problems I have had that I was able to stop paying attention to. I draw a blank. I do know this, however: I have sometimes thought about certain problems long after thinking about them was doing any good. Does that mean I could have stopped paying attention to them and they would have gone away? I cannot know because these things are in the past and cannot be redone experimentally. But let's do an experiment in the present. What would be a current problem for me? A current problem is that I worry. I worry about what is going to happen in the future. So you are suggesting that if I stop paying attention to this problem, this worry, that it will go away?

It's worth trying. I'll let you know!

What else? (Your letter just charms me is why I'm going through it.)

Ah, yes. In the paragraph after you ask me if I think problems will go away if we stop paying attention to them, you make a palpable shift. We come to the mother of your stepson.

You say, "It's not fun to see her sobbing in my driveway on Monday mornings." I regard that as nice understatement. And it says something about your process -- that you move from the abstract to the concrete, not the other way around.

But because we must wind up here (I look at my watch and note that the time is almost up ...) I will say again what I said yesterday to the person who was interviewing me for the small Northern California newspaper. When you ask, "When is someone ready to be helped and by whom?" I again say what I have observed, that they became ready to be helped when they are too uncomfortable to go on as they were.

As to how you can help this other person, well, unless this person were to come to you and ask you for help, I do not know what you can do. My observation has been that people do not ask for help until they are ready to receive it. They do ask, though. So we must be alert to their signs. Sometimes people are asking for help in a strange language of their own. Perhaps her sobbing is a way of asking for help. But that is dangerous territory, to be presuming that we understand another person's secret, abstruse language. It could mean all kinds of things.

Until she asks for help in a language that you understand, perhaps what you are doing is all you can do.

But you know, sometimes when I see someone I would like to help I wish I had a lot of money and a mansion on the beach somewhere far away I could send them to. I would say here, what you need is six months on the beach.

Maybe everybody needs six months on the beach. I wonder if President Obama has thought of that: six months on the beach for every angry Republican. Make them stay there under the trees eating coconuts. See how long their anger lasts. I'll bet they could not keep it up for six months. I don't think they have it in them. It would melt away and then we all could move on.

The question is: Are there enough beaches?

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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